Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mark Tully and India

This is the last of an informal four-part series on India to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. The other three are "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose", on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and "The art of oratory, and the great speeches of modern India".

India can be a foreign correspondent's nightmare, very hard to get in its entirety even to those wholly committed to the search. The intense and irreplicable peculiarity of India - the residual presence of outdated modes of behaviour and thought from the days of the Raj, or the widely divergent experience of daily life along lines of caste and particularly gender, to take just two examples of how both the near and distant past continue to work on the present - is of course hard to miss for anybody except those totally habituated to it, but it can nevertheless perplex the intellect seeking to break it down into its constituent elements.

From this perspective, the books of Mark Tully are an especially noteworthy contribution to the literature on modern India. Indeed, because he has now spent the best part of four decades in close engagement with the country, because his travels as the BBC's Chief of Bureau have brought him in contact with all kinds of places and people, and because he is part-insider, part-outsider in a productive way, Tully is probably better tuned into India than most Indians, with their limited access to the great sprawl of their own country and its past.

Tully's latest book and perhaps last book on his adopted country, India's Unending Journey, is a work both off and on the beaten track. This is because, after a series of highly agile, capacious and erudite books about contemporary India, hospitable to all kinds of viewpoints, Tully has in closing written a volume that resembles the traditional "India's message to the world" book customarily written by well-meaning visitors.

In part this is because India's Unending Journey - there is something cliched about the title itself - is the most autobiographical of Tully's books, as also the most polemical. The balance between observed detail and overarching argument is different from that of Tully's previous books, and the writing is more clearly addressed to the western reader. Tully makes a critique of aspects of western life though the lens of India, and thus addresses two constituencies at one go. In some ways he flatters his adopted home at the expense of the civilization in which he grew up. Although Tully knows that India itself, with its manifold problems, has yet to find any kind of balance, the argument he extracts from the experience of "forty years of living in India" is how the West itself is now unbalanced, unquestioningly secular and meanly materialist.

In his youth Tully briefly trained to be a priest in the Church of England, and if anything the autobiographical tone of his new book explains why the question of religion, and the place of religion in an increasingly secular climate on the one hand and a radically shrunken world where previously hostile faiths are forced to co-exist on the other, lies at the heart of his work on India. For in India not only is it taken for granted that you believe in God (as a Goan priest tells Tully), in a way that is no longer so in Europe, but also the other, the stranger, is always in one's field of vision, forcing upon every citizen the imperative of co-existence.

It was in India, writes Tully, that he refined his understanding of religion and came to believe "that a universal God made far more sense rationally than one who limits his activities to Christians", which is the sense of exclusivity, of chosenness, that his upbringing and later his abortive training as a priest taught him and which is shared by dedicated believers of the three great monotheisms. This explains his position on two dominant strands of contemporary Indian thought: he feels equally distant from "a secularism which seems to respect no religion, and a nationalism which carries with it the danger of only respecting one". The view that "any cause that is not secular is illiberal, seems to be illiberal itself," he remarks (not surprisingly some of his critics in India have accused him of being a BJP sympathiser). The religiosity of Indians is clearly congenial to Tully's temperament (while in the west "Mammon is triumphant and God on the retreat"), as is the openness and syncretism of Hinduism, even if it has recently taken on a militant aspect.

For instance, in a beautiful essay called "Altered Altars" in his previous book, India In Slow Motion, Tully sets out with his partner, Gillian Wright, (best known to Indian readers as the translator of Shrilal Shukla's comic novel Raag Darbari), to investigate Goan Christianity four decades after the departure of the proselytising Portuguese. Under the Portuguese, Goa "was the headquarters of the mission to convert the Orient, and was often described as the Rome of the East". But on his visit Tully finds churchgoing tinted with all kinds of borrowings from Hinduism; social life has managed to liberalise doctrine. Where representatives of the Vatican once promoted a spirit of exclusivity, priests are now preoccupied with the necessity of making their church "an Indian church".

Tully attends different services around the state, and reports on the particularities of each one. Among the ways in which worship has taken on an Indian face, he notes, is in the relationship between believers and God. While the Portuguese had wanted to impress the Indians with the awesome majesty of "a God who lived on high", now typically the priest "became one with his parishioners worshipping a personal God, more a friend than a king". Tully confesses he is uncomfortable with these altered altars - "I came from the old tradition...I found it easier to worship God in majesty, rather than God the social worker who battles for the poor, or God the personal pal of the charismatics."

But everywhere in this essay and others in the book - on the history of the Sufi faith, on farmers's problems in Karnataka, on cyber-governance in Hyderabad, on the reinvention of Rama by the BJP - there is evidence of Tully's talent for what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description". Although the title India In Slow Motion is primarily a reference to the "peculiarly Indian form of bad governance" that has immiserated Indian people and retarded economic growth, it might also be understood as a metaphor for the writer's painstaking methods.

Tully's warming belief in his adopted country, or more precisely the best of what it has to offer, leads him to overestimate India. For instance, in India's Unending Journey he contrasts "our Western habit of seeing issues in black and white" with the Indian belief in balance and reconciliation. "If there is one thing I have learnt from India," he writes, reprising a hoary platitude, "it is to appreciate how little in life is totally black, or indeed, purely white."

This radically exaggerates the gap between western and Indian civilization. "Balance" may be an avowed ideal in India but it is clearly not a reality, and the secular temper of the West that Tully criticises often facilitates a reasoned discussion of issues without the shrillness, misplaced sense of superiority, and contempt for the rule of law that marks the contribution of aggressively religious organisations or people to Indian debates. It is hard to resist the suspicion that it is Tully's impatience with the west that makes him overturn the dominant paradigm. For even if Tully has learnt to appreciate from India how little in life is purely black or white, it can safely be said that there are millions of Indian people who themselves show no sign of having learnt this from their country, and whose faith, whose sense of their history, and attitudes towards their wider society constrict rather than enlarge their lives - which is the emphasis, for example, of VS Naipaul, the titles of whose works on India or Indian characters include the words "area of darkness", "wounded", and "half a life". Reading Tully, conversely, one might feel it is western civilization that has become an area of darkness. I don't think that day has come just yet.

We end, then, with two paradoxes. One is that Tully, by dint of his decades of travel and exceptional learning, has a more sophisticated sense of India and its past than many Indians, who cleave to exclusive and partial views of it. But two: because of its insistence on distilling the meanings of Indian civilization into simple assertions that don't hold up for very long, India's Unending Journey actually waters down a perspective on Indian life that is strongly made, even if never explicitly stated, by Tully's other distinguished books.

And here are two essays by Tully, "My unending journey through India" and "Still in slow motion".


Hari said...

Great review, Chandrahas – I enjoyed reading this very much.

Tully’s tendency towards “simple assertions” of the meanings of Indian civilization seem to apply – though I judge this only from reading your essay, not his book – the other way as well. For the West too of course, to state a cliché, is infinitely more varied than just being materialist, aggressively secular or arrogantly Christian. I say this from my experience in United States where I’ve met people who inhabit these extremes, but also people whose attitudes and beliefs confound such generalizations.

Undoubtedly, there is such a thing as Western civilization, as there is an Indian one. But I’ve felt on many occasions that these broad categories – not just Indian or Western, but others too – blend into one another: what one tradition says, another seems to say too, just differently, or with a different intensity. But it isn’t easy to claim a sort universal culture either: that is too simplistic, even dangerous. The resulting ambiguity seems to make things very difficult. Perhaps this is what many writers set out to explain in their books.

Anonymous said...

you must be familiar with gandhis retort on western civilisation - 'its a good idea.' I guess Tully has begun to feel the same way.