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Mutter India

India, according to Sir Mark, could jolly well lose its soul to the agents of Westernisation, opines Soutik Biswas.

india Updated: Jun 11, 2007 19:00 IST
Soutik Biswas
Soutik Biswas
Hindustan Times

India’s Unending Journey: Finding Balance In a Time of Change
Mark Tully
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 278
Price: Rs 450

Mark Tully in India’s Unending Journey, says 40 years of living in India — half spent as BBC’s correspondent — have
taught him to value humility, avoid thinking in black and white, to be suspicious of certainty, to search for the middle road and to “acknowledge that there are many ways to God”.

For a man who once planned on becoming a priest, Tully turns a contemplative gaze on India’s possible spiritual core to alter its many modern dangers and doubts. He is almost forgiving of the country’s many foibles, and places faith in Hinduism as a spiritual glue that will hold the country together. At the same time, he does doubt how India’s predominant religion and way of life will cope with modernism and materialism.

Tully’s caveat comes early — “ is not my intention to offer startling religious or philosophical revelations, new directions or full stops to old ways; there will be no green or red lights, but several ambers — perhaps not much more than warnings”. For example, he is worried that India is “in danger of ignoring its own traditions and rushing headlong into the adoption of western culture”.

He quotes an Oxford scholar who feels that with the “spread of western education right down to the lowest strata of the society and progressive industrialisation of the country, the whole religious structure of Hinduism will be subjected to a severe strain”. The scholar, however, says given the religion’s “genius for absorption and adaption, it would be foolhardy to prophesy how it will confronts his new and unprecedented crisis”. Tully thinks likewise, a not uncommon faith in the romance of the Indian melting pot to throw up answers to modern quibbles.

Tully and the Oxford scholar needn’t worry. There is no “unprecedented crisis” here — Indians, young and old, rich and poor, remain one of the most ‘religious’, superstitious and feudal people, with or without double digit growth and stratospheric stock markets. Even the highest paid MBAs and software engineers worship regularly, wear rings and talismans, agree to marry a girl of their parents’ choice, are not loathe to pick up some dowry on the way, and are hugely argumentative about things they mostly don’t practise in their lives. All this helps Indians to stitch things together and chug along — but only just.

Tully’s heart is in the right place; he is not a sucker for hype — India Shining, India Everywhere — and rightly doesn’t buy that the market is the saviour. In a world of mediocre multi-taskers, banal creators, nervous nerds and manic marketers, his gentle rant against the market, silly natter on cell phones, the curse of consumer choice, amoral modern management and trickle-down economics is unremarkable and has a sense of déjà vu about it.

He admonishes the West, upbraiding its “dominant science, economics” that does not take account of the suffering of the
people. But doesn’t Oriental science and economics pretty much behave the same way? And there’s no paucity of examples in India for this.

The best moments in the book come when Tully mines stories out of a richly lived calling — how he almost messed up his first BBC interview when the interviewer asked him whether he remembered any Hindi from his childhood and he blurted out that he could recite Humpty Dumpty and Little Miss Muffet in Hindusthani (“To this day,” he says, “I don’t know why that didn’t ruin my chances); how former interior minister Charan Singh confessed to being unable to punish a corrupt police officer in Delhi; his meetings with Dalit farmers; and a gem of an exchange between two Indians discussing complex intercourse positions at Khajuraho.

But all this does not save Tully’s latest work from predictability and ennui. It is clear by now that unfettered capitalism -- like socialism — is not the panacea to lift people out of poverty and bring about inclusive growth. In India, the State and society need to get more engaged in what is going on, the former as an honest provider and the latter as an informed
watchdog. People, politicians and governments need to grow up and become more responsible and honest. We largely deserve what we have: startling inequity, venal politicians, massive corruption, appalling health care, crumbling cities and a total callousness towards human life and the future of our children.

All this is a reflection of a jaded, tradition- numbed and largely illiterate people. No amount of Hinduism — or any ism — or the argumentative tradition can change that. Only education, hard work, public morals and common sense can.

Soutik Biswas is the India Editor for BBC News Online

First Published: Jun 11, 2007 14:12 IST