Correspondents of Western news organisations posted in India usually treat it as a soft assignment. There is much to report by way of colour, exotica and, the staple of all journalists, catastrophe. Large numbers of people are always dying in the most newsworthy ways – train accidents, floods and occasionally even gas leaks. The vast sub-continent always seems to be in the throes of a turmoil: ethnic strife, caste and religious riots and political assassinations are routine. Terrorism has become so commonplace that the Delhi-based hacks don’t even bother to fly up to Punjab any more. Then there is the lifestyle. The dollar goes a very long way here and a foreign correspondent’s salary gets him not only a large bungalow but also a retinue of servants for the memsahib. The natives speak or at least understand English and are hospitable and friendly. The infrastructure is creaky but what the hell, you can’t have everything. It’s great for a three-year stint.
I have known and worked with many foreign correspondents based in Delhi. They always seem to be serving time, waiting for the bigger and more prestigious posting. One or two made a genuine attempt to learn at least one of the scores of languages spoken in India, usually Hindi, but these were the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, they whined about the stubborn Indian bureaucracy and the lousy service provided by the domestic airline. The Americans stuck to their ghetto, made up mainly of diplomats, which gave them access to the essentials from back home – breakfast cereals and Coca Cola among them. I remember the wife of the correspondent of a well-known news magazine who had brought with her a three-month supply of toilet paper because she had been told it was not available in India. The ignorance does not stop there. Western newspapers are for ever writing obituaries of Indian democracy, the latest such occasion being the assassination of Rajiv.
Mark Tully, the BBC’s man in India, is completely different from his peers. For one thing, he has been there for a long, long time: he came out in 1972 and has stayed on, except for a short while when the Indian Government asked him to leave during the notorious Emergency of 1975. He speaks fluent Hindi and is at home in Indian clothes – indeed, he has been known to complain about having to wear a suit. In his two decades in Delhi, Tully Saheb has become a virtual tourist landmark; his house-cum-office is constantly invaded by hordes of BBC journalists and television crews, to say nothing of friends of friends.
Many of his colleagues think Tully has gone native, but in spite of having served for far longer than any other BBC correspondent in one posting, he cannot be transferred. Not only Tully himself, but the millions of BBC listeners in India. Pakistan and Bangladesh would protest: he is a familiar name and voice, and if the Beeb enjoys tremendous credibility and clout in the region it is because of ‘Matully’, as he has come to be known. A journalist from one of the quality British papers once told me that everywhere he went in rural Pakistan and northern India he was asked if he was Matully and everyone appeared disappointed that he was not.
Tully’s reputation has been hard-earned. In these two decades of reporting, he has made every attempt to come to grips with India, trying to go beyond the outlook which constrains not only foreign correspondents and academics but also the Westernised Indian élite. India for him is not only its politics, its appalling poverty, its cultural diversity and its obvious shortcomings. He has tried to look at the story from the point of view of those most affected, whether it be riot victims or voters.
His latest book has ten stories – parables, he calls them – which describe the lives of Indians who never make it into the headlines or into the consciousness of the small ruling élite. Most of the characters in the book seem condemned to a life spent working to ensure that the élite can maintain their lifestyle. His first story is about his own domestic servant, Chandre, who belongs to a very low caste, and follows his return to his village to get his daughter married, with Tully in attendance. Tully’s account is full of wry humour at his own predicament, his sense of imposing himself on a tightly knit community. Chandre is full of pride that his master from the big city has chosen to attend his daughter’s wedding.
Tully has very little time for the élite – especially the English-speaking, Westernised section which exercises an influence totally out of proportion to its numbers. The Indian élite displays characteristics common to their counterparts in many former British colonies: they are insular and insulated, incestuous, smug, contemptuous of the masses. They protect and nurture their own, and profess egalitarianism while practising their own pernicious caste system. It is the author’s thesis that their over-reliance on Western ideas and prescriptions has eroded the Indian ethos and pretty much ruined the country.
Tully believes that ‘India’s élite have never recovered from their colonial hangover,’ and that they ‘have not developed the ideology, the attitudes and the institutions which would change the poor from subjects to partners in the government of India. Democracy has failed because the people the poor have elected have ruled – not represented – them,’ He goes on: ‘If all that were wrong with India were a particularly bad hangover from the Raj, there might well be room for optimism. After all, even the worst hangover evaporates eventually, and in the twenty-five years I have known the country I have seen many of the more obvious relics of colonial rule disappear. India is no longer a land dominated by brown sahibs imitating the ways of the white sahibs who used to rule them. But India is still a land dominated by foreign thinking and I would suggest that that thinking is just as alien as the brown sahibs.’ Tully therefore sets out to discover the real India, far away from the growing materialism of the big cities and from the impeccably maintained clubs – relics of the Raj which have now been taken over by bureaucrats and corporate types, who look on the rest of the country as the faceless masses who need governance or as a huge market for Western-style consumer goods.
