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.