September 30, 2023

Insipid tea: Chai, Chai disappoints

Chai Chai by Bishwanath Ghosh is a book I picked up with a lot of expectations – ‘Travels in places where you stop but never get off’, is what the cover proclaims, promising glimpses into the small town India that one hears and reads about all the time but rarely thinks about.

To write about small, anonymous towns is a task that requires a lot of skill – and while it is commendable that the writer had the courage to take on such a topic, he just does not have what it takes to make it work. The descriptions of places he visits and people he comes across are all in broad brush strokes with no nuances to bring them alive to the reader.

For instance, he starts his journey with Mughal Sarai – a major station during his childhood train trips from Kanpur to Calcutta – and through this section, there are repeated references to the notoriety of this place – we read about pickpockets, extortionists and the police-criminal nexus. Mughal Sarai is full of thieves, the author says – but how so more than other towns, even in eastern UP? What about the generic brown badlands of Omkara and the Gorakhpur of Ishqiya? There is nothing to tell me what Mughal Sarai is really about – what makes it different – apart from being a large junction for trains?

Ghosh takes his brief too literally – he gets off at the places that most people see only as stations to stop and stretch their legs – but does nothing more. For instance, he is rapidly bored by Arakkonam and Guntakal and says there is nothing to keep him there beyond a couple of hours. Really, nothing? If the excuse is that he does not understand Tamil or Telugu and so does not manage to get under the skin of these towns, then what is he doing there in the first place?

The tone is monotonous and tiresome after a few pages – all the pieces all have similar narratives of alighting at the railway station at ungodly hours and spending lonely evenings inside seedy bars drinking whiskey while eavesdropping and making severe judgments on the people around. Forget differences between the towns he visits – there is nothing to say how the towns in the North were distinct from those in the deep South. For, really, South India is not so much about chai-chai but idlivadaaapppi (idli – vada – kaapi).

Ghosh shows an utter lack of empathy – and after a point, even curiosity – for the people he meets, their lives, hopes and mistakes. So he descends into banalities about the “shameless man” in Mughal Sarai and the housewife-turned-prostitute in Itarsi who “could have easily used her housewifely good looks to find alternative ways of earning money”.

For a book with such a fascinating premise, Chai Chai sadly disappoints all the way. Thanks to the indifferent writing, small town India – the towns that nobody really knows – remains as obscure in my mind as ever.

13 thoughts on “Insipid tea: Chai, Chai disappoints

  1. There you go charu 🙂 Actually what i liked is the simple style of writing. I havent visited any of these places and have no great exp on train travel, but i agree there should be more than whats in the book. I gather that the author stayed 2-3 days in these towns…walking/visiting bars and im wondering if that is enough research to write. DOnt know i aint a writer …

    what i really liked is the concept…i mean I personally havent read or thought about places which are hi-traffic rail junctions…

  2. That’s a nice review.
    I too read the book and do agree to most of what’s written here. Every chapter I thought there would be something that would make me smile, something that I could relate to, as myself am from a very small town, but unfortunately there were not many such instances.

    The concept was definitely good, but I think there could have been better stories told.

  3. What a shame. I was hoping there would be something there – a sort of Ruskin Bond meets modern travel narrative – given the premise. Oh well, at least the slot is still open for a better writer.

  4. I wonder if you are reviewing the book or Mr Ghosh’s character. And a review about the book shouldnt be about you opinion of it. Any idiot would comprehend that mughal sarai is known only for being the largest railway junction. And the author brings out how the city depends on the railways. And for your kind information Mr Ghosh has lived in Chennai for a long long time and can understand tamil very well. I wonder who gave you the liberty to judge someone’s comprehending abilities while your own ability to comprehend isnt too great. This review describes more about the author than about the book. I wonder if you really read the book in the first place because the book talks about many more junctions like shoranur, jhansi which ghosh describes quite vivdly and you seem to be stuck only with mughal sarai.

  5. And I almost, almost bought this book a couple of days back. I too was intrigued by the concept of it. Think I will borrow it from the library instead.

