Sir Mark Tully on his latest book Non-stop India and why he supports India when we play England.

For a brief while, Sir Mark Tully considered affiliation to the Church of England, but he joined the BBC instead. Priesthood’s loss was political journalism’s gain. He moved to Delhi in 1964 as India Correspondent. He was the Chief of Bureau, BBC, New Delhi, for twenty-two years, was knighted in 2002 and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005. His books include No Full Stops in India, The Heart of India and India’s Unending Journey. He opens up about his latest book, Non-stop India; about how he’s sold enough books for one person; and why, when India plays England, he supports India.

The title of the new book, Non-Stop India, resembles the name of your 1991 book, No Full Stops in India. Is the echo intentional?

Yes. The echo is intentional. It’s been twenty years since a big bunch of economic reforms came in, and twenty years since I wrote No Full Stops in India. So part of the purpose of this book – which has been misunderstood by some critics – is to look back and see what’s changed and how it’s affected India. If you read the introduction to the Indian edition, you’ll see that these are the voices of Indians rather than the voice of Mark Tully, which I think is appropriate because I have always believed that the trouble with us journalists is that we start to think we are the story, that it is our story. It is not our story. It is the story of the people we meet. So I wanted to meet people and talk to people, from various strata, who would reflect on what has happened in the last 20 years.

Have your feelings about India changed between these two books, in these 20 years?

No, actually not. In a funny way, No Full Stops in India was criticised by some as trying to drag India back into a golden age which never existed, because it was a plea that India, while making progress, should still be India. I coined a Hindi phrase, saying that what we needed was an “asli Bharat” instead of a “naqli America.” I think that the need is for India to look at itself and say “What is the right way for us to get forward?” rather than the blind following of the way the West is going forward, which I think is happening at the moment. This has never been more important than it is now. I felt that then, and I feel this now.

There’s a chapter, here, about the impact of English on Tamil, which inevitably leads to people saying I’m anti-English, which is not true. But we have to accept the fact that English is, as I describe it here, a “killer language,” and therefore steps have to be taken to make Tamil speakers aware of the fact that they shouldn’t simply bow down to the wave of English. One of the suggestions that basically comes out is that people should be educated in their mother tongue at least up to the sixth standard. We’re not saying that people shouldn’t learn English, but that they should have a good grounding in their mother tongue and treat English as a second language in the early stages. After that, if they want to, they can go on in English.

So is the book a prescription of sorts for your vision of India?

I don’t think it’s a prescription. But there are certain things I hope will come out of this book. One is this question of English. The other thing, which I think is very important, is this whole idea that India must not cruise on under the belief that it is standing on one of those walkways at an airport, gently being carried forward. Another one is that you must improve governance. There’s a lovely phrase in the book that is stolen – though I did get his permission – from an American academic named Lant Pritchett. He has worked in India and he describes India as not a failing but a flailing state. Another thing that I’m tremendously keen on myself is to warn against the idea that you don’t need to bother about the government because the private sector will do it. Again, I’m not against the private sector. But if you exaggerate the role of the private sector or if you give the private sector too free a hand, it’s going to be like what’s happening in private medicine and the private engineering colleges that are coming up now.

I am currently reading a Chetan Bhagat book about private education in the engineering sector, and this is a wonderful illustration of the dangers of uncontrolled private expansion. Another thing that I hope comes out of this book is that the best NGOs are wonderful. I could have written about our corrupt NGOs but one thing I didn’t want is for this book to become a litany of woes. That’s perhaps why I wrote a chapter on the Tatas. For one thing, I didn’t want to give the impression that I’m worried about the private sector untrammeled. And two, Tata is perhaps the most impressive story of how India has changed in terms of business and things, the sort of entrepreneurial genius that was let loose when we had the economic reforms.

Everybody seems to be writing about India these days. Do you think it’s become fashionable, or has the country really changed so much that it demands these multiple narratives?

I think that interest in India has hugely expanded simply because of the way economics dominates – rather over-dominates – this world. I really feel that very strongly. And because we have this story of India going to become the largest or second largest economy by the middle of the century, that has turned attention to India dramatically. That illustrates something I wrote about in another book – and is somewhat of a sub-theme of this book – which is that we always have this danger of going from one extreme to another. For many years, while I was with the BBC, I had the utmost difficulty in convincing anyone that India was not just irredeemably poor and hopeless. Now, as I argue in this book, the thing has swung completely the other way. People are blindly assuming that India will charge ahead, ignoring the many problems that India has to overcome.

