Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off
Good travel writing is hard to come by because it requires a convergence of several elements: a catchy hook, entertaining prose, historical context in just the right doses, and a keen eye for what is interesting about people and places visited. The ability to impeccably execute these essential components is what separates the sacred from the profane. Regrettably, Chai, Chai succeeds in only one of these areas.
Journalist Bishwanath Ghosh dreamed up an interesting idea while making his way on the Indian Railways to his hometown of Kanpur from his chosen home in Chennai. As the train paused at Itarsi, and Ghosh stretched his legs by wandering about the station, he wondered what he might be missing by never venturing beyond the station’s walls. As a frequent rail traveler, Ghosh had been through these kinds of junctions (i.e., Itarsi, Mughal Sarai, Guntakal, Shoranur) numerous times before, yet not once did he step out of their gates and into the towns themselves. Thus, Ghosh decided to take up the task of exploring the cities whose railway crossings provide a gateway to the rest of the country.
The book starts out well enough. Ghosh arrives before dawn to Mughal Sarai and has an amusing yet blunder-filled time of finding a place to sleep. The following evening, he has a few noteworthy interactions with some sordid and assorted fellows at a local bar who tell and mis-tell the history of the town in which they live. (He never discovers whose version is the truth.) Ghosh indulges and shares indulgence in several bottles of whiskey with the bar-goers, and the newly made friendships give the reader the sense that the journey to the heart of this junction city has begun—until the following day.
Ghosh rises to find his “friends” have slipped through his grasp (no one will take his calls), and he is on his own to survey the city. Unfortunately, the exploration is largely unexciting, and full of the typical mishaps and bumbles of someone traveling in India. He is given the runaround, eats food that can be gotten in most any other city (subzi puri, alu matar), scans an issue of Cosmopolitan, and chats with a temple sadhu who refuses to divulge his secrets. These kinds of banal scenes repeat themselves again and again.
Repetition wouldn’t have been a problem had Ghosh put forth more of an effort before, during, and after his visits. Instead, his lackadaisical observations are based more on conjecture than proper research. (Wikipedia apparently counts as a suitable authority.) While in the towns, Ghosh is perpetually reticent to speak to the locals (at least until he downs a drink or three for courage), and thus, we are told more of overheard conversations than ones Ghosh actively engages in.
The final fault is in the writing itself, which fails to engage and lacks in finesse. (This is partly an editorial error as repetition and lackluster passages could have easily been cut out.) On several occasions Ghosh describes his teenage lust for some woman or other he has happened across, (but is too afraid to speak to) and bolsters his arrogant self-importance by diminishing the townspeople as “simpleminded” and unsophisticated. He even ventures from his stated goal of focusing on the junction towns and leaves them to visit more exciting places, like Banaras and Khajuraho, because he’s "seen whatever was worth seeing."
The trick to good travel writing is having the ability to recognize that _everything _is worth seeing, and it’s the duty of the writer to look closer than the average traveler in order to extract what is fascinating from the seemingly mundane. Ghosh clearly doesn’t have this ability, nor does he have the tenacity to obtain it. In the future, I’ll stick to reading books by those who do.