An interesting, well informed travel companion is a boon to long train journeys. Their ability to spin off interesting bits about obscure stations one crosses during a journey adds some spice to an otherwise mundane journey.
The best tea can be had in Jahanabad, or you must taste the juice from this shop in Vijawada junction, or once we reach Mughalsarai, Banaras is just an hour away, or Muri junction is where you buy jhaal mudi on this route....
Tidbits that are Nice to Know -may not be useful but nevertheless interesting- like nuggets of knowledge being added to our pool.
On long train journeys, you have a lot of time to think, to imagine, to weave tales about people you see as the train slows down near a crossing or a village.
One finds it hard to imagine that life goes on in small towns like these, albeit at a much slower pace or much smaller scale than large cities or towns. Towns where one feels like shifting to, as far as cost of living is concerned.
Often I would wonder- who the hell lives in places like Gomo, Patraatu, Namkum, Ramgarh etc etc... and why does the train even bother to stop in some of places when no person ever boards here. Do they have good schools? Do they party? Do they go out with friends?
Chai Chai by Biswanath Gosh is a powerful concept and it fuels the imagination of those who are curious about places like Mughalsarai, Itarsi, Arakonnam, Jhansi that are important junctions from the rail connectivity point of view.
One spends a long time at such stations- 1 hour used to be the bare minimum during which the water tanks get refilled, food arrives or is duly purchased, legs stretched, snacks or magazines bought, water bottles refilled.... basically all maintenance work is done including that of the train.
One might wonder what else exists beyond the railway station. In today's fast paced life and big bucks earning mentality- who exactly are those people who choose to stay in these small towns, what do they do for a living, are they ambitious- chai chai answers these unanswered questions that play in our mind when we stop in such places.
I picked up chai chai with an open mind- it is not meant to be a fast paced story - it is a travel book so it is going to tell me little tales related to those places in a very honest way.
That said, I have never really read any travel book except Ruskin Bond's and they are anecdotal in nature and do not always tie the loose ends.
Chai chai starts with the most interesting city from a historical point of view- Mughalsarai and then traces steps to Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Arakonnam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur.
The book progresses exacly like a train does - slow in the beginning of the journey, stopping as it crosses various sections of the platform, stopping at the outer and thereby reluctantly picking up speed, making up as it reaches the destination.
The Mughalsarai chapter is the most detailed one that way and probably the saga became repetitive as the author stopped at other towns and therefore intense detailing was done away with.
The tone of the story is kinetic, one can feel the movement of the story as if one is journeying with Ghosh. Each chapter is anecdotal - stories without beginning and end- leaving a lot to imagination and I think that is the way it is meant to be.
Think of the people you have met during short journeys or autowallahs-you meet them just for that small duration and if you happen to get talking, you get to know plenty of details about them to make an anecdote but not enough to write a story. This book is just like a compilation of these mini encounters.
What gets a little dull and repetitive is the process of finding hotels and the mandatory trips to the bar which seems to be the only place to find people to talk to and in all probability it may be just so!
The vivid descriptions of the condition of these hotels make one smile and nod head and simultaneously shudder as we all have definitely gone through those stained bedsheets, no soap in bathroom, broken bucket mug type situations in some hotel or the other we might have stayed.
Ghosh looks for stories in the lives of ordinary people who go about their business of living.
This book might be like the story your brother or friend or spouse or colleague tells you after coming back from such a place- you just get a glimpse into the town from the point of view of a person who has spent just a couple of days there- and you move on without dwelling much on it.
The author has also gone beyond the brief- visited places of significance that are tantalisingly close to these towns - just like one might do if they were sent to a godforsaken place on an official trip.
The only thing the author did not do is visit the theatre in these towns!
Overall, the book kept me going till I reached the end but left me with a vague sense of - is there more to it apart from what is written in here? Perhaps there is or perhaps there is nothing beyond what the author has written- no interesting cuisine or a famous shop (like the tirunalveli halwa) or interesting natural landscape or handicraft or historical tidbit like Nalanda University ....the absence of which would have perhaps made it even more difficult for the author to assimilate the town into a chapter.
I feel the book could have done with some tighter editing without messing with the essence of it all though.
I also feel that this book opens up a lot of scope for this genre of writing- now if someone could weave a book around places that house Haji Ali juice centre, Karim's kabab, Tirunalveli halwa shop, Maner ke Laddu.......