Writing is just an alibis. Bishwanath Ghosh is saddled with unquenchable wanderlust , and has immense need for bar-hopping . His whiskeys might be cheap, but drinking is the most hallowed activity of his day .Cigarettes are his most reliable companions and every moment of void or reflection gets filled with smoke. His materials are the places he visits , and hotels he stays in (or doesn’t get to) and his sources are bar-mates, drivers,a prostitute, references given by friends and tour guides.
Ghosh is an honest , humble and uncomplicated writer, someone who does not believe in contriving situations and concocting stories. Rather than trying to impress the readers, he serves them what he himself underwent. This is a part of his endearing charm. This probosi Bengali, born and brought up in Kanpur, and settled in Chennai at the time of writing this book(2008-9), does not rely upon hifalutin ideas or dazzling prose to share his experiences.
Bishwanath Ghosh harbours some strange notions about travel writers- that they should remain inaccessible and shun public interactions of all kinds, busy as they (ought to) remain in travelling faraway places and collecting exotic material for their travelogues. The author found Paul Theroux as bland as a soup in person when they met in Chennai, although he still finds the latter’s writings divine. Thankfully, these idealistic romantic notions don’t overshadow his own writings, which are very intimate and personal. He shares with us his craving for street food, and reluctance to induge in meat preparations ,unless he is drunk.
These travels took place in 2008 when online hotel booking was not much in vogue . Finding hotels gave him much grief, but I wonder how would he have fared in these days of Trivago and Gobibo. The author undertakes brief trips to non-destination railway towns – the famous transit points through which passengers often pass through ,but never venture inside. At these junctions, trains stop for quite some time- engines get changed, coaches are cleaned, food is loaded and people stretch themselves by venturing out of trains onto platforms, indulge in walking , buying eatables and water, some even venture out of station to buy cigarettes and beer.
The first of these stations is Mughal Sarai, which is the gateway to Purvanchal (East UP and Bihar) and is just 10 km from Varanasi. This was the town where Lal Bahadur Shastri was born, and Deen Dayal Upadhyay breathed his last.It has the largest railway marshalling yard in Asia. It is so named because Humayun’s armies camped there while marching onto Sasaram to take on Sher Shah Sur’s forces .
Jhansi is a sleepy town in Bundelkhand (UP) which shall forever be remembered for Rani Lakshmibai and her exploits. Besides the Jhansi fort, the author took a trip to Orchha (19km) on the banks of Betwa and to Khajuraho (176km). Raja Ramraja temple (in which Ram is worshipped as a King) and Jahangir Mahal in Orchha , and Chandela Temples of Khajuraho are covered in the book. Next is covered Itarsi (MP) which was so named after Inta (brick) and Rassi (rope) trade. Itarsi is the gateway to South India, and is located near Hoshangabad in the Vindhyas.
The writer also visits Guntakal (Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh), Arakkonam (Vellore, TN), Jolarpettai (Vellore,TN) and Shoranur (Kerala).Guntakal is the junction station at the intersection point of Mumbai-Chennai, Vijaywada-Margao and Guntakal-Bangalore line. INS Rajali, also known as Arakkonam Naval Station, which is under Eastern Naval Command and is Asia’s longest military runway was given a miss by Ghosh. Jolarpettai is the middle point of Chennai-Bangalore line .Yelagiri(a wannabe hill station) is also situated nearby. Shoranur is situated on the banks of Bharatpuzha, whose bed has been ruined by sand mining. This junction is located on the Chennai-Mangalore and Kerala-Mumbai lines. The author also took the Nilambur-Shoranur line which is among the most picturesque in India.
Railway stations ,like hill-stations, bear unmistakable colonial stamp in their architectures. The Republic of Railways-a separate budget (no longer), autonomous ecosystems like RPF, large work force and powerful unions, huge infrastructure and perks for officers, strategic importance of enterprise ,the glamour of moving locomotives and the promise of journeys- are agents of unity and promote commingling of cultures.
Throughout his journeys, the author empathises with his countrymen, and doesn’t detach himself even while passing sweeping judgements. It is this innate Indianness which owns up the differences of castes, regions and culture. At a time , when PM Modi has urged Indians to undertake journeys to atleast 15 domestic tourist destinations, Chai Chai and Bishwanath Ghosh’s other travelogues can prove to be worthy guides. I myself have visited only Mughal Sarai and Itarsi out of those mentioned here.Two stations ,Nagda(MP) and Mathura (UP),which played key roles in my life are not included. But Ghosh has made me a fan, and I am already onto his next travelogue which is based on his observations in Kolkata.