This book is one of the most enjoyable and enlightening among my reads of 2020. I am looking forward to reading the second book by this author namely, Off The Pages as well.
It is the first time that I was able to read about the actual working of the Indian Railways and the multitude of people who work behind the scenes to ensure its smooth functioning. And I must admit that I learnt about the myriad roles and challenges of a Station Master, solely through this book.
This compelling collection of short stories is unique in the sense of the common thread that runs through it - the motif of the railways and the station master.
However, each story is completely independent and different from the last one. The first one, 'The Foundling', is the most endearing, while the 'Accident' and 'Kanausi' are disturbing reads. 'Murda Jaga' while presented in a humorous vein, evokes anger at the missing guard, a slave to alcohol. It highlights the brazen nonchalance of some of the personnel which affects the time, schedules and commitments of passengers. The loopholes inherent in the system, that need ironing out, are articulated with precision.
Another key factor that induces pride and regret alike is the true portrayal of Indianism - not just in speech patterns, but also the behavioural traits of workers and passengers alike.
The best parts are the unpredictable incidents depicted in the predictable world of the station master.
The most interesting aspect of the characterisation is the realism in it. We know from the preface that Manab Banerjee is a real person, Manas Banerjee, and the experiences are real ones that spanned along his long career in the Indian railways.
What strikes us at once, are the achingly genuine characters, each more strangely 'familiar' than the other. All of us have hailed the odd porter or exchanged the time of the day at the corner chai shop or even a few pleasantries with the ticket inspectors during our train journeys. And yet, we may never have delved into their working lives or daily challenges. It is this aspect that is brought out with more clarity in the novel.
The characters are neither glorified nor sidelined, just presented exactly the way they are - in speech, body language and behaviour. Be it Manabji's honest angst or the lies or the drunkard's addictive traits, all of them charm us with their very predictability.
Manab (Manas) Banerjee invokes our admiration, praise and respect with each story showcasing his competence and maturity.
The book reminded me of 'Malgudi Days', where Narayan's magic brings the Indianness of rural India alive in the readers' eyes.
The narrative is full of strong imagery - aural, visual and nasal - that adds charm to the tales. Some descriptions are a wee bit long in some rare parts, but may be perceived as important for readers who'd like to have the entire picture of the scene or details of the storylines.
The best facet is the slow but steady sense of foreboding that builds up in each story, because we know that something is going to go wrong, invariably so. And yet, one is unprepared for the intensity of what happens - neither the violence nor the deaths, or even the politics - that seem almost commonplace in the rural hamlets tucked away in the north-eastern states of the country.
The language is top notch and the vocabulary is a refreshing mix of English infused with some Indianism, plus the verbiage of the local railway community. It adds to the genuineness of the narrative, while retaining the standards of a well-written English novel.
I'd have preferred the footnotes to have been done away with, in favour of a glossary for foreign readers. Alternately, they could have been in a smaller font, to reduce the space which may hinder an unrestricted reading experience. Most Indians familiar with Hindi would never need to consult the footnotes, although one must concede that it does offer the old-fashioned touch that gels with the theme of the novel.
I rate the book a 4.6 out of 5. A must-read for readers who like to savour true-to-life nuances of the common man in general, as well as memorable experiences of key railway personnel in particular.
Hope you found my review enlightening. Do follow my blog for more.
Happy reading, readers!