Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana
The tagline of the book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana says ‘Travels in Small Town India’. The author is a paid travel writer who starts his journey from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. Goes to Ambala in Haryana, travels to Udaipur and Bundi in Rajasthan. Then comes back to Hapur in Western UP before he begins his journey to South India. In the south, he lands up in Bangalore. Then goes to Trichur, Kottayam, and Shimoga before he travels from Shimoga to Benaras via Madras. And then from Benaras to Murshidabad and Jehanabad in Bihar. In the process Kolkata a couple of times. After reading the complete book I fail to understand the objective of the book.
The Butter Chicken in Ludhiana author seems to be absolutely confused about what he is supposed to write. He seems to be carrying his notebook to all these places and writes about anything and everything. Looks like a personal diary with no point of view, no message, no thoughts. Most of the times he describes the hotel rooms that he stayed in. Most of the times during his visits to these places, he misses meeting the guy he went to meet there or decides not to meet after reaching there for no reason at all. At Hapur, all he does is describe a complete Baraat scene, which I am sure he has not seen for the first time, himself coming from a small town and living in North India most of his life.
He tries to portray Indians as obsessed, people from north to south, everywhere. Something that he thought was uniform across the country. But at the same time he himself buys and reads adult magazines at every station and jumps to every opportunity of watching a blue film, and then claims, he does so only to see how people react to these movies. He listens to private conversations between people and takes them down in his notebook, be it a couple sitting in a restaurant or a family traveling by train. A complete breach of privacy… At times he talks about people, at times of hotels and at times about himself, no one thing linking to another. The title of the book happens to be just a joke in one of his overheard conversations. He did not even step into Punjab.
I picked up the book because I have not seen many books written on small towns in India. But the book turned out to be a big disappointment as it was written by someone who assumed himself to be ‘too urban’. I think foreigners writing about India do a better justice to the travels to these places. I think the disappointment is bigger because I had been to most of the places mentioned in the book. And was wondering why the author could not see anything good there. Why did he not try and connect to people, rather than looking at them superficially and writing his assumptions about them?
But I would love to be in the author’s shoes someday, to be paid to for traveling and writing…:-)
PS: Shivaji, your observation is so right about Indian authors. They somehow tend to prove what they try to say.