With such an impossibly diverse country, whose personality changes every few hundred kilometres, how does a writer capture the spirit of a single-entity nation? How does one capture the spirit of India instead of the spirit of Tamil Nadu, the spirit of Andhra Pradesh, and so on?

That’s a very good point. I have always argued that there is such a thing as Indian-ness. Here I am in Chennai. Last week I was in Cochin and Bangalore. I live in Delhi. Next week I’m going to Mumbai. And in all these places I do find that there is such a thing as Indian-ness. I think that that links the country together and can link writing about the country together. I think it’s a question of getting the balance right – not forgetting the diversity, but not being totally overwhelmed by the diversity.

What is this “Indian-ness” you see everywhere? How would you define it?

There are many different qualities, but one that I mention here is the ability to muddle through, the willingness to muddle through, and the amazing ability to survive crises. Whenever I talk about India in Britain or the West, I always talk about India being like a great big ocean liner which gets knocked around by storms that would capsize smaller boats but somehow rights itself and ploughs on. There is a huge innate stability in this country. And I talk about this in an example in this book, about the pulling down of the mosque in Ayodhya, where I was present at that time. And afterwards I was consistently asked on the BBC and by other people whether this meant that communal harmony has broken down completely and if India was now going to become like Belfast or Cyprus. I said no, for two reasons. One, I’ve lived long enough in this country to believe that religious pluralism is part of its genes. And two, I’ve seen that crises explode very suddenly, then go down again and life goes back to normal quite quickly. If you, as I argue in this book, look at the Ayodhya issue now, the BJP isn’t even going to raise it in their campaign in UP. This religious pluralism, the ability to live with diversity, I would say, is very much a part of Indian-ness. That’s why I hope that my fears for the best of Indian culture surviving will not be proved right. India does have this tremendous ability to be like a reed in a storm. It will bend but not break. It will come back up again.

As with any long-term journalist, your tenure as BBC’s India Correspondent is something of a Forrest Gumpian sprint through landmark events like the Emergency, the Bhopal gas tragedy, Indira Gandhi‘s assassination, the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Was there any single event that shook you to the core, more than the others?

I think, to be honest, the one that shook me the core was the Bhopal gas disaster. Because it was a man-made disaster. There were two things about it that particularly shocked me. One was the politics behind it. If the government had done its job and had kept the area surrounding the factory open – as it was meant to do according to the master plan – and not allowed jhuggi-jhopdis to come up right opposite the factory, then the extent of the disaster would have been far less. Because the disaster really hit the jhuggi-jhopdis right opposite it. The government allowed the jhuggi-jhopdis to get votes from the people. And one of the saddest things was to see – if you remember, it was not far away from the election – the flags of parties flying from the tops of these jhuggi-jhopdis. In the lanes in which they were still standing there were dead bodies, dead animals, and huddled inside the jhuggi-jhopdis were these people coughing, barely able to breathe, not knowing how to get out and go and get help. And in the hospital beyond, there were patients lying on the lawns because there weren’t rooms for them. A large number of them came from these jhuggi-jhopdis. If politicians hadn’t put votes before these people’s safety, the disaster would have been far less.

Another thing that was absolutely shocking was Union Carbide’s response to the disaster. Leave aside the whole question of their culpability, whatever their culpability was in the disaster happening, they gave absolutely no assistance to the medical teams. They knew perfectly well what the gas was. If they were a responsible company as they claimed, they should have had the foresight that if this gas was produced, such-and-such will be the poison and such-and-such will be the antidote for that poison. And when we as journalists tried to extract from them some information, we got none at all – except, they denied it was cyanide. And in the end I think I’m right in saying cyanide was a part of it. And of course the last thing was that it was a man-made disaster. It represented, in some senses, the worst aspects of modern capitalism. Profit came above everything else.

How has your long tenure as a broadcaster shaped you as a writer? They are both forms of journalism, but we’re essentially talking about entirely different skill sets.

