Rural and urban India can often feel like different planets, the latter a shining example of newfound wealth and, the former, a poster boy for ‘some things never change'. But what about that grey area in between — small-town India? In the early 90s, when India threw its doors wide open, liberalising the economy, small towns underwent big changes, and Pankaj Mishra was luckily at hand to compile them in ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana'. ‘Increased prosperity had made for increased mobility' and Mishra meets the unlikeliest of people — a young, aspiring beauty queen on a cross-country train, a guesthouse owner who eschews Indian guests as they mess up his loos, another who recommends ‘forced sterilisation' as the only way to increase India's prosperity…Travelling from Shimla to Shimoga, taking in Jaipur, Tiruppur, Benares, etc., Mishra writes about an India that's waking up to possibilities — ‘boddle of Bissleri wader', ‘Hawaiian shirts, stonewashed jeans' the uniform of India's affluent youth, CD players and Maruti cars, were all becoming commonplace. And yet, the open curiosity that's the trademark of a small town lingers; in Bundi, a car negotiating a speed-breaker is a ‘source of entertainment', where the locals gather around eagerly as if the car is ‘stunt-jumping over a row of burning houses'
It works because…
Mishra writes about the ‘man out of step with his own culture', the new-found prosperity that ‘had not enhanced, but lowered living standards in general', North Indians who harbour ‘anti-South prejudices', mostly because they were ‘indifferent to their surroundings' and ‘had never really left home'. And it is this — an incisive study of the cultural mores of the people that sets the book apart. It is by no means an affectionate study, hardly even an indulgent one, but definitely an accurate one, and Mishra has often been lauded for it. He is, in bits, honestly scathing in his commentary — Jaipur, he dismisses as ‘a larger version of the slummy little towns littered across the map of India'; Benares earns ire for the ‘confrontation between two sets of incomparable cultural values', since ‘it is one of the most conservative cities in India, but it also has one of the largest foreign populations in India'. He touches upon racism and the ‘unexplored darker side of globalization' - where Indians are second-class citizens in their own country (The Searock Hotel in Kovalam ‘didn't admit Indians'). But when he does what he had ‘long wanted to do — discuss Thomas Mann on a rainy morning in Kerala over genuine South Indian coffee', he is ‘happier than at any other time' on his travels. And with him, finally, his armchair co-traveller!
One tiny nit-pick — three-quarters into the book, it was very puzzling to find Mishra neither visiting Ludhiana, nor particularly relishing butter chicken (being a vegetarian). What was, I kept wondering, the story behind the title? (It finally clicked, but only on page 234!). Then again, don't let that put you off this observant book that traces small-town India's journey from boondocks to (nearly) boomtowns.
And this one stays with you…
‘Modern-day Kanyakumari, however, inspires a different set of meditations. India begins here, and it begins with a beach rendered uninhabitable by early morning squatters; it begins with piles of unclaimed trash and open drains alongside the roads; it begins with the ear-splitting noise from assorted loudspeakers on electric poles; it begins with the ugly clumps of squat concrete-and-glass buildings. Urban India begins in Kanyakumari, and doesn't end for thousands of miles inland; and all its misery and squalor is encapsulated in this tiny town on the tip of this subcontinent.'
Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra