In a few weeks from now, when you walk into your favourite bookstore, you are most likely to spot, among the new releases, a book titled, Chai, Chai -- Travels in Places You Always Stop But Never Get Off. Priced at Rs 250 and with the number of pages adding up to only 234, it will not dig too deep either into your wallet or time. So please buy it and read it. Who knows, you just might find your story in it.
The book tells the story of places we are all familiar with, and yet we know almost nothing about them. These are the big railway junctions where millions of travellers kill billions of hours every day, either while stretching their legs and having a cup of tea or waiting for a connecting train to take them to their destination.
These places are milestones of one's journey, and over the years go on to become the milestones of one's life; and yet no one quite knows the world that lies outside the railway station in these places. The reason is simple: these places merely facilitate your journey to your destination; they are never the destination.
So I decided to make these junctions my destination: instead of merely hopping off the train and looking for the chaiwallah and killing time on the platform till the signal turned green, I got down along with my rucksack and walked out of the station in search of a hotel.
A conscientious journalist is supposed to do his homework well before embarking on a journey or an assignment. But before I began travelling for the book in mid-2007, I discovered, to my horror, that I had nothing to be guided by. Take, for example, Mughal Sarai, which figures prominently in the book. I can't imagine a Bengali family living in north India that wouldn't have heard of Mughal Sarai: for decades it has been the biggest railway junction on the way to Howrah from Delhi, and it still is. And yet I found nothing during Google search that could give me even a faint idea how the town looked like. So when I reached Mughal Sarai at 3.30 on a chilly November morning, it was as good as arriving in a small town in Africa.
Irrespective of how the book does, I am glad I got off at these junctions. For one, I would no longer be curious about what lies beyond the railway platform whenever my train halts at one of these junctions. Two, I happened to discover the India whose existence we city-dwellers either don't like to acknowledge or are not aware of. And let me tell you, that is the real India. Our India is like a pack of cards: it crumbles even if a white man in the US happens to sneeze over it. But the India I discovered is sturdy: it has withstood greater battles than 'economic slowdown' and still continues to smile.