He bitterly attacks the West for imposing its own language and culture on an India where a supplicant élite gratefully accepted everything. One of the stories, ‘The New Colonialism’, opens with a British Council-sponsored cultural exchange, whereby an English sculptor, Stephen Cox, is sent to work with his Indian counterparts for three months. ‘Cultural exchanges are one of the more subtle ways of imposing cultural imperialism,’ writes Tully. ‘They create the impression that we respect Indian culture, while at the same time giving us the opportunity to exhibit our own superiority, or what we believe is our own superiority.’
Tully is equally critical of the Christian Church, which has wielded tremendous influence in India in all its various denominations. Both the Catholic and the Anglican clergy have served only the élite, even pandering to the Hindu caste system, which has survived every kind of legislation to outlaw it. While describing the travails of a small community of Christian Dalits – the lowest caste, which turned to Christianity en masse in order to escape the tyranny of upper-caste Hindus – Tully really comes into his own. His reporting is impeccable, his eye has the sharpness that can come only with years of observation. Tully attends a meeting where a young leader, Paul, tries to infuse a sense of dignity and self-esteem among his community: Paul ‘asked the young men to stand up one by one and say who they were. One said “a Harijan”. Another: “A scheduled caste – that is, I come from a depressed community.” And one even said: “I am an untouchable.” Paul told them: “All those are labels. You must not accept them. They have been given to you by Brahmins and they mean, You are my servant, you are not my equal.” ’
Tully has no respect for trendy progressives who rubbish Indian traditions without understanding them. In the last three years, two events particularly incensed the Westernised urban élite. One was a nationally telecast serial based on the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana. Every Sunday for almost two years the entire nation virtually came to a halt in order to watch the next episode of a story which every Indian child knows by heart and which is about the triumph of Lord Ram, the perfect man, over King Ravana. The series was almost unanimously panned by the critics, especially in the English papers, as not only kitsch in the style of Hindi cinema but also as promoting reactionary values like the subservience of women. The second incident was far more serious. A young widow was said to have burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband and while her in-laws claimed she had committed sati, feminists screamed murder. Sati is legally banned but a few acts are known to have taken place. This incident became a cause célébre.
Both stories find their way into Mark Tully’s book and in both cases he reaches the same conclusion: the Indian élite chose to condemn without any appreciation of context or milieu. His reporting of the sati episode even suggests that he is not necessarily against the practice. Tully seems to have got carried away in these two instances. It was a matter of controversy whether or not the widow’s sacrifice was voluntary, whether or not she was drugged by her in-laws and killed, and the sati shocked a number of people who were not necessarily bleeding-heart liberals. Meanwhile the maker of Ramayana was not indulging in an intellectual exercise or promoting lasting values but clearly had his eye on the main chance. Moreover, it was a very badly-made serial.
India has witnessed a dramatic rise in Hindu fundamentalism, fanned by political parties looking for a vote bank. But the militancy of the Hindus has a lot to do with growing consumerism and with the emergence of a nouveau riche middle class which, having made a lot of money very quickly, now wants to discover its roots. Ramayana succeeded not merely because it was a gripping yarn but also because it evoked a spurious cultural pride in this lumpenbourgeoisie. It is no coincidence that the airing of the Ramayana coincided with the electoral successes of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Far Right political organisation which had been on the periphery of Indian politics all along. To dismiss all criticism of the Ramayana out of hand smacks of glibness.
The writer wears his disdain for modernity on his sleeve: plastic footwear in the villages is ‘nasty’, and development works are undermining the traditional ways of life of tribals. He seems to be afflicted with the same disease as many Indians who, having reaped every comfort modernity has to offer, now want to keep villagers living in exactly the same way as they have for thousands of years. They have a romantic notion of an ideal pastoral existence, and if that’s not élitism, what is? Village life in India is very cruel and while it is true that a lot of government-sponsored development work has been wasted, and has been ham-fisted in its execution, it has brought benefits in the shape of health care, education and minimum wages.