Songs of the Open Road
382 pages; Rs 521
In the Preface to Detours: Songs of the Open Road, Salil Tripathi makes the intention of his book clear by stating, "I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine would be an attempt to look at the world through...a sensibility that has been shaped in India and later tinged by other cultures." And through its pages, he sticks to that aim.
The first section of the book is titled "War and After", in which Mr Tripathi writes about his travels across countries ravaged by war and violence. This section explores the histories of these nations, analysing how they shaped and changed national character and often contrasts these to the present. The second section, "Words and Images", finds Mr Tripathi tracing his travels to new places through literature, poetry and art. As he writes, these are places he understands better "because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid." The third section, "Loss and Remembrance," is about places Mr Tripathi visited with his wife and, after her death, with their sons. It is a deeply personal section that examines the laconic nature of loss.
Mr Tripathi writes about Bogota and its poetic streets - Amora (Love), Fatiga (Fatigue) and Agonia (Agony) - which radically contrast its gruesome history, facing continuous violence, or "La Violencia", from 1948 onwards, when a presidential candidate was assassinated. He writes about the significance of books to Germany and how they helped shape its historical and contemporary identity. He delves into the persona of Aung San Suu Kyi and what she means to people in Myanmar. He describes the orderly dysfunction of Singapore: "Singapore's raison d'etre was, after all, to be an efficient business centre where people were expected to trade goods and services, not talk about politics, or debate sensitive or artistically challenging ideas." A chapter on Lagos covers much of its history, describing the tenuous relationship between the citizens, the oil corporations and the government. Here the author writes about the "scariest" journey he ever made - where members of a local Nigerian militia almost kidnapped him.
Through the book and each new place the author visits, whether professionally or on vacation, his love for literature, his obsession with words and deep reverence for writers stand out. Although the book is nominally a travelogue, Detours' narrative often meanders from descriptions and experiences of places. Rather it delves deeply into the writings and musings of the prominent writers of these countries and captures their influences and experiences. The chapter on Istanbul holds heavy references to the writings of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafaq, and how their works depict the cultural, political and religious fragmentation of a contemporary Turkey. The novels of Naguib Mahfouz act as a foil to understanding the political changes across Egypt over time and place. Ernest Hemingway - his life and his writings - are omnipresent in the chapters on Paris and Madrid. Milan Kundera's words float in and out to describe the collective emotions of a war-ravaged Colombia, and later the lakefront of Geneva. Mr Tripathi reflects on the poetry of Pablo Neruda on a trip to Santiago and later Isla Negra, and dedicates an entire chapter to it. On a trip to Bangladesh, he looks for the home where Rabindranath Tagore wrote his poetry.
The third section of the book is poignant. After the death of his wife, the author tries to find consolation in the travel, literature and art that he shared with her. Along with his sons, he travels to the Mediterranean, rediscovers the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and feels the presence of someone no longer around. The author describes a trip to Bloomsbury Country, where Virginia Woolf ended her life by drowning herself in the River Ouse in 1941. Mr Tripathi muses, "The landscape is inspiring; it is impossible to think of what led Woolf to take the ultimate step." The descriptions of a lonely summer and winter in Stockholm, frozen landscapes of Europe, and the quiet desperation of Edvard Munch's art are each embedded with a deep sense of melancholia. However, the author never ends a page on a dismal note. "Not all experiences are happy, and nor are all lives. But experiences shape us. Like waves, experiences lash at us; like the cliff, we stand stubborn against the erosions, taking blows."
Detours has little structure and almost no plot. Such anchors would only limit the scope of the book and constrain its free-flowing narrative. The strength of Mr Tripathi's writing is his casual and conversational style. Reading it is like having a long conversation with an old "literary insomniac" friend over a Sunday brunch. The book is simmering with deeply layered tales of travels to new and different lands, observations, and anecdotes, references to politics, literature, art, history, culture and, not to forget, the author's friends and companions on each journey. Detours puts the complexities, enormity and diversity of the world into perspective and, most importantly, reminds one of the pleasures of discovery and recollection. Simply put, it captures all that is often considered the best experiences of life. Read it over a long weekend.
Sarah Farooqui runs the Takshashila Institution’s flagship course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). She is also the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.