July 28, 2020
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Finding The Centre

Tully makes another bravura attempt to locate the heart of India

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Finding The Centre
The Heart Of India
By Mark Tully
Viking: Penguin India TARUN J. TEJPAL
CONVERSATION dips in the smoke wafted living room, and from the debris of Anglo-Saxon syllables abruptly floats out a rhythmic chant: Jai jai Hanuman gosain, Kripa karo gurdev ki nain. It is surreal in the dinner party setting; and it is a bravura performance. The lengthy Hunuman Chalisa, invoker of courage, talisman of millions against ghosts, ghouls, and all manner of natural and supernatural fear, is spooled out with a vedic fluidity. The quaintness of the rendering accent, the incongruity of the setting, nothing surprises. The party does not break its meandering stride to cluster around the voice. It's only Mark Tully, reaffirming his passion for India, especially for those aspects of its antiquity which most of the others in the room have been steadily working to shed. For many, it's Tully's party act, and at a level it probably is. But even as an act, it's a revealing pointer to what Tully would like to be seen as: an Englishman who knows and loves the heart of India.

It is this knowledge, of who Mark Tully is, that is the key to approaching his new book. In other words, the text assumes significance mainly because of the author's persona. Like his last book, No Full Stops in India, this one too tries to locate the truth of 'real' India through the stories of ordinary lives. These are the real India lives that most Indians either take for granted, or ignore because they lack any frisson of excitement (which they clearly possess for Tully). But unlike his last book, this one does not consist of stories close to the Tully household (bearer Ram Chander, and so on). This time, like the good reporter he is, Tully goes out hunting for his stories, researches what he finds, and then alchemizes it into fiction. The result is a curious array of essentially village stories: plainly written, but engaging, and not wholly without revelatory moments even for Indian readers.

The stories in this collection do in a sense come from the heart of India. That is, they are all set in Uttar Pradesh. Several of them play on stereotypes, but as Tully painstakingly works through his characters' lives he manages to animate them interestingly. There is the story of the village schoolmaster's daughter who goes to study at the Banaras Hindu University, and there befriended by a convent-educated Calcuttan, is prodded into discovering the forbidden terrain of male, friendship. Led to believe that the modern temper demands romance and not arranged marriage, she takes the plunge, suffers, and finally finds solace in the warm embrace of tradition. And she is not the only one who finds sustenance in going back to her roots. There is frustrated, cynical Ramadhar Upadhyaya, an IAS officer sick of the tinsel quality of his life who suddenly finds a measure of equanimity in the therapeutic routines of ritual when he visits his ageing father in the village.

Tully's prejudices are clear. He plumps for tradition, and is sceptical of change, especially as dictated by western winds. And so he laments the eclipse of Mohammed Islam, the ikkawallah, whose livelihood is being throttled by the dvent of motorised transport. Yet all is 1 not monochromatic and mawkishly sen-8 timental. There are some fine stories that bring out the incredibly complex nature of the characters Tully is writing about. The best of them is 'Blood for Blood' in which a master-serf feud becomes, in the face of changing values and vanishing certitudes, a bizarre ride through our psychological underbelly. The most impressive thing about the book is the homework Tully has done to get his facts right: castes, village relation- ships, rural rhythms. The most boring perhaps is the writing style: plain, unembellished, the delivery of a radio journalist used to having his words heard and not read. And as always the most endearing is the reiteration that Tully's heart is in the right place, and it belongs in India.

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