Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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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.

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Cover illustration for the London edition of Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote

In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.

Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was  a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a  ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini  one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.