The book that could have been thoughtful, but wasn't: Salil Tripathi is forcing words into his experience

For years, I’ve read Salil Tripathi’s articles with admiration for their freshness, forthrightness and insight. This is why I asked him, a year ago, to join a panel discussing my last book. I was moved by how closely he had read it and by his incisive comments about it. I’m calling on that reservoir of goodwill now, as I write this next sentence.

I wish he hadn’t written this book.

Or actually, I wish he hadn’t listened to the editor who suggested that instead of gathering together his travel columns, he should “write fresh essays about each place, crafting each essay around a theme or a writer, an artist, or an idea, who gave meaning to the place.” Because by less than halfway through this book, it’s clear: this injunction weighs on Tripathi’s writing like an albatross.

The book that could have been thoughtful, but wasnt: Salil Tripathi is forcing words into his experience

Songs of the Open Road by Salil Tripathi. Tranquebar Press

First though, some sprinkled gems that I savoured. Tripathi’s musing about the last days of that forever tragic figure, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is reflective and moving. Tripathi quotes Zafar — “I am not the light of anyone’s eye” — and that desolate spirit comes through. In the same chapter on Burma is this pointed remark about Aung San Suu Kyi: “The Princess herself has stayed remarkably silent, saying not a word to condemn the monks or the military, as the persecution of Rohingyas goes on.” Maybe the Princess wears less clothes than we thought. And in post-apartheid South Africa, he notes that a “collective amnesia is forced on the people”. I couldn’t help wondering about the fallout of such forcing, whether there or in India.

But then, that albatross… For every place Tripathi describes, he offers words from one or more writers. Often these are writers who belong to that place. This is fine as far as it goes — it is, after all, what that the editor suggested. But too often, it seems he is forcing the words onto his experience, seeking significance in every sentence he writes to match some other writer’s thoughts.

Thus descriptions that magically fit the excerpts. In Kenya, for example, Tripathi sits with friends, “aware only of the silence surrounding us.” By then, I was not surprised when his next sentence introduces an Isak Dinesen excerpt “about the meaning of silence”.

Thus water bodies. In Central Park, one “gleamed, reflecting the skyline”; in Stockholm, one “looked like someone had sprinkled liquid silver on its shuddering surface”; in Geneva, “it looked like diamonds were scattered on the lake’s surface”; the “Mediterranean’s water has that certain luminosity, which envelopes that sea”; and in Bangladesh, “the river dazzled, as if someone had lit a fire and millions of little lamps had come alive, twinkling like stars.” Besides, in Kenya, Amsterdam, Antibes, England and Norway, light has “clarity”.

Thus head-scratching sentences. “Wind rustles through the palm fronds — it sounds romantic to those who live there; a poet listens to the moans of the mother whose child was crushed by a Humvee” — where’d that Humvee come from?

And thus, perhaps, mistakes galore. Sadly, I do mean galore: grammar, spelling, tense, lines wrongly placed, contradictions, repeated words/ideas/devices. Even “disposed off”.

All for the sake of this pursuit of a travelogue informed by the erudition of great writers.

After a Stockholm cruise, Tripathi writes: “I wondered if loneliness got more acute here because others respected your desire to be alone”. Because we know that he went there soon after losing his wife, this is a telling, poignant and utterly wrenching observation. Familiar as I am with Tripathi’s writing, it also hints at the thoughtful book this could have been. Until that albatross intervened.

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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2016 08:53:11 IST

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