Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra

I had received strong recommendations for Pankaj Mishra’s “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana — Travels in Small Town India”, and that is how I bought it long time back. For quite sometime, I would stop at the book and keep it back on my shelf because I was not too fascinated by a travelogue.

A couple of days back I picked it up for good. Though I took unusually long time to finish it, but I liked it. On certain occasions, I did find a general feeling of aimlessness and regular chatter in the book, somewhere in the middle; yet o be fair to the book, a couple of times I also felt the book was unputdownable. So, basically, it was an interesting read.
The book was written in 1993, with the objective of experiencing and narrating the changing diaspora of Indian society in the small towns, and when the writer chronicled his experiences, he never loses focus.

Being from a small town myself (not even town!); I already know the essence of small towns. The coming of age of people from little hamlets or the transformation of smaller towns is apparent through the lives of several people. Perhaps, the small-town people are more single-minded in achieving things in life. It is a dream that we are all living. Frankly speaking, I never even dreamt about this kind of life. Perhaps due credit should be given to education, more of our parents and less of our generation.
I liked the book, to the extent that I would recommend it to other people and also would like to re-read it in the future. It has also sparked my interest in travelogues. Now I am hunting for some good travelogues. Suggestions are welcome, preferably for good Indian travelogues.

‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is an endearing sociological study of small towns in India. Small-talks with different people, short conversations, functions that the writer attends; all of them give glimpses into the psyche of people there and their lives. It makes you nostalgic about your own journey from that small township to the big cities of the modern India. If somebody would have told me, ages ago, while I was still schooling at the tiny township in the interiors of Jharkhand, that I would be staying in almost all the metros of India, I would not have believed. I used to be overawed by city life and had that lack of confidence, which is inherent in almost all small town people. But now I feel proud to have belonged to a place so far off, and yet to be able to build a life here. Unlike, what Pankaj Mishra says, I do not want to shrug off my life there, but I am not hung up on that either. I have always liked ‘present’ than ‘past’.

Coming back to the book, it was easy to relate to the various conversations that the writer has with different people in different places in India. What stands out in a lot of his conversations and observations is that the apparent modernity which the small town people are so desperate to embrace, has actually not reached their thinking. I would say, it is not only with the small towns, yes, certainly more stark there, but one comes across the narrow-mindedness in a lot of city-dwellers also, and it surprises you even more because you are not expecting it.

Small towns are not just the idyllic, romantic, cozy places. Since I am from one, I have complete authority and clarity to comment on this. Small towns are full of their own idiosyncrasy. There is certainly an aspiration for the modernity, to get rid of the small town tag. I remember from my generation, English songs and bands were not part of my teenage. I read Archies only after growing up. But several people would like to associate themselves only with English channels, movies, bands, music, just to drive home the point that they are not into Hindi (read ‘lowly) films, channels, etc.
I am enamored by the books which Mr Mishra mentions in a lot of places. I am also jealous by the fact that he wrote such a book immediately after his education or during (not sure!). Obviously, he is well-read. When he mentions someone as the only person he has met who has read s0-and-so book, I am a little ashamed because despite all my claims about reading, I am still ignorant about a world of books, even classics. Mr Mishra, I am slowly getting there! Don’t judge me :-)

Well, in short, you will like it if you like non-fiction, or travelogues or small town stories, little conversations. It will make a difference if you are yourself from a small town or are inclined towards exploring them. Remember, non-fiction genre are not stories or page-turners, you really have to have a liking for this genre. 

Read more about the book here


  1. Ruskin Bond has written quite a few travelogues am sure you'll love them. this one does sound interesting but i dunno if i'll be picking it up or not.

    P.S. You aren't there on goodreads?

  2. Thanks. I will certainly check out Ruskin Bond’s books, though I sometimes wonder how I have never really read any of his books!
    No, I am not there on Good Reads. I had joined ‘Shelfari’ and ‘Library Thing’ but don’t really keep up with it.
    What are you reading?

  3. This sounds really interesting! Great review. I'll be on the lookout for it.

  4. Finished reading 'Paddy Indian' an aberage readd. Starte a book called The toss of Lemon. Have finished many books lately (have put up few reviews today) trying to read as much as posible before the D-Day.

  5. Hi Amy, it is certainly a good read. I don’t know how much will you be able to connect with it but worth a read.

  6. Hi Smita: I visited your blog but could not read through. Perhaps should be able to read it today. I am also afraid that I would end up buying more books. Can you believe it, how much money I blew last month! 10 books and Friends complete series set. I am ashamed and exhilarated at the same time!
    Well, once again, all the best and give us the good news soon.