Wake up and Smell the Tea

S. Jayasrinivasa Rao, Aurora’s Scientific and Technological Institute

Ghosh gets off where others pause!

I first came across Bishwanath Ghosh through his blog, On the Ganga Mail, which I was inadvertently led to while googling Mont Blanc fountain pens. Whenever I visited the blog, I used to see the ‘Buy Chai, Chai’ button, and wondered whether I should click on it. A recent post mentioning that even after five years, the popularity of the book continues, even more than his better researched later books – quoting the responses of the readers, finally pushed me to buy the book. I bought it online and read it in a day – chapter-wise, or rather, station-wise.

To my pleasant surprise, he says in the ‘New Preface’ to this edition, how Chai, Chai was received kindly by reviewers and readers, but there was one recurring complaint, “that it contains too many episodes of my drinking in the local bars”. This was refreshingly pleasant; not because it was honest, as lots of writers are honest anyway, but the gumption with which he made that statement. The same gumption is seen throughout the book, as he faithfully narrates things as they happened to him.

So, what about the rest of the book? Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book; as I was as curious as Bishwanath Ghosh about places such as Mughalsarai, Itarsi, Jhansi, Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai, and Shoranur – places that you see only the railway platforms of. I used to think about these places, but then the train moved on after replenishing and refreshing itself. Seeing the names of these stations evokes memories of my travels when my father was transferred to U.P., and other travels across the country. Other names come to my mind from my days of reading Railway Timetables.

The concept of alighting at transit stations, where, except for the residents of these places, no traveller ever thinks of going, is itself extraordinary and beguiling. I am sure many of us would have wondered however briefly, what went on in these towns. Are Arakkonam’s and Jolarpettai’s claim to fame only their railway stations? Or Shoranur, for that matter?

Chai, Chai fulfils this desire in more ways than one. Now we know a little more about Arakkonam and Jolarpettai, not to say Mughalsarai and Itarsi. These stations have become intervals in our journeys across India by rail. One measures the remaining distance or time depending on when the train reaches these places. “Aah, two more hours. Enna, vandi late-a oduda? aaf-en-avar-le Jolarppetai vandudum, sar” (“The train is running late. In half an hour you would be in Joloarpettai, sir”) says the tea-man or pantry-car person. Time to get down, stretch one’s legs, see if you can get today’s ‘English paper,’ which could well be yesterday’s with today’s date, and carries news about things that might well have taken place on another universe altogether, except for cricket and films, of course.

The bars are all there, and Ghosh is clearly enjoying his time in them. The lodges, and the trouble he undergoes finding a room in one of them, the taxi journeys from the ‘centre’ of the towns to the ‘peripheries,’ his visits to ‘historical places,’ and temples, are all narrated with a great deal of involvement and interest. Towns like Arakkonam, Jolarppetai, and Shoranur, where Ghosh sees nothing to involve himself in and therefore less interesting, are dispatched in double quick time and space without dishonest lingering on, and it comes out very clearly that Ghosh has taken this journey seriously and is as curious about these places as many of us would be – except that he alights and comes out of the railway station and sees the town and smells the whisky.

Chai, Chai reminded me of two books: one is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and the other is Pico Iyer’s Falling off the Map, for entirely different reasons. Chai, Chai evokes the small town feeling that is marvellously depicted in English, August, a feeling of ennui – especially for someone who goes there from a big city or ‘metro’. You don’t know what to do. Pico Iyer’s Falling off the Map is subtitled Some Lonely Places of the World. Though there is a difference in scale, experience, and style, Chai, Chai is conceptually similar, as in Bishwanath’s Ghosh’s book one slides off these familiar platforms and tumbles into their unfamiliar towns.

Mehta Delights with an Enchanting Tea-Sipping Ride

I bought Rishad Saam Mehta’s Hot Tea across India on the suggestion of a canny online book seller. When I read the title I thought it would be a kind of travelogue about tea growing places or places with distinct tea drinking cultures or different types of tea and the making of it in different places with local sights and sounds thrown in. But the blurb on the site told me that this book looks at ‘tea’ in terms of how ubiquitous it is on Indian roads. I altered the direction of my expectations and wondered: I would have loved to read any interesting travel book about tea growing places, or tea drinking cultures and so on; but this book seemed promising and I thought ‘why not?, the book fulfilled its promise and after reading it in two sittings, I can say that it is an engrossing read. It does not pretend to be profound, but it takes you along on a merry ride across Indian roads and I enjoyed the ride, riding pillion on Rishad Saam Mehta’s bike and sometimes sitting in his car – stopping for hot tea at intervals.

The premise is this, and Rishad Saam Mehta makes it clear in the opening lines of the book: “If there is one certainty about roads in India, it is that – no matter where you are or what the hour – if you want a cup of tea, you’ll find a chai ki dukaan within a few kilometres. The tea shop is an integral part of Indian national highways, state highways, minor roads, even rough tracks. From the desolate unsealed roads of Spiti high up in the Himalayas, to the sinuous route to Munnar, a cup of tea is within easy reach.”

The first episode sets the tone for the book: On a ride hitched on a truck from Mumbai to Delhi, along with fun and adventure, one cuppa of tea leads to another and yet another till the huge embarrassment. But more information on that would classify as a spoiler.

It is not one continuous journey, but different journeys tied together with tea. So you see the writer in different parts of the country travelling by road and enjoying the tea. But to cut a long story short, it is his descriptions of travel across the Himalayan landscape that forms the bulk of the narrative and it is indeed engrossing. The visions of the mountains and the tranquillity that he experiences are otherworldly.

Rishad Saam Mehta has a warm way with words and his descriptions of his feelings in the Himalayas come across as extremely heartfelt. At some places the ride becomes dangerous and the narrative takes on a tone of suspense and the pace increases.

Then there is a hilarious bus chase on the Delhi-Haryana road with Jolly Jhunjhunwalla, and the suspense again rears its head in the last episode in Munnar, where he is saved by, yes, a tea-maker.

There is food, of course, and descriptions of delicious meals at Balbir Singh’s Dhaba on the Grand Trunk Road and at Ahdoos, Lal Chowk, Srinagar; and there are lots of different types of tea too: The tea in a Ladakh monastery with yak’s butter floating on top; tea with cardamom and ginger in Gujarat; the railway station tea; the kullad chai; the cutting chai; and tea made by a former bandit in a desolate stop between Gwalior and Agra; tea made by a shepherd in Kashmir. The list is endless.

I recommend the book to anyone who wishes to read a book that can engage and excite them, and I am sure young people will like the book. There is no dull moment, and there is adventure, some suspense, some hilarity, evocative descriptions, some quiet moments, and some speed too and lots of tea, of course, and written with a sense of ease and comfort.

S. Jayasrinivasa Rao would like to consider himself as a miscellany writer and general hobbyist. Jai is otherwise interested in music cultures from across the world and listens to a variety of musical genres. He is a fountain pen enthusiast who uses, collects, and documents Indian handmade fountain pens. He likes to read crime fiction (of all boiled types!), literary fiction, and humour, and, of late, travel chronicles. Jai writes about all these on his blog He has translated a novel, prose articles, and poems from Kannada to English. And for purely rice-and-dal reasons, he teaches English to impassive engineering students at Aurora’s Scientific and Technological Institute. He is learning to play the drums now.