Mark Tully talks to about his upcoming collection of short stories based in eastern U.P. and his connection with the country.

He has been honoured with both a knighthood from the Queen and a Padma Bhushan in India. And one can’t deny that Mark Tully, the iconic face and voice of BBC in India for over 25 years, the twin honours were richly deserved.

Born in India (Calcutta) in 1935 towards the end of the British Empire, Tully was sent to England at the age of nine for schooling. However, in 1965, he came back to India to work for the BBC. Later, as the BBC Chief of Bureau in New Delhi, he was witness to several historic events like the declaration of Emergency, Operation Blue Star, Bhopal Gas tragedy, the assassinations both of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

On a hectic visit to Dehra Dun last week, Tully spoke about his experiences and his early years in India and England. Excerpts from an interview:

What are you currently writing?

These days I am busy writing short stories that will be based on characters in eastern U.P.

But why eastern U.P. as a backdrop?

That is where my maternal forefathers lived and worked. My great-great-grandfather was an opium agent and my great-grandfather a trader. However, he became a civil servant after 1857. My father-in-law was an Indigo grower but we can’t be sure exactly where: either in eastern UP or Bihar. My first book of fiction The Heart of India, published in 1995, was a collection of short stories with U.P. as their setting. It seems that I have a natural empathy with eastern U.P. that was once the home of my maternal forefathers; perhaps I feel comfortable delineating characters in such surroundings.

Have you given the collection a title? When will it be published?

I have not yet thought of a title. It will be a collection of 10 short stories and hopefully will be out as soon as a publisher is finalised.

Tell us about your childhood years in India.

I had a secluded upbringing. For the first five years, there was a stern English Nanny who became my matron-mother-mentor all rolled into one. Playing with children of the natives was a strict ‘No, No’. I was even forbidden from speaking in Hindi or any regional language since she emphasised that those were the languages of “servants”. In fact, I spent more time with my Nanny than I did with my father or mother.

However, things changed for the better when I was sent to a British boarding school in Darjeeling. Initially, I did not like leaving home. However, I soon adapted and started enjoying it. I was left free to do what I liked. And what I really liked most was to play marbles; my proud possession then was a box full of colourful marbles.

What about your life in England later?

The focus in the British educational system then was to turn students into gentlemen. I regularly and religiously visited the church, unlike many of my contemporaries. I was very good at languages and learned both Latin and Greek. I also studied Theology and History. I nurtured a desire to become a priest.

What stopped you from taking the holy vows?

It so happened that the pub became my favourite rendezvous. I would even entice my fellow-students to accompany me. Incidentally, I also enjoyed the company of women. On serious reflection, I decided that the Church was not the right calling for me and the Church authorities too readily concurred.

How did you become a journalist?

I wanted to be a journalist but could not get an immediate opening. I took up a job with the BBC in London in its human resource division. However, my heart lay in news reporting. I bided my time until I found an opening of sorts in the news section. Finally, my dream was fulfilled when I became the bureau chief in New Delhi. Those 25 years were some of the most productive and satisfying years of my life. Those were the most momentous years in post-independence history, and I have had the privilege of having a bird’s eye view of all those events.

Of the many historic events you covered, which moved you the most?

The Bhopal gas tragedy was emotionally most upsetting because it was not a natural calamity but a man-made disaster. It showed the seamy side of the business world. Human lives were less important to many people than their political and commercial interests.

The other was the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That saddened me a great deal. Unfortunately, at that time, I was in Mussoorie with Princess Anne who was visiting the Tibetan school there. The Ayodhya tragedy too brought me much grief since it was contrary to the secular spirit and ethos that India had stood for.

What about your ordeal during the Emergency?

That was the darkest period in the annals of Indian parliamentary democracy and I did not shy away from calling a spade a spade. I was about to be arrested but providentially escaped. The provocation was a canard that the BBC had reported the resignation of Jagjivan Ram, which in reality we had not.

But it was not the end of my ordeal. I was deported to England since the establishment thought that it was the best way to get rid of me. However, unfortunately, this move boomeranged. With all my sources in India intact and in clandestine touch with me, I started reporting on the “goings on” in India. The result was that the whole of India tuned in, then and thereafter, to my radio’s broadcasts, ‘The Voice of India’, to hear what they thought was the ‘accurate’ coverage of the events. I even sneaked into India under an assumed name. Eventually, and thankfully, the deportation order was withdrawn and I returned to India.

What are your impressions of and experiences with various Prime Ministers of India?

I interviewed Indira Gandhi on numerous occasions but our relationship remained professional. It was only at the end of my last interview with her that she had become informal and asked me to switch off my dictaphone. Then she asked for my frank opinion about what was happening in the country. That was the only time she was warm, friendly and informal.

I was soft on Rajiv Gandhi when he came to power. I genuinely believed that he was trying to change the political system but could not do much in the face of opposition from the entrenched old guard. I also criticised him for his foolish adventure in Sri Lanka. Later when Rajiv was assasinated, I was very sad.

I have known Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a very long time and watched his career growth over the years, and was also fortunate to have interviewed him on many occasions. I also like Manmohan Singh.

I would not like to say that any one was the best. It will be unfair to compare vastly varying situations and times. Each era was different and so were their respective problems. A comparison under such circumstances will not be correct.

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