I regard myself primarily as a broadcaster. My first love is radio. I’m passionate about radio. Only last week I was in Bangalore talking to media students, and I spent most of the time telling them to take radio seriously. When I first wrote a book, I remember standing in a pub in London and saying to someone “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.” Because after every 250 words or so, I’d end up typing “Mark Tully, BBC, Delhi.” I was so used to doing radio news dispatches. So to be absolutely honest, I am a bit lost in book writing sometimes, and I do depend, very heavily on one or two people – my wonderful editors, and my partner Gilly – to read what I write and tell me if I’ve completely lost the plot or gone off too much at an angle. By nature, I am a radio broadcaster before I am a book writer.

You are still on air with the BBC Radio 4 programme Something Understood, which feels like the work of a man who still thinks about what it might have been like had he become a priest.

It’s a funny thing. When you tell people you nearly became a priest but gave it up, they automatically think that you thought “Oh this is a very stupid thing to do and I’ve grown out of that” and all that. Well, I haven’t. I love the Church of England very deeply. I go to church quite regularly. I haven’t lived a regular Christian life. I nearly lost it all in the middle years of my life. But yes, I am deeply interested in religion, in all religions, and one of my fascinations in India is the multi-religious nature of India. One of the books I wrote – India’s Unending Journey – has a lot about this in it. So yes, Something Understood does reflect my religious interests, but it’s not a programme dedicated to religion. It’s not a sectarian programme, or one with a missionary emphasis. One of the best ways to illustrate it is that “something understood” is the last line of a poem on prayer by George Herbert. I think what he’s saying is that prayer is really about understanding something, but by no means everything, about God. So the programme is really about taking subjects and showing that we can’t understand everything, but we can understand something. Some of the topics are directly spiritual. But a few weeks ago it was about how education changes people’s lives. We’ve done it for 15 years and so far the BBC has been happy.

The Heart of India is your only work of fiction, and it flowed from your journalistic experiences around the country. Have you felt like writing a completely un-Indian piece of fiction?

No. But I have thought about writing historic fiction about India which is slightly autobiographical because my father was a businessman in India and I was brought up, for the first nine years of my life, in Darjeeling and in Calcutta. I think the business community of the British Raj is one which has been least portrayed, in fiction and in history as well. And it was an interesting community. I’ve occasionally thought of writing a book that would be the disguised story of my father. But to be absolutely honest – and it’s a terrible thing to admit – publishers say to me “Why don’t you write a book?” and I get led by the nose by them rather than I deciding what to do. One of the things I’ve thought of doing is that if I write another book – and I’m not certain that I will – I will write it because I wanted to write it, and if I couldn’t sell it, well, I’ve sold enough books for one person.

I suppose you get asked this a lot, but when it comes to India, do you consider yourself an outsider looking in or an insider capable of seeing things from a distance?

First of all, I think of myself as Mark Tully. I think of myself – if at all I’m entitled to think of myself beyond that – as, in some ways, a citizen of two cultures. I have spent well over half my life in this country and I am deeply interested in this country. But by blood I am English. The most influential part of my life was spent in England – the 20 years from the age of 10 to 30. I was educated in an English university. I went to the British Army and all that. So I would say I can never lose my Britishness. It would be stupid to try to do so, and I don’t even want to. But I have been deeply influenced by India in all my thought and in a sense I am dedicated to this country. I certainly feel very passionate about it. I don’t like to use the word ‘love’. I think that it’s a misused word. But I can, in all honesty say, that when India play England, I support India.

If not Delhi, where would you like to live in India? Which place says “home” to you?

That’s a very good question. You see, I’ve always hoped and believed that eventually I’d move out of Delhi and go and live in the countryside somewhere. I spent a large amount of my childhood in lovely places. My first school was in Darjeeling. My schools in England were in lovely places. My parents bought a home in the countryside. But my adult life has been spent entirely in cities. So I’ve always hoped it would be a sort of vanvas and I can go and live in the countryside. But the trouble is that I seem to keep on working, and Delhi is the best place for me to do this sort of job from. I have lots of friends in Delhi. I am part of the Delhi scene. And it would be disloyal to the city I’ve lived in for forty years to say I don’t like it. But if I had a chance to get out of the city, I would love it. If I had to choose an alternative city, I would go back home to Calcutta, probably. I have a huge affection for Calcutta.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012