‘Detours’ – it is ‘an’ Indian eye not ‘the’ Indian eye: Salil Tripathi

Songs of the Open Road’ cast on me.

By Garima Dutt | Updated: Feb 13, 2016, 09:05 AM IST

You pick a book to read and review but then you are so drawn into its world that you wish to extend the experience by meeting the writer. This interview with author, noted columnist, journalist Salil Tripathi is a result of that magical spell, which his latest and third book ‘Detours: Songs of the Open Road’ cast on me.

We met at the Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place in Delhi. It was a fine place to meet; we sat on the edges of the kids’ play area and sipped masala chai, which we both spilled in turns (no idea why!). The author had this self-assured, calm aura about him and one was at ease and in the middle of a conversation before one knew it.  The author, a warm gentleman, with a ready smile and an endearing twinkle in the eye, carried no airs, considering the fact that ‘Detours’, barely two weeks after its release, is already going into reprint.

We settled for a quick chat that panned into a long conversation. Much as he does when he travels, he happily obliged to ‘veer off the beaten track’ with me, to divulge more about his writing and the associated rituals, travel idiosyncrasies, future assignments as a writer and a curious love for round numbers!

Excerpts from the interview:

Q1. What does this book mean to you? All the pieces from this book have appeared as your travel column in Mint. Surely, when they take the shape of a book, they must feel different!

One of the earliest thoughts that we had – my editor at Westland and me – that if we were to just put together a book made up of my columns, it may not cut ice with the readers, and I say this in my preface too that all these columns can be read online for free, so that was out of question.

The first task was to expand these articles in proper pieces, and as I assembled them, I realised there is a story emerging because a lot of my travel and writing – because of the nature of my work and interests – is about human rights, conflict and violence and so on. A lot of it is also about the pursuit of writers (Ernest Hemingway in particular), artists, musicians etc. A lot of it is also very personal – either I had been to those places with my wife or with my kids later after her passing. So, these just became a very natural pattern to tell the story in this book by dividing it into three parts: ‘War & After, Words & Images, Loss & Remembrance’.

The form took shape after I planned what the book is going to be like and how many chapters should it have. I do like round numbers, so at one point we had 27 chapters, the last three were added later to make it 30 and those are actually good ones – one is on Myanmar, the other one is on Cairo and I close the book with a poem on San Francisco.

Q2. Oh! The last one works like an epilogue and it was a lovely way to close the book. You wrote the poem?

So, it was a bit brave. People have very exacting standards about poetry. I do write poetry and a little bit of it is published here and there, but my concern was that I didn’t want people to think that I am speaking out of turn, as it were.  I am not a poet, but the idea was to write about San Francisco and write about it from the eyes of a writer.

I could have thought of using Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg but I thought the whole point of this book is to look at the world through Indian eyes. Vikram Seth has written a lovely book (he was referring to ‘The Golden Gate’) entirely in sonnets. So can I write in sonnets? That was the challenge I took up.

Q3. When you say ‘Indian Eyes’, it brings to mind your multicultural life and context. You have studied abroad, worked as a journalist, travelled across continents. You now live in London. How much of this eye then remains ‘Indian’? Hasn’t your multicultural identity given you another way of seeing?

I don’t know. That is for the readers to say, but my hope is that when Colin Thubron writes on Central Asia, Ian Buruma writes on Japan or Paul Theroux writes about the world... I am not saying that there is a ‘western gaze’ but they do look at it as an outsider. I didn’t feel that there hadn’t been enough of scrutiny, I didn’t think that ok this was payback time... but I thought so many of us do go abroad and what do we see there? For instance, there is one type of Indian traveller say a typical Gujarati who goes and looks for Jain food and there are Gujarati tours which go with their cooks and chefs simply because they do not trust what they will get to eat and so on.

But, as a traveller, I was (and am) willing to immerse and submerge, but at the same time I wanted to draw on parallels where there were. So one example I can think of, which is a relatively minor one, is when I am talking about the right-wing armed groups (he was referring to AUC) in Colombia... (Chapter 1: Gabriel & His Labyrinth)... when people started explaining to me I immediately understood it because I knew Salwa Judum in India These were vigilantes who were given guns by landowners and politicians because the state was not doing its job of dealing with the crisis. I thought the comparison with Salwa Judum was the way to look at the armed groups. It conveyed to me what it means; I didn’t need to look at any Colombian history to understand it because my Indian experience told me what it was.

So I think that was one very small example where the Indian eye comes in. Also, the other interesting chapter is the Shanghai one – where most people go to Shanghai and they are impressed by the glitz and glamour, The Bund, the tall tower but this friend of mine, Tina, she took me to see this place where Tagore lived for six months and wrote his poetry which was wonderful and I write about it in the book. Bangladesh again, you can write about the mosques and monuments there but I write about a very small part of rural Northern Bangladesh, where you have the rain forests, and it reminded me of ‘Pather Panchali’. And then I went to Shilaidaha, near Kushtia, north of Bangladesh... someone could say that it is similar to India because it is almost a neighbour...  but I saw the boat ‘padma’ on which Tagore sat and wrote ‘Gitanjali’. So that’s one way of seeing where I think the Indian eye comes in. And it is ‘an’ Indian eye and not ‘the’ Indian eye.

How can one person claim to speak for a billion people? But yes there is definitely my Indian experience that comes into play while my multiculturalism helps me immerse easily.

Q4. In ‘Detours’, what kind of additions did you make to each piece?

