The absence of an Ode to Itarsi, or a To My Beloved Shoranur in the annals of literature is appalling and must be remedied. Pronto. And we should probably begin by finding out what an Itarsi is.
Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai, chai does just that. Picking seven railway junctions where trains stop, but people never seem to alight, the Chennai-based journalist sets out to explore the life and leisure of towns that begin where the well-worn railway platforms end. To places, where “you can’t dial for pizza, because the nearest pizza is about 200 km away.”
“Yes, I did check the reservation charts at some of the stations, and I was the only one alighting there,” he confirms, at the launch organised by the Madras Book Club at the Taj Connemara.
Bishwanath talked to the people and the places, history following close at his heels as he inscribed a crude S in the Indian mainland, chugging trains taking him through Mughal Sarai, Jhansi and Itarsi in the North, and Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur in the peninsula. His journey would last almost eight months.
“Here are places where so many cultures criss-crossed everyday, yet we know nothing about them!” said Bishwanath.
Indeed, these are some of the busiest junctions along our railway tracks, spreading like veins through the expanse of the country.
Anyone journeying from one end of India to another must, invariably, pass through at least one of these junctions.
Chai, chai makes for effortless reading, passing, strangely, almost as fast as the trains do through these unambitious stations. It is wistful, wondering how we are gradually letting all of the familiarities and distinctiveness of these towns mutate into a mindless worship of concrete and glass.
There were a lot of things that he expected to find, but didn’t. “I was told that a lot of these places were dangerous,” he said, “and wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.” He laughs, recollecting that a lot of tiny hotels that rudely refused him rooms at night would throw their arms open to him in the morning.
But, there is a lot that he found at the end of the eight months as well. The people he met in Itarsi still call, he tells us, and went to meet him when he happened to pass through the town again.
“I think these are the only places where India and its flavours still remain.” A remembrance of something that once was, but probably never will be again. Of a people who vanished into the sidelines as the world flattened and faded, cities cloning each other endlessly till it became impossible to tell one from another.