Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book review - Chai Chai by Bishwanath Ghosh

"chaichaichai, garrrrum chai!" (tea tea tea, hot tea).

On any train journey in India, come morning and one is awakened by a shrill voice yelling this phrase. And one wakes up, bleary eyed, to a cup of the steaming hot elixir, swallowed quickly before negotiating one's way to the loo.

And because of this association I would have picked up Chai Chai even if I had not had the good fortune to have met the author a few years ago. But I had met Mr. Ghosh and also learnt about the travel book he was working on. So when I saw the cover of Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off I had to pick it up, if not for any reason to at least show solidarity. As a fellow writer working on a book, I knew the pain that went into the process of writing. But, there is no method to my madness, in buying books, add to that the many books that are constantly arriving for review, books will often pile up for a while until they catch my fancy again. Chai Chai joined the pile.

And then I was packing for this trip to Dehra Dun, when I remembered it and thought it would be perfect to read on the journey. Even though there was no trains on this trip, I still had long stretches on the plane and in the taxi that I could fill up with reading this book.

Chai Chai is a chronicle of one man's journey to places that have been overlooked. Places always en route, but never the destination. A few years ago, Bishwanath Ghosh a journalist, experienced something of an epiphany. Having alighted to grab a cup of tea while his train from Kanpur stopped at Itarsi station in Madhya Pradesh before it resumed it's journey to Madras Ghosh had the thought that millions of passengers had probably whiled away billions of hours at railway junctions such as Itarsi waiting to connect onto other final destinations. But how many had explored beyond the platform. And so, Ghosh picked junctions with romantic,
adventurous names such as Mughal Sarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Jolarpettai, Arakkonam and Shoranur and breached the boundaries of their platform walls to discover what made them tick.
Train journeys inspire nostalgia in me. If you have ever stared out from behind the bars of the train window looking into the windows that flash by as the train leaves the station, yet to pick up speed or wondered at the reason behind the quaint names of towns that you pass through then this book will offer an almost voyeuristic insight into them for you. Eccentric in parts, painfully honest in others, and hilarious in still others, the essay like pieces in this book bring to life the sights and sounds of these little-known towns. They offer easy reading, and say much about the author, who, obviously loves travelling and his whisky but presents a refreshingly honest view of characteristic moments that every passenger, especially on long-distance journeys would noticed but rarely given any thought to until Ghosh recreates them with his words.

But in all of the reviews of the book I have read, nobody seems to have picked up an essential part of the narrative, Ghosh's food writing. And yes. it is there. Scattered across the book are wry, succinct almost fleeting observations and references to food. But it is these that kept me turning the pages. In a sense, train journeys have always been about food for me and travel has always been about exploring the food in different places I visit. And it was in this context that Ghosh had me by my stomach, mouth watering by the second page with the lines "You could catch a glimpse of the meal as stacks of tray would be loaded onto the train by a liveried attendant, and the few moments in which you could see and smell the food from a distance would have built your appetite considerably by the time the tray was placed before you." I identified with that in such an elemental way, that feeling of finally being on your way on the train and looking for ways to kill time until dinner was served... I was hooked!

Ghosh's description of a Marwari family opening up it's tiffin "Marwaris when they travel as a large joint family, carry a stock of food that would last them the journey brought back memories of train trips to Ahemdabad with my family as a child, journeys that required lots of planning, involved carrying huge bedding rolls and tiffins filled with deliciously oily puri aloo. Of trips back to boarding school in Ajmer, of setting aside the sinking pit in the stomach at leaving the parents, unfinished homework and a myriad other things, to gorge on the smorgasbord of treats mothers had packed for the journey. Of trips to Dehra Dun after marraige, of coupes to oneself, snuggling together under a blanket, talking late into the night, as the world zipped by, sipping watery railway tomato soup. And later trips when we splurged and upgraded to first class - if you want to feel like royalty travel first class on the Rajdhani, no compartmentalised plates there, dinner is served by the course, soup, starters, main course with hot rotis served
from a casserole and dessert. And you wake up to similar treatment at breakfast, juice, cornflakes and eggs and toast or vegetable cutlets on a plate...

But I digress, it is not just in the train fare, Ghosh is equally delicious (to the point of being irreverent at times) in writing about food in the towns he visits. In Mughal Sarai, he writes about the street food, in a later chapter on Itarsi he writes "Street food, in that sense, is a lot like sex: you are tempted to check it out because you are always told it is taboo; it gives you great pleasure and yet is looked down upon; and once you have discovered the forbidden pleasure, you want to return to it again and again." And goes on to describe the Mugoda (mung Vada) seller in the most poetic manner any street food seller was ever described in "If you
went by his soiled clothes, you could mistake him for a begger and never touch a thing he has dipped his fingers into but if you went the devotion of his customers, he was an artist too engrossed in his work to notice the batter and the oil straining his shirt..."

From experience I can say that it is easy to fill pages with flowery writing on food. It is far far more difficult to write a handful of words on food that will hit you in the solar plexus. Mr Ghosh calls himself a travel writer, but shows great promise as a food writer if only he would stray in that directions some more... I will end with a fervent appeal for the same. Look forward to more food writing in future books....Mr Ghosh, Please...

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vandy said...
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