How a Travelogue Uses Familiar Cinema and Books to Remember Cities
Salil Tripathi has a rather important mission. That is, when he isn’t being a journalist and a human rights researcher.
He wants to make his atlas “messier and more crowded” – a practice that was encouraged by his late father.
It’s a mission that has taken him to 55 countries – and counting – and has culminated in a rather unconventional travel book, Detours: Songs of the Open Road.
Tripathi’s third book takes a detour from the oft-beaten path of tourist guides or regimented sightseeing tours. The result is a collection of 30 essays that reflect on the history and politics of the place – but (here’s what’s interesting) through its literature and culture. The essays – many of them autobiographical – are almost an extension of a regular travel column that he used to write for Mint in 2007.
If one had to sum up the book’s 350-odd pages, they’d find the book is cleanly divided into three themes – stories of war and human rights violations; stories of places that the writer views through known literature and art works; and life after his wife’s death...
A Travel Told Through the Literature of Places
What’s remarkable about Tripathi’s writing is a narrative replete with literary and cinematic allusions that he uses in order to understand a place. His guide is not a tourist map or a Lonely Planet book, but a recollection of a certain page in a novel, often a poem, and sometimes a sequence in a film or painting.
(It is not surprising that the title of his book is also inspired by Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road.)
In violence-hit Colombia, for example, he turns to the writings of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez “to make sense of the Colombian reality, which is so convoluted and complicated, where angels act devilishly, and devils look like angels.”
During a visit to Berlin, he remembers Ian Buruma’s book The Wages of Guilt to find answers to the burden of guilt and shame arising out of Germany and Japan’s war-torn past.
In Burma, a former Vietnamese war veteran eludes security forces and reaches Aung San Suu Kyi’s home while she is under detention. That incident gives the country’s generals an excuse to extend her imprisonment. “It doesn’t get more Orwellian than that”, the author writes, because “in the generals’ Burma, if your house gets broken into, it is your fault, not the thief’s.” George Orwell, who lived in Burma in the 1920s as an officer of the British police force, chronicled the country in his book Burmese Days.
In Parisian bars – on a reporting assignment he couldn’t refuse – Tripathi retraces Ernest Hemingway, whose deceptively simple prose deeply influenced him. He follows in the Nobel laureate’s footsteps in Spain too, where he writes:
He revisits the story of Holocaust victim Anne Frank in an unobtrusive Amsterdam house, which is a museum “where nobody speaks.” In another museum, located far from the centre of Johannesburg, he is “forced to face apartheid at its doorstep”.
Of Navigating Grief Through Robert Frost
The last section of the book is particularly poignant.
While returning to places he had visited with his late wife, he finds solace in the poetry of Robert Frost during a break in Vermont:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
For Tripathi, such analogies not only serve as an exploration of a self-confessed “literary insomniac”; they work as a compass for a man in search of alternate histories and a semblance of normalcy after his wife’s death.
The world in his book appears to be collapsing into a vast borderless landscape, irrespective of its individual histories and culture. It’s when a segregating hedge from South Africa’s apartheid era is likened to the Berlin wall from the Second World War.
At a personal level, this sense of fluidity continues in New York too, which “is such a global city” and where the writer finds “the diverse strands of his life come together”.
His prose is that of a novelist – lyrical and full of craft; and in that he also explores the poet in him – attempting Japanese haiku. He drops the journalistic restraint and subsumes himself in the over-50 places that he writes about, including a near-death experience during a cloudburst in the Niger delta.
With its rich detouring trajectories, and distinctive moods of thoughtfulness and nostalgia, the book is written for those consumed by wanderlust.
Little wonder that a sentence in the book reads: “Searching for literary landmarks gives your wanderlust a purpose, a meaning.”