Tea-bound travels

It is heartening to see, now more than ever, that writing is not considered the esoteric art it was meant to be. It is not exclusive to a blessed breed, on the other hand, people who have chosen other careers such as Mehta, who is an electronic engineer, are expressing themselves on paper, with creditable results.

Although this tendency does result in a plethora of books ranging from the highly laudable to the frankly banal, there is a wider range to choose from, that occasionally throws up an enjoyable, entertaining offering. Such is Hot Tea Across India.

The ubiquitous cup of tea, or cha or chai as it is called, which one associates with India, is really not indigenous. According to Bill Bryson, it was introduced to India from China by an Englishman. But cha, even more than kaapi, is found everywhere in India, from Kashmir to Kerala, from Mumbai to Madurai. 

And Rishad Saam Mehta has used tea in whatever shape of container it is served in — from mud khullas to porcelain cups to straight thick glasses. And, in whatever form he’s consumed it — from the strongly spiced to tea bags with delicate flavours (which he obviously frowns at). 

He weaves together stories of encounters on high mountain passes or on military checkpoints with trigger-happy soldiers. 

Stories of trains carrying his precious Bullet which had to be literally chased from station to station, of a shepherd in Kashmir who taught him not only to make a decent fire but also a cup of ambrosial tea from the contents of his cloth bag: a glass bottle of milk, a leather pouch with saffron, and a container of honey. Quite the inexhaustible akshaypatra.

Although the adventures he has across India are loosely woven together, with a cup of tea as a connecting thread, the stories can stand by themselves and are hilarious. He cocks a snook at bureaucracy when he discusses his brush with the ways of sending his motorcycle by train, the inspectors who stop him at checkposts mistaking him for three people; the interpreter from Kerala who told him very politely that since he had offended the sentiments of the people by driving on bandh day, they want to burn his car, and so on. 

The funniest of all was his wanting to ease the rumblings of his stomach after drinking tea with milk from an unknown source by choosing what he thought was a safe spot in the dark, but instead finding himself the cynosure of all eyes by squatting down, pants down, amidst a group of sleepy angry men in front of a dhaba!

The laughter is not malicious. It is an acute observation of the anomalies of our land, the idiosyncrasies of people, the bureaucracy, the rampant bribery, and therefore made all the more sweeter when help is given without any expectation of chai pani.

The stories are very loosely woven together and do not follow any discernible sequencing.

Descriptions in the last chapters about the food, the animals and the interesting characters he meets, seem a little incongruous and oddly placed. Almost as if done haphazardly to fill the pages. 

All in all, an interesting and amusing book to read on a lazy day.

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