The additions I have made to the book are primarily from the perspective of making a story complete. So it is quite possible for instance, Colombia which is a country I have been to 10-12 times... and say, I have been to South Africa about 15 times... the stories are not sequential. The South Africa chapter opens with my going to the place where Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet at Cape Point. I went to Cape Point on my eighth or ninth trip but it made sense to start with that. The conscious decision was to be honest to my tone (and not to a particular form of writing) as if I was telling a story as it flowed to me and if the flow made sense, I kept it. And I did want each chapter to end in a way that you would feel I have reached some sense of completeness. So for instance, Colombia begins with this calm before I go to this restaurant where there had been a violent attack; it ends with this – one of the best evenings I have had where we spent an entire day in this house which had huge glass windows and we could see celestial thunder and lightning outside and we were quietly eating food and having chardonnay with friends. It is also one of those rare spots where I describe the food.

Q5. May I add that I feel you end all chapters on a very life-affirming note? For me that is a reflection of a writer’s general outlook to life as well. You are one such person, life-affirming, right?

Yes, it is true. I have lost both my parents. They don’t feature much in the book. My mother does at places and so does my late wife. Over the last two decades, I have had my share of grief (actually I said grief, which he thought was a better way of putting it. He had said ‘crummy moments’ first and I liked his phrase better). I know it sounds corny but you could either mope over it or you could either cope or hope. With every end there is a new beginning. You have to think of it that way.

Q6. There is your voice as a traveller. There is also a strong voice of the political journalist that emerges – the one that pushes the envelope and takes us into the history, culture and literature of the place...

I am not a political historian or even a narrative historian because that takes a lot of research and a different kind of research. But what I might do is that if a country fascinates me, and right now Burma (Myanmar) does; I might do a book on it. I have been to Burma 6 or 7 times, I picture myself doing a Burma book at some point.

Look, I don’t want to assume knowledge when I write. The only assumption I make when I write is that whoever picks up the book to read is curious, he or she should want to turn the page, she is intelligent – a person who is smart but doesn’t have all the facts. I believe that you have to give enough information to the reader to join the dots. If I am talking about the left and right in Columbia, I can’t simply leave it at that. I have to give enough information. Why should you have to, while reading the book, go to the Internet or Encyclopedia Britannica to see what I am talking about. The book should be self-contained without talking down to the reader. All that the reader doesn’t have is information. The reader is wise, intelligent and she is curious.

Someone told me that you should write as if you are writing for two smart teenagers and that’s what I have done as my sons were teenagers that time. They also helped me edit the book. I just give enough information and the facts to the reader to remain with the story and also make the next move. So especially in the conflict stories and stories with references to art and artists, I give background to movements like Impressionism, Post-impressionism and Cubism etc. And this is all what I learnt when I was researching and I felt all this should be shared with the reader.

Q7. Any new books you are working on or planning to write?

I am planning to write a book on the Gujaratis. The book is going to be about who we are as people and why we are the way we are. Apart from being enterprising, they are also a pleasure seeking community and of course like any other community they have their positives and negatives. So I may be a Gujarati but I am going to begin as if I know nothing. I have lived outside of India for 25 years so I cannot assume. It is unfair to them and unfair to me.

Q8. Your favourite authors...

There are lots of writers I admire. I really like my former colleague and senior Ian Buruma. I don’t wish to write like him but I would like to strive for perfection the way he does. Of course, I love Ernest Hemingway, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I would like to pick and read whatever these people write on.

Q9. Do you have idiosyncrasies associated with travel or writing?

I am paranoid about thefts! (I just couldn’t stub my laugh on this). So I lock everything and keep my keys with me. I leave nothing of value out in my room whether I stay in the finest hotel or the crappiest one. I am genuinely worried something will get stolen. When I am staying with friends, I don’t lock things but even then I don’t leave things here and there because I fear I will forget something and they will have to send it across. I also invariably forget to pick up my toothbrush, comb etc. I have often bought large number of shaving kits, toothbrushes, combs at airport; more than I need. But now I know what to pack – more or less. And there is an old rule – ‘always take double the money, half the clothes when you travel’ but I don’t do that. I always have a heavy suitcase and lots of clothes.

While travelling and seeing a place, I keep taking notes on my phone. Writing a book takes time but if I am due to deliver a short a piece on a deadline, I think through it when I am alone and quiet, till the time I go to bed. At night, on my phone I write what American journalists call a ‘nut graph’ which is basically telling in simple words what the story is about. Then I break it up and expand on it either at night or next morning. If I have written the whole piece at night, I take a look at it the next morning before sending it out. Sometimes, if I am in a rush, I send it but when I return to it, I invariably find a couple of things to fix. But my editors are very good and they do a lovely job.

Q10. Your personal travels with your wife that you have described in the last part of the book – ‘Loss & Remembrances’... how was it travelling with your sons to those places?

It was to expose them to all the lovely places we had been to. They were too young and not even born at some point in time. I wanted to show them what we had seen that they hadn’t seen.

Q11. What would you like your readers to feel and carry with themselves once they have finished reading ‘Detours’?

I hope it makes them look at the world they see through different eyes. They don’t have to see it the way I do. They don’t have to go to Berlin and follow the holocaust trail like I did. But I hope if they go to Berlin, they go to Beethoven’s house where he lived or perhaps if they go to Austria-Vienna, they would see Mozart’s house or go to Monet’s Garden in Giverny where he painted or any other thing which is of interest to them. I hope that this book will make people want to take a detour and go beyond the obvious. And it doesn’t have to be around the world. They can start from right where they are. If it has been a hidden passion for someone who has always done all the travel through these guided, conducted bus tours and if this book makes them get down and go beyond, it would be great.

(Detours: Songs of the Open Road by Salil Tripathi, published by Tranquebar Press – Westland, is now out and available for Rs 695/- at all major bookstores).