February 4 2017
One of India’s most experienced journalistic commentators talks about a return to ficiton and what he thinks about current debates on demonetisation and tolerance…
HE WAS FOR MANY years, the BBC’s man in India and was much respected and admired for the even-handed way he reported on the country’s most tumultuous political and economic events.
But few people know that Sir Mark Tully, who left the BBC as its India bureau chief in 1994, also writes fiction – short stories principally.
He has a new collection, very much a follow-up to his one and only other foray into fiction, “Heart of India”, published in 1996, coming out this time with an Indian publisher in May.
He told www.asianculturevulture.com what had led him back to writing fiction about the country he loves and he also revealed his present thoughts on the ongoing demonetisation debate and Narendra Modi’s handling of it, as well the arguments about whether India is a less intolerant country than it used to be.
“It’s really a follow on from ‘Heart of India’,” he told www.asianculturevulture.com in a one-to-one at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month. “The stories are set in rural eastern UP (Uttar Pradesh).
“So much is written about the angst of the middle classes in India, these are rural stories – there is very little written in fiction (in English) about rural India.”
UP is India’s most populated state with more than 200 million people and the largest political entity of its kind anywhere in the world, without being a nation-state. It is also thought to have the largest number of people living below the poverty line in it.
As well as knowing the region well and covering it as a journalist for the BBC for more than 30 years, Tully’s purpose is partly political and comes from a sense of frustration on behalf of those downtrodden folk.
“It comes from hearing people’s stories and turning them into fiction.
“For various reasons, I have a very bad habit of writing things for purposes. It’s very boring,” he chuckled.
As you might expect his idea and practice of the short story comes from a different era, when writing for the sake of one’s art or developing an acute artistic sensibility were less apparent, understood or even accepted.
Stories have more of a political or distinct moral dimension in Tully’s fictional universe.
He explained: “This book and the last one is fundamentally about how badly governed rural India is. It’s underreported. If you look at Indian newspapers, so little of this is discussed.”
In short, India has been very badly served by the Raj administration the British left behind and the poor have, as in UP, suffered the consequences.The Indians did not change the structure of governance, and while there have been moves to digitalise the system it has had limited effects to date.
“It’s a matter of economics,” he argued indignantly. “What we need is the uplift of the people and education and jobs.
“It is very sad when you look at the United Nations index on human development, at how low India is and part of that problem is bad administration. The government has not helped and you have badly administered schools and health services.”
Tully’s stories go deeper than current political manoeuvrings ahead of state elections – there is a likely alliance between the ruling Samajwadi Party (of Akhilesh Yadav) and Congress (led by Rahul Gandhi) in fierce opposition to the Modi-helmed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government – but much of this fails to address fundamental weaknesses, the veteran journalist, now 81, intimated.
“We are still governed like a colony – it is intended for law and order and not much else,” Tully declared. “You still have (revenue) collectors, the state is not going to function properly.”
On more current issues, Tully was away in Britain where he still has radio commitments for the BBC, for the whole of December, as India came to terms with demonetisation a month earlier.
Prime Minister Modi announced overnight that the ₹500 (£6) and ₹1,000 (£12) notes would no longer be normal tender.
He argued that it was vital to crackdown on ‘black money’ (cash not taxed or properly accounted for; and often the proceeds of ‘corrupt’ deals) and counterfeiters.
For a limited period, the notes could be deposited and cash withdrawn in smaller denominations. New ₹2,000 (£24) notes are now in circulation and many of the restrictions on cash withdrawals from machines are now easing.
“The impact was very severe at first,” opined Tully, who made it clear he was speaking from what he had heard from others at the time.
There were long queues at cash machines – some ran out – and generally there was a shortage of notes in circulation to cover the change. India is mostly a cash economy, so the lack of notes impacted business, trade and employment, especially lower down the income and skill scale.
“It was billed as a great blow against corruption and lot of people are buying that line. It was very much seen as the rich against the poor.”
The major opposition parties have criticised the government’s handling of the issue, but have been careful not to criticise the motivations for it. Today, conditions have eased and there is a return of normality to many sectors, but those who live in and on the margins, both literally and figuratively, have been affected and Tully, while largely sympathetic to the principle of tackling corruption, struck a note of caution.
“If there was an adverse long term effect then Modi could be in trouble,” Tully pointed out.
There will be regional electoral tests in February and March as several states, including UP, go the polls.
On the issue of tolerance or the lack of it in Modi’s India, Tully was not convinced the country had changed substantially.
He felt there has long been an element which is hostile to Muslims and Christians – but groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) or the RSS (another right-wing Hindu organisation), which contains a wide spectrum of Hindu thought and practice, were not always in the ascendancy.
He did, however, express the desire for Modi to be more combative when these elements raised their heads above the parapet.
“He has not said enough, he has spoken out against intolerance, but not enough,” said Tully, who uses the term, ‘we’ as a resident of the Nizamuddin suburb of New Delhi and an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI, which is similar to dual nationality and is popular with many British passport holders of Indian origin).
Tully said India has the laws to protect minorities and that hate speech from whatever quarter it emanated – Hindu or Muslim – should be tackled in the same exactly the same way.
Tully was conferred with the Padma Bhusan (India’s third highest civilian honour) in 2005 and a knighthood in 2002. He also has a BAFTA presented to him for his lifetime’s work in 1985 and is the author of many books on the country – all but one of them rooted in his journalism – with “India the Road Ahead” among his most recent and best-known.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, he was among the speakers on ‘The Foreign Correspondents Club’ with Luke Harding, Madeleine O’Dea, and Mei Fong in conversation with Suhasini Haider on the opening day; and ‘The Heart of the Story’ alongside Clare Azzopardi, Keki Daruwalla, and Mridula Koshy in conversation with Sunil Sethi the next day.
*We will have more details of Sir Mark Tully’s new collection of stories nearer the time of its publication…