Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee
Title: Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2017
Mark Tully, like the organization he worked for, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), where he was bureau chief, is almost a household name in India. He straddles two worlds in one, as evident in the present collection of seven short stories, Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India. He is in a sense the outsider looking in. He is also the insider looking out. He’s British, and he represented the BBC for thirty long years, a media organisation both respected and disliked by the Indian establishment for its insightful and, therefore, often embarrassing, reportage. But India is also his chosen land, where he was born and spent his early childhood, and where he continues to live after his bitter parting with the BBC in 1994. He is, to borrow and twist a little from writer-critic UR Ananthamurthy’s definition of arguably a far great person, a ‘critical outsider’ (Mahatma Gandhi is referred to by Ananthamurthy as a ‘critical insider’).
Tully’s early books are documentary tracts. No Full Stops in India (1988), his third work, however, comprises a collection of journalistic essays that mark his interest in the changing contours of an India in the remaking. Upcountry Tales is historically located in exactly that period — the 1980s. His other collection of short stories, The Heart of India, was published way back in 1995. He continued with his interest in getting under the skin of the India experience with titles like India in Slow Motion (2002), written in collaboration with Gillian Wright, his partner. Tully later wrote India’s Unending Journey (2008) and Non-Stop India (2011). These books together gather around them an agglomeration of engaging themes — about an India being churned from within and without, and an outsider/insider trying to decode and disseminate that churning.
With Tully the biggest challenge is location. To understand his stories the reader is inevitably drawn to understanding him. How does he process his stories? Can he draw close enough? In fact, dare he come close enough? Does he pick up a story raw, or does he process it in polite conversation with a fellow traveller in the hallowed portals of some exclusive Delhi club?
All these questions relate to location and become a delicate factor in assessing these stories, sketched as they are from hinterland, Hindi speaking, caste conscious political India. There is a visceral quality about the narration, an underlying layer of earthiness appropriate to stories being told by a son of the soil novelist. And yet it is Sir Mark Tully writing. And that shows too. He was knighted in 2002. But then in 2005 he also received the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award. In case you are in any doubt about his redoubtable India connections, he lets you know in the ‘Introduction’ how he has his hand on India’s pulse, from the durbars in Delhi to the dust bowls of the Indian hinterland. The present volume emerges from Tully’s years spent in India, but not as a “book of portraits of people I had known as a journalist”. Since he had not kept notes, for he “lived by the day, not thinking of the future,” and he was urged to get out that one more book he had within him, he decided to go back to the short story format after a hiatus of twenty years. Tully confesses, “All these stories could, I believe, have occurred in Purvanchal (Eastern Uttar Pradesh),” adding that while most characters are drawn from imagination, one or two are based on actual people he knew. Reading these stories, one is often compelled to disbelieve him, so real many of his heroes and heroines seem.
Tully draws sharp character portraits from the depths of India’s soul, dysfunctional, ridden with internecine conflicts, yet heroic and majestic, never compromising that which defines who they are. The stories get started with Budh Ram, the Dalit, whom “experience has taught he lacked the courage required for politics”. And yet he doggedly perseveres to fulfil his dream of building a temple for his community (up against the domination of higher caste communities in the village). In ‘Murder in Milanpur’, you meet the formidable and incorruptible sub-inspector Prem Lal, clearly dedicated to an idea of decency that fails to otherwise take root within his precincts. It is also a rather dramatic murder mystery, well unfolded. ‘Ploughman’s Lament’ takes Tully closest to his subject. You recognise this when you hear protagonist Tirathpal lament the loss of earlier farming practices to the convenience of the mechanised tractor, “Machines have no feelings, so how can they take pride in their work? My bullocks treat the land gently and take pride in their work. I know that.”
‘The Family Business’, along with ‘The Reluctant Lover’ and ‘The Making of a Monk’ are, unlike the other stories, not strictly rural. They all have a city/ village crossover motif, underscoring perhaps the inevitable links the city was beginning to establish with rural India in the 1980s. This connection had not been without its own fractures and tensions and led to conflicts that are at the heart of the above three stories, especially ‘The Reluctant Lover’. It is a warm story full of good intentions, flecked nevertheless by the inevitability of one world remaining incapable of meeting the other.
My favourite story in the collection is perhaps the quaintest of them all. It is both hilarious and entertaining. You know it’s all made up. You also know the Englishman in Tully is having great fun telling it. And yet, perhaps in fact, therefore, it has all the elements of good drama. A rogue of a politician trying to guard his pecuniary interests by getting the last of the steamengine-harnessed trains off his town’s radar; a do-gooder and her merry band of followers; an Anglo-Indian engine driver with at the helm of an engine named after Emperor Akbar and a good old race to seal the story. Thoroughly enjoyable. And Tully’s finest in the collection, since he’s untrammelled by the need to say any more than he does.
I’ve read and enjoyed Tully’s works over the years, having in fact reviewed some. This particular collection I must confess, I have relished above all others, simply because it has solved for me the question of ‘location’. Honestly, it has. Were you to not know the author’s name, you’d be hard-pressed to guess the stories are written by an Englishman. Of course, the question of insider/outsider remains, but no more than it would for an urban English educated Indian author writing these stories.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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