  6. Friend, It seems like you gave up reading after the first few chapters. This book is not a debate between chai and kaapi 😉 It’s about small towns through one man’s eyes. A book is never a substitute for travel. It can only show you a glimpse to excite you and maybe get you packing to trace the same itinerary. I hope you know that you didn’t pick up “Lonely Planet for Small Towns in India”…because it’s seems like you picked up “chai chai” with the wrong expectations. Start again, I say. Read it with an open mind this time.

    P.S: In small towns, where the only social gatherings are weddings, melas or secret meetings at the bar where do you expect Ghosh to land up? 🙂

  7. i agree with snigdha.. it is something to read a book and then judge it and another to judge it and then read it…….and yes like snigdha said, read it with an open mind…
    it is an art to comprehend small town culture and present them with such nonchalance like ghosh does in chai chai

  8. @sharanya, the writing is simple, yes – but sometimes to the point of being painfully so – I think it needs a lot more than hanging around in bars to get under the skin of a place…

    @kshitiz, absolutely – wonderful concept – a good writer could have taken this much much further…

    @neha, heh! now any other writer has to find an all new angle to convince the publisher!

    @shalini, don’t bother buying the book – and read it only if you must…

    @Abhishek, Butter Chicken was definitely a much better book – and Mishra pulled it off really well. Interestingly, a few other reviews in print have compared these two books – obviously with more positive references to Butter Chicken…

    @Priyadarshini, I do not see where I have said anything about the writer’s character! As for writing only about Mughal Sarai here, well, this is a review and a reviewer cannot write about the entire book – Mughal Sarai is just an example here to illustrate the general poor tone of the entire book.

    @Snigdha, as it happened, I did read the entire book – and what a waste of my time and money! in any case, if a reader / reviewer indeed cannot sit through a book after the first few chapters, then I think it only highlights how poor the writing is. So why would I want to put myself through the pain of reading such a bad piece of writing again?!

    and interesting point about meeting points in small towns – are you really saying that seedy bars are the only option? I wonder where women meet… where the non-drinkers, families, strangers meet? And I wonder – if the writer had been a woman, would she have landed up at seedy bars too?

    @Janani, why would I judge before reading? It is not as if I know the author in any way! If you read my first paragraph, I say that I picked up the book with a lot of expectations.

  9. Dear Ms Charukesi,

    Thanks for picking up a copy of Chai, Chai and writing about it. I am extremely sorry to learn that it was not worth your time or money.

    You have a nice blog, though I was quite unaware of its existence till yesterday when an anonymous commentator placed the link to this review on my blog.

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion about Chai, Chai and I respect that. But sadly, in the comment box, you seek to justify your review by giving the links to reviews done by Outlook and Outlook Traveller, saying “Here are a few other reviews I found on the net.”

    Is that all you found on the net about Chai, Chai? No more reviews?

    I urge you to run a Google-search one more time and also place the links, in all fairness, to the reviews of Chai, Chai done by: 1. The Telegraph, 2. Tehelka, 3. Hindustan Times, 4. Deccan Herald, 5. New Sunday Express, 6. India Today Traveller, 7. Mumbai Mirror, 8. The Hindu… oh, I have lost count.

    Also, in all fairness, please allow this comment to be published on your blog.

  10. Bishwanath, I did have high expectations from the book, given that the idea of seeing the towns that one never really gets off at is so delightful. Unfortunately, the book did not deliver on that promise.

    I am sure there have been positive reviews on your book – I have not said, as you can see, that these are the only reviews for this book – I have said that these match my own opinions.

    And hey, why would I not allow this comment to appear on my blog? I have approved much worse, the comments by your admirers above who seem to see nothing wrong in offensive, personal comments!

  11. Loved your review. Havent read the book butyou talk about all the things that engage me with a travelogue…I wonder if you hav eread Pankaj Misra’s ‘Butter Chicken In Ludhiana’ and what did you think of it?

    1. Oh and I realized(much to my dismay that i cant delete my own comment or edit it! why this cruelty to readers? 😉
      And since you have already given judgement about Pankaj Misra’s book…may i ask you then which has been a great travelogue on indian small towns other than these two that you are talking about?

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