Book- Detours: Songs of the open road
Author: Salil Tripathi
Price: Rs 695
The first age of discovery is long behind us. Travel can no longer be the joy of the new. It is merely a confirmation that the Taj Mahal does exist, that there are beaches in Thailand, the malls in Dubai are enormous. Travel doesn’t widen our horizons. it merely confirms them. We were there, and we have the pictures to prove it.
Where do travelogues, one of the oldest literary forms, fit in? In the beginning they were about descriptions. People went to places and wrote about what they saw for people who hadn’t been to those places. This slipped out of fashion, as Jerome K Jerome said, “Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read,” going on to add, “the steam-engine and the camera for us, have changed all that”.
This was a hundred years ago. Now with Lonely Planet, Zomato, Airbnb and what not everything can be measured, experienced and consumed — before actually going there. The journey merely validates, the final click in a data-driven process. Yet perhaps we have come back to the start with Salil Tripathi’s Detours: Songs of the Open Road. His premise is simple, instead of practical information like visas, must-see places and where to eat, “I’d write about what I felt about the place, how its culture may have influenced its people and its politics, what other writers, artists, filmmakers, or poets had said about the place, and how I had responded to the place”.
Tripathi is a connoisseur of dawns, skies and mountains. He is not concerned with the quality of hotel food but rather the quality of rain in Bogota, “a thin lace cascading on the city, like silken strands” or the precise nature of sunsets in Oslo. He cares most of all for light, returning to its particular quality in a particular place. In Stockholm, he notes “the sun trying hard to stay afloat, as if clinging to (the) edge by its fingertips” while dawn over the Ngong Hills in Kenya has a clarity that “belonged to another time”. None of these however “prepared me for the magical quivering light of the Bosphorus, the strait that makes you think it’s a river blending one sea into another keeping two continents apart or bringing them together”.
Detours is a hefty tome, chronicling the author’s travels all over the world. I decide to dip in and read at random, the armchair equivalent of spinning a globe and travelling to wherever the finger writs. The first section deals with places riven by conflict, of people, as he describes a character in Bogota, “who wants to feel light but the world around her is heavy”. The second and central part is the world viewed through a literary lens as Tripathi chases down famous locations, which have featured in novels as well the places of their creation. Not everyone shares these enthusiasms. Searching for Nabokov in Montreux at the Le Cygne hotel where the author had spent the last two decades of his life, ends with the receptionist informing him, after going through the register, that “Mr Nabokov has already checked out”.
A self-described “literary insomniac”, all of Tripathi’s pieces are venues for get-togethers between books set in those places, where traveller’s accounts are constantly having conversations with each other. What was particularly interesting was when Tripathi talks about “read(ing) many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east” and how his “was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes”. This includes pithy observations: a late-night arrival in Lagos he says is “confirming the cardinal rule of aviation — the poorer the country the more unearthly the time of arrivals and departures”. Such a point would probably not ever occur to a Westerner. Or the description of ruined Greek columns “looking like the remains of stumps in a cricket match after a fast bowler had knocked one down”.
There is, however, a sombre subtext which emerges despite my haphazard progress. The last section is about Tripathi revisiting the places he had once travelled with his late wife, “I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits”. This is the emotional anchor of the book, as it floats through an ocean of memory and words. Shot through with a melancholy,
it is in these final pages that he finds the “point where you thought something ended is actually the beginning of another long journey.”