Book: Hot Tea Across India
Author: Rishad Saam Mehta
Price: Rs 195
If youre looking to read something about the rich variety of teas in India,then youll be disappointed. This is not a book about tea,but its very much a book about travel. And as Rishad Saam Mehta is keen to point out,if there is one certainty about roads in India it is that if you want a cup of tea,youll find a chai ka dukaan within a few kilometres.
Tea may arguably be central to travelling within the country,but its use in this collection of travel stories is somewhat peripheral. Whilst a few stories revolve around the people met over a good cup of chai,it acts mainly as a loose unifying thread,allowing the book to roam freely through the authors adventures and misadventures.
From Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra,Kerala to Kashmir,the book traverses the length and breadth of India. And its not just his destinations that are many and various,but also his modes of transportation.
We begin accompanying him as he hitches a lift from Mumbai to Delhi in an old Tata 1613 truck,and become well acquainted with his much-loved Enfield bullet,by way of a Maruti van,a Yamaha motorbike and the odd LUXAREY bus. These vehicles,as much as the people and places that are vividly sketched,are high points of the book,justifying its description as a celebration of road travel.
Perhaps inevitably,some stories are more engaging than others. Its impossible not to laugh at the description of chasing a wayward Chandigargh-bound bus down the Grand Trunk Road in the company of one Jolly Jhunjhunwalla and his hysterical wife,or to picture with glee the Rajasthani uncle guide with the habit of breaking into Mukesh songs. Less exciting are the treks into Indias national parks,or Mehtas temple visits,which lack something of the originality and spark of the other tales.
In several instances,we are either bombarded with too much information,or overloaded with flowery similes which,while well-intentioned,seem somewhat contrived. Similarly,all too often the transitions from one part of a story to the next feel jerky and sit uneasily with the flow of the narrative. While the prose is certainly not elegant,the enthusiasm of the writer does come across. Its a rare feat to avoid dashes of pretension and self-satisfaction when writing a travelogue,making the down-to-earth narrative voice one of this books greatest strengths.
Hot Tea Across India is a refreshing (excuse the pun) concept for a travel book,but more than that it has managed to hone in on a theme that genuinely does unite many of Indias famously diverse states. Coming as an outsider to India,a major milestone is learning to accept chai as a drink in its own right rather than trying to recreate any western take on the tea leaf. In Mehtas words tea is meant to be strong and dark,with a dash of milk and sugar and spice.
Perhaps only when you have embraced this can you say that you have truly travelled in India.