i somehow made it to the month of june without reading a book about or set in india, which i’m pretty sure is some kind of record for me. when i finished what i know now, i figured it was time to break out a book about the motherland, and i landed on biswanath ghosh’s chai, chai: travels in places where you stop but never get off.
railway stations in india stand like fiercely independent states within cities and towns, insulated from the local flavour, as if they are territories of a common colonial master sitting in delhi, which they are anyway. such is their sameness that if you remove the yellow slab that identifies the station and all the other signboards, you will have very little idea where you are. all you will know is that you are in a country where tea is available round the clock and whose inhabitants have two primary occupations — travelling and waiting.
chai, chai is about ghosh’s time spent exploring the towns surrounding some of india’s most important railways stations. but these aren’t the stations you would think of, like cst in bombay or chennai central or howrah in calcutta. these are the smaller stations, virtually in the middle of nowhere, that popped up as stopovers on long-haul journeys between the cities. when trains would travel from one end of india to the other, they would need to stop along the way to stock up on resources and the like, and so passengers got used to passing through these stations without ever seeing or knowing anything about the towns that surrounded them.
and this was ghosh’s experience growing up in kanpur and travelling by train to other parts of the country. he would pass through these smaller stations, often spending significant amounts of time in them, but realised as he grew older that he was curious about the lives of the people in the towns where he merely transited through.
as a journalist based in chennai, ghosh had the idea to travel to some of these smaller yet significant stations to spend some time and learn about the relationship between the towns and the railways. his plan was to spend a few days in each town, get a feel for the place and the people, explore a bit of the surrounding areas, and learn about the influence the railway had over the citizens of those places.
during his research ghosh travelled to mughal sarai, jhansi, itarsi, guntakal, arakkonam and jolarpettai, and shoranur, and in chai, chai he recounts his adventures and explorations. we learn about some of the quirky characters inhabiting these towns, we explore the temples of khajuraho, and we learn about the places that lived and died by the railways. it’s a very interesting look into some of the small towns of india, which after all is still a country of villages.
these are the towns where places like bombay and bangalore are far off and exotic, alive only in people’s dreams. these are the towns where people follow the same routines day-in-and-day-out, with very little need for change or disruption. these are the towns who rarely see visitors because they are so used to people only transiting through, not staying over and looking around.
while i didn’t find the book completely amazing, i did find it interesting. it was an easy, time-pass book that made my bus commutes go by a little bit faster. and it did remind me of how much i love travelling around india by train, so i am hoping to build a rail journey into some of my upcoming travels.
one thing i didn’t love, however, was the feeling i got that ghosh could only find out tidbits about the town by visiting a local bar. i know that drinking is sometimes a big part of small towns, but i was a little put off that he only visited bars and not other local businesses or community centers to learn about the history of the towns. i think he would have gotten a lot more out of his travels – and we as readers would have as well – if he had diversified his searches a bit.
my goodreads rating: 3 out of 5 // average rating is 3.25.
crossing off the popsugar reading list: a book of short stories.
next up: i started the girl on the train by paula hawkins over the weekend and have already been sucked in. looking forward to seeing how this story plays out!
have you read anything interesting lately? i’m always looking for new recommendations!