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Literary Review

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Stories behind familiar names


If you have travelled by train, you must be familiar with these names. Now, get to know them better…

Chai, Chai, Bishwanath Ghosh, Tranquebar, Rs. 250.

A book that offers to take you beyond the yellow-and-black railway station boards of Mughal Sarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur is like one that promises to tell a child about the secret inner lives of Asterix, Bugs Bunny, Spiderman and the tooth fairy. These are towns that every rail passenger in India has passed through, but never stepped out to explore. Bishwanath Ghosh did, and in Chai, Chaitells us what he saw in these familiar but unknown places.

We learn here that Itarsi still has its brick kiln, but no longer produces ropes. The Gothi Dharamshala has a view of the railway station (much as a hotel in Kerala might have a view of the backwaters) and apparently “bore the invisible footprints of Gandhi”. In a detour to Benares, Ghosh loses count of the funeral processions and muses “it was like witnessing a carnival of the dead, with each procession showcasing its bier and the dead joyfully raising invisible thumbs from under their shrouds to exclaim, “We made it! We made it to Benares!” While waiting for a replacement autorickshaw on the deserted road outside Orchha, he writes, “I could have spent the rest of my day there, if only someone had brought me a charpoy and a book and maybe the lunch that farmers eat when they are out on the fields.”

I felt disappointed to learn nothing about Arakkonam, a junction of numerous, less-than-blissful blazing childhood days, whose (careless) three-legged dog I still remember fondly. All he says is, “Strolling through the streets of Guntakal was like sipping vintage wine, walking through the streets of Arakkonam was like drinking rum on a hot afternoon.”

Everywhere is an endearing preoccupation with samosas. In the evenings, the bars have curtained cubicles that fill up quickly. “Drinking behind a curtain perhaps gave the occupants a sense of exclusivity and importance. And over here, the curtain also served another purpose: every now and then, one of the occupants would pull it in and wipe his oily fingers.”

As a travel book, this book gives us facts and a feel of the environment through the author's poetic if un-idiomatic recounting. To judge Chai Chai's literary merit, it might be appropriate to compare it with Pankaj Mishra's celebrated 1995 Butter Chicken in Ludhiana.

Sympathetic view

From an anthropological perspective, both books provide similar descriptions of small-town India: brash, clamorous and kitschy. But in tone they differ severely. Mishra distanced himself from his subject and took a patronising view while Ghosh speaks with good-natured cultural tolerance.

One reason for the difference could be that Ghosh himself artlessly uses words like “backside” and phrases like “If she had no problem disrobing in public, what was mine?” He describes a dharamshalaas “the Indian equivalent of an inn”. Mishra, however, is descended literarily from the snobbish dead white males of English Literature.

There is another, historical, reason. In the early 1990s, India was a wannabe on the world literary scene: wary and insecure, with writers like Mishra trying extra-hard to please and producing work which exoticised and contextualised the culture. With India's nascent economic liberalisation, the time was ripe for a curious (if sneering) investigation into the immense heartland which was going to provide backroom services for organisations across the globe.

Today, however, English is spoken placidly in the Indian accent and idiom in boardrooms across the world, and Bishwanath Ghosh is reflecting comfortably on the resource pool that powered it.

I enjoyed the author's portrayal and perspective. However, the book suffers clumsy editing. There are better ways to translate non-English words than spell them out alongside in brackets. Worst of all, the proofreading is disgraceful.

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Literary Review

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