All of us would be familiar with the popular dictum ‘Don’t judge a book by the cover’. However when you have to pick up a book by an unfamiliar author at the book store, you need to go by cover and title only. The book ‘Hot Tea Across India’ is a book that charmed me with its title and cover design. The illustrator Gynelle Alves had done a really remarkable job with the cover illustration. Coming to the title, tea is something close to my heart and I am sure same will be the case for many others as well. The teas that have brought relief amidst the hectic office hours! The teas during bus and train journeys! The teas by the roadside during road trips! So the minute I saw a book titled ‘Hot Tea Across India’, I felt like picking it up.
I would call the book a complete mixed bag with various shades of experiences. You have comedy, you have action and you have adventure. The best thing I like about this book is the quality of writing. The modern day Indian authors seem to be waging a war on the language of their former colonial masters. Among them, this author Rishad Saam Mehta stands out for his beautiful language with its subtle nuances. I would recommend this book just for the language alone.
This book tries to cover the myriad experiences the writer has had during his trips across the country. Though there are bits from every part of the country, most of the anecdotes are based closer to the Himalayas. The book has no formal structure as such. It is kind of like a blog with bits and pieces from different experiences. Some of the trips are short with just one chapter devoted to it. Some are longer with 4-5 continuous chapters covering the same trip. From the title one would assume tea would form an integral part of every story. That is not the case though. Tea does form the crux of a couple of stories. In some others, tea just plays a supporting role. In yet other cases, tea is used in a figurative sense. For instance in India, government officials would euphemistically demand bribe by asking for tea and water. In few of the narratives, tea is totally absent. But tea makes sufficient appearances across the book to merit the title.
The experiences in the book are things that each one of us can relate to. Some of them like biking on the Himalayas are something many of us may not have done. But a few of the other experiences are ones we would have had in our day today lives and just overlooked. He has managed to capture all the details and narrate in a really interesting manner. He has covered quite a range of modes of travel – bike, car, bus, and lorry. He introduces the reader to quite a few interesting characters. He has experimented nicely with different forms of narrative. Most of it is in first person. But here and there you see some poetry, retelling of some local folklore and one chapter has the autobiography of his car. With so much variety, there is hardly a dull moment in this book. And there is often a sprinkling of humor here and there to give the reader a hearty laugh. Then you have some real fascinating descriptions of the beauty of Himalayas.
If one were to look at the short comings, lack of structure and end to end storyline could be viewed as a short coming. But India is the land of chaos. It kind of makes sense for a book on experiences in India to be like that. The quality of language in the book could be a double edged sword. Whereas it might endear this writer to people who love the language, the typical Indian reader brought up on a diet of Chetan Bhagat might find the language too sophisticated.
Overall, it is an excellent book for a light read. Since there are separate incidents in the book, it can be an ideal read for a bus or waiting in a queue, as it need not be completed in one sitting.
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