Tracking down obscure tales

Tracking down obscure tales

Chai Chai
Travels in places where you stop but never get off
Bishwanath Ghosh
Tranquebar, 2009,
pp 214, Rs 250

Without the anxiety of boarding a train ourselves, we watched the last minute rush, the trains come and go, the weeping relatives, the camping families. And of course, cries of chai wallahs.

So, when journalist Bishwanath Ghosh came out with his Chai, Chai (Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get off), I could relate to his curiosity about railway stations immediately. What works for Ghosh is his power of observation. The tone and style is much like that of a newspaper feature. He seeks out stories in the everyday, and the seemingly commonplace. The places are so commonplace, you wouldn’t bother to know. Mughal Sarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Jolarpettai.

But there are stories to be told. One particularly interesting one, where Ghosh chats up the owner of a shop that sold sports goods in Mughal Sarai. Chhote Lal, who tells him that Jana Sangh ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay, was found murdered in the railway yard there in 1968.

Ghosh also finds out that Mughal Sarai was the birthplace of the late prime minister of India Lal Bahadur Shastri, and tries to go in search of the Kurkhala Central Colony, where Shastri was born. He seeks out details of the colony, but then, one really doesn’t know why Ghosh abandons that thread, and instead tells us of the Phalahari Baba, who lives close to the colony, albeit an interesting one. What about Shastri’s story? One wishes Ghosh had followed that trail a little longer.

Another story is that of an old cotton mill in Guntakal, which Ghosh finds out, was Asia’s first cooperative mill inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. He writes with empathy about Nehru’s socialist dream, and the mills in his own hometown of Kanpur.

At Jhansi, Ghosh wonders if Laxmibai had managed to live on till the age of 100, she could have welcomed Dhyanchand back to Jhansi after his performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He observes, “Dhyanchand, in spite of the larger than life statue in Jhansi, is neither relevant nor remembered in present-day, cricket-crazy India.”

Interesting insights. If it is the mill at Guntakal, it is the story of steam engine drivers at Itarsi. Or a dharamshala where Gandhi once stayed. Or the Kerala Kalamandalam, a residential school that trains students in Kerala’s performing arts such as Kathakali.

Ghosh excels when he writes about the small town lodges, the men who sit at reception counters there, in his simple prose. He does a reporter’s job when he fishes out interesting little anecdotes about people and their lives in commonplace towns, all over a peg of whisky, of course. What mars this interesting debut, are little editing errors, and an aphorism here and there. Like this, for instance: “Girls were expected to migrate to a land called Marriage and become its faceless citizens.”

Ghosh has definitely done the small towns a huge service, for otherwise, their stories are largely unheard in the din of English literature woven around urban India. And then, of course, is the joy of a train journey, and the unending cups of chai, a common thread across the country. Definitely worth a read.

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