Salil Tripathi manages to inhabit every page of his latest book without making it all about himself, says Devjani Bodepudi.
Detours: Songs of the Open Road
Rs 695 | 372 pp
The book is split into three parts—“War and After”, “Words and Images” and “Loss and Remembrance”. Each becomes progressively softer and rounder; a truer picture begins to emerge of the writer and who he is; a sort of relationship develops, and in the end the reader is left feeling a bittersweet pang for the words and characters they have had to leave behind at the end of each chapter. At various times, whilst reading the book, I found myself smiling or sighing—I couldn’t help myself. And it was during those moments that I felt I was being pulled and nagged at to pick the book up again every time I put it down.
Some of the pages are informative, with dates and interesting facts and happenings, while others are filled with poignancy of a more subjective vein, which never fails to move. Tripathi’s voice is a quiet one throughout the narration, yet it’s powerful enough to force you to listen. Talking of hidden tombs of forgotten kings and a shrouded mountain of a mischievous bent, a kind of humility appears on each page, where Tripathi cites authors, writers, poets who have gone before him. He quotes them, respects them and reflects on the lines, in turn holding up a mirror to his own thoughts, perhaps.
Tripathi’s voice is a quiet one throughout the narration, yet it’s powerful enough to force you to listen. Talking of hidden tombs of forgotten kings and a shrouded mountain of a mischievous bent, a kind of humility appears on each page.
But what is most striking and effective is the ability he has for turning the quiet ordinary into something beautiful and meaningful. His use of language, however, is far from flowery; there’s no overt sentimentality there, but there is a simplicity of observation which bring his journeys to life.
In Detours, he meets many a character, some more memorable than others. They act as guides, not just for Tripathi but also for the reader, and through the conversations the traveller has with his guides and friends, a deeper understanding and respect develops for the places being visited. These are the people who have made the landscapes they inhabit just that little more vivid, more three-dimensional. There is suddenly purpose to the bright autumn foliage of Vermont and the simple blue of the Mediterranean.
Salil Tripathi’s remarkable ability to bring to life the people he has met adds a wonderful and endearing quality to the book. His innate ability to listen to those around him makes reading Detours a warm and humbling experience. This is how humanity should be viewed, without that awful lens of cynicism and ennui. He views his surrounding with wonder and gives everything around him a certain importance, and the world he sees becomes bigger than himself. It’s a refreshing experience to read a writer who is able to inhabit every page of a book without making the book all about themselves.
One of my favourite lines in the book, which perhaps sums up Tripathi’s writing, is the inner dialogue he has with himself when trying to describe the colour of the sea:
Blue—that’s an easy word…Azure sounds pretentious…Cerulean sounds like you’re describing an age in history. And turquoise is a word best left for brochures of travel agencies selling honeymoon packages. Blue would do; it’s simple and effective. The final open vowel gives the word a sense of infinity and continuity…
His use of language make the book an easy read. There is no need for complicated narrative and outlandish vocabulary. You are left with a pared-down true-to-life account of what Tripathi wants to convey. You are carried along on a gentle current of moderate pace until you reach wherever it is you have been transported to. Themes in this book include friendship, change, love and loss. Travelogues and memoirs tend to be this way, it is true, but few have the power to actually emote anything of any real authenticity.
The later chapters become dark, and a painful honesty emerges. The loss of Karuna, a much beloved wife and mother, comes suddenly and we’re plunged into an unnatural darkness and an unwanted and intrusive light. The Stockholm chapter is by far the most disturbing; I had to pause. Karuna’s death is a constant thread running through the book, but for obvious reasons the actual event is kept until the last section of the Tripathi’s travelogue. His son’s words at the end of the France chapter talk of foreboding clouds and a rain which needed to pour and a grief which needed to ravage and I am left reluctantly privy to a family tragedy I would happily have pretended did not happen. But it did.
His son’s words at the end of the France chapter talk of foreboding clouds and a rain which needed to pour and a grief which needed to ravage and I am left reluctantly privy to a family tragedy I would happily have pretended did not happen. But it did.
It’s perhaps an act of bravery to bare one’s sorrow in this way; perhaps it was a necessity in order to move on or process, as Tripathi has said, but it is a fitting tribute to a life well led and a soul much loved.
Perhaps there is a little too much “gold-dust” being sprinkled about in the book, from Columbia to Bombay to Kenya to Spain, with a couple of sentences sounding like they’ve been repeated, but that little gem of criticism comes out of a desperation to offer a more balanced review, from a reviewer who cannot praise it enough. After all, can we ever have too much gold-dust in this world of smart remarks and cutting critique?