‘Mark’ this one: Tales of the Earth
Author- Mark Tully
Publisher- Speaking Tiger, Rs 599
The Tully point of view is clear as he is an insider, but also has unbiased perspective of the outsider, writes SANYA DANG
We all know Mark Tully more for his BBC coverage of Indian politics than for the books he has written. His origins may be British but he is a true Indian at heart. With every book he writes , he proves his ‘Indianness’ and understanding of India even more. Especially with his latest collection of short stories where he goes back to the Hindi heartland, ‘Purvanchal’ as he calls it.
The title and the subtitle give us a clue of the background and setting of his stories. The cover gives you a glimpse into the everyday life in a rural area — a makeshift brick structure where a barber is giving his customer a haircut and the customer is looking at a Congress party poster with Rajiv Gandhi’s photograph. The tales are set in pre-liberalisation India, during the second half of the 1980s. The blurb refers to Tully’s reputation as a celebrated observer of Indian politics and society and a master of the short story.
The genre of the short story is also interesting — it not only gives us a sneak peak into the life of villagers, their difficulties but also makes these observations more impressionable and impactful. Tully is venting his frustration here regarding the issues that still plague the Indian political system — those of corruption at every level, bad or poor governance, rigidity of the caste system post partition, lack of basic facilities of sanitation, education and job opportunities. According to him, the angst of the middle class is widely written about but nobody expresses what the downtrodden masses feel.
This latest collection is a follow up of the previously published book of short stories — ‘The Heart of India’. Even the title seems a reworking of the previous one, also reminding us of The Heart of Darkness. Thankfully, Tully’s criticism hints at the follies of the system , not at ‘The Horror! The Horror!’ as in Joseph Conrad’s magnum opus. The tone is light yet the message is clear, the cynicism on spot and the sympathy and empathy with the grieved side.
Apart from seven brilliant tales — covering themes of caste oppression, failure of religious ideas, victory of the good over the corrupt, a model policeman, great sacrifice, an undeserving heir and a farmer who doesn’t want to embrace modernity — there is also an extremely well written introduction. An introduction is usually a part of academic literature and translations which forms the backbone of the reading material, also guiding us how to read and analyse what we read. Tully uses it to the same effect, explaining how he chooses to write historical stories set in recent times, how absolutely no improvements have been made regarding economic inequality and institutional decay. He also explains why he chose Purvanchal, the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh, his ancestral connect with the state where his previous generations lived. He mentions his relationship with prominent personalities and conversations with Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Rajiv Gandhi. His interviews with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia ul Haq are described to give us an idea of his political leanings. He describes his meetings with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness Dalai Lama, the red-tape riddled license-permit raj, Narasimha Rao’s radical reforms; all of which form a sound backdrop to his tales set in the villages.
The tales cover diverse issues — both personal and political, showing the contrasts between village and city life, schooling, attitudes and mentality. Life for the people who live below poverty line is already tough, but the systems of governance don't make it any easier. Same goes for the dalits, who are still marginalised and kept away from the benefits that the government has constitutionalised for them. These stories show us the real picture, a different angle, a fresh perspective, a bird’s eye view of the insider-outsider that Tully really is.
“Murder in Milanpur” is an interesting story with a policemen who really wants to solve the case to prevent the innocent from being imprisoned, despite political pressure from his seniors ordering him not to get involved. These kind of characters instill hope in the reader — that good people still live amongst us and try their best to follow the right path.
“The Family Business” shows how political genes cannot always be inherited even if the seat can be passed on from father to son, how a foreign degree (even if it is in Development Studies) cannot work in the practical world of grassroot politics.
In “The Reluctant Lover”, we are shown the vast differences between city and village upbringing , education, mannerisms; how these gaps cannot be bridged even by the most potent force of all — love.
“The Making of a Monk” forces you to think about God, religion, worldly suffering while “The Battle for a Temple” shows you how Dalits suffer at the hands of the higher castes. “The Ploughman’s Lament” shows how hard it is for some farmers to get accustomed to the modern methods of farming while “Slow Train to Santnagar” proves how good manages to triumph over evil many a times.
Tully goes to the root of the problem that lies at the bottom of various hierarchies, governance and other agencies and also helps you locate it through a very simplistic way of looking.
The writing is simple, easy to read and understand, the underlying wit enjoyable and the message lucid as the day. You will feel for the characters, understand their lives and motivations. A good read for the lay readers and the avid readers, old and young,the political and the apolitical.
The reviewer is a teacher byprofession and a writer by passion
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