The most entertaining part about a long distance journey on a train will probably be, seeing the number of stations that we pass. A regular train journey would comprise of looking at the platforms where the trains enter every now and then; may be get off to have a cup of tea and snacks or just stand at the exit of the coach and observe the crowd. Have you ever thought of exploring these towns beyond their platforms? I suppose no. What can we get by exploring this town??- The usual small town with some small shops and the usual crowd but a bit different from those in the city. This is precisely where we go wrong. If a train is stopping by at a particular station, the town definitely has more than the station platform, the chaiwallahs and the innumerable people waiting to board the same train or other.
This is exactly what the author, Bishwanath Ghosh, does in his debut novel- "Chai Chai." He "travels in places where you stop but never get off." The journey begins with Mughal Sarai, followed by Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Jolarpettai, Arakonam and Shoranur. Being from North, I did have a fair idea about Mughal Sarai, Jhansi and Itarsi. Meanwhile, my year-and-a-half stay in Chennai, has made me familiar to Arakonam (only in name). However, the other three were hardly in my "brain map." The author very precisely does what a travelogue is bound to do- explore. He explores all these "railway stations" beyond the “platforms”- Giving the reader an insight to the town's history, road, hotels, eateries, people and his “own” experience in these places.
As a journalist, he travels through these places and lets the narration flow with his travel. From the kind of people he comes in interaction with, like the hotel managers at every place that he visits, to the kind of rooms he is given in a particular town. He goes into "details" of every bit- bedsheets, bathroom, a person's dressing style- apart from the usual "scene" outside the station and inside the town. When the author travels around the town, it gives you that “been-there-done-that” feeling but it is definitely not so. From the “north” of Vindhyas to the “south” of Vindhyas, the author has come across several “characters” that make you relate to him. Precisely, we might have come across several such “characters” in our journey in a town that is unknown to us and that no one else on this planet would have wanted to “explore.”
Drawing a comparison of the kind of roadside eateries you will find up north to the kind you will find down south, every small bit makes its presence felt in the book. Moreover, you also get an insight into the likes and dislikes of the author- for example, his love for alcohol, cigarettes, books, old film songs etc- he has an eye-for-detail. Being a first-person account makes the book friendlier and easy to comprehend. Ghosh does not lose his way in the exploration; he keeps his readers focused and wanting to know more.
Overall, the book is definitely worth a read for all those who wish to explore the known yet unknown towns of India- which might feature in the map of India but never in our photo albums.