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Coming full circle on India

Just over two decades ago, Mark Tully found India stuck preponderantly at a semicolon. And the author has gone back to reporting on the various Indias behind the headlines, writes Amitava Sanyal.

books Updated: Jan 13, 2012 17:44 IST

Non-Stop India

Mark Tully

allen lane

Rs.499 pp 256

Just over two decades ago, Mark Tully found India stuck preponderantly at a semicolon. Various efforts at eradicating poverty had fallen far short of target. The licence-permit raj still throttled enterprise. Yet, the lust for a better after-life remained a potent personal propellant in the world’s most populous democracy. Such a tangle inspired Tully, then chief of BBC’s Delhi bureau to a memorable metaphor: “They (the Western world and the Indian elite) want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops.”

Tully’s latest book, Non-Stop India, finds the country at a different crossroads. Twenty years ago, without much economic pull or diplomatic push, India didn’t “count in the capitals of the West”, reckoned Tully. Since then the blessings of economic liberalisation and the information technology revolution, the rise of regional politics and the Hindu right, and a substantially enhanced strategic heft have ensured many more headlines on the country. And Tully has gone back to reporting on the various Indias behind the headlines.

If he worried earlier about India’s despairing poverty, he worries more this time about the cause for its continuance — bad governance. He devotes a chapter to how emerging multinational companies such as those from the Tata Group are managing growth in such a scenario. In the chapter ‘Entrepreneurship unleashed’, Tata Sons director R Gopalakrishnan explains that the shy group chairman Ratan Tata was driven into the hands of a lobbyist like Niira Radia out of “frustration” at “oligarchs”.

Tully wrote earlier on the churn between Hindu determinism at the Allahabad Kumbh and Communist self-assurance in Calcutta. This time he dwells on Naxalism in Jharkhand and casteism in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Not all the observations are given out in rounded-off notes; some of it comes in loose change too. Utterances from politician Akbar ‘Dumpy’ Ahmed’s dump of a mouth are often reported verbatim. While tracing the rise of religious television channels, Tully spots an amusing ‘prescription’ given out by yoga guru Ram Dev: “Twice loudly laugh and 700 smiles a day.”

The subject Tully strides back to purposefully is India’s post-colonial relationship with the English language. He allows the ironic provocation that English could be ‘killing’ Indian languages. But he blames the problem partly — and correctly — on the lack of pride in Indian languages shown by those he had earlier labelled “the still colonised elite of India”.

There are hardly any epiphanies. But there’s much to glean from Tully’s observations as an empathetic Indian, some of which may slip by even the most experienced of reporters. Travelling through Bihar, he lets us in on a lesser-known change brought in by chief minister Nitish Kumar’s bureaucratic shake-up: the bribes are apparently higher, but unlike in the past “the work gets done”. From Arunachal Pradesh, he brings the early warning that the brashness behind the dam-building spree there could foment violence.

The writing goes down like the rice beer of Arunachal, sipping which Tully lapses into one of the lovely little diversions in the book: a courtyard kerfuffle between a dog, a cat, a mynah and a pig. Such clearings in the prose help the reader lope between thickets of reportage. But given that some typos from the author’s 1991 book (also published by Penguin) haven’t been corrected even in the 41st reprint, there may not be much hope for setting right such minor quibbles in this one. That shouldn’t stop you from getting to Tully’s India, which is clamouring for attention even as you read this.

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