Tales for the Mahatma

Honest, heartfelt and fatalistic, Mark Tully's short stories reveal the true India. By Patrick French; The Heart of India by Mark Tully, Viking, pounds 16

Mark Tully is the balm that Britain offers to India. He is perceived by the listening classes of both countries to be fair, scrupulous and intuitive - a living, breathing antidote to 300 years of imperialist exploitation.

Status of this kind carries a weight of expectations. Especially now that he is no longer the official voice of the BBC. But instead of responding by pontificating about his chosen country, Tully offers us a book of simple stories about Indian villagers and the challenges that they face. Unlike many writers, he is less interested in urban, urbane living than in the way that ordinary people get by. For all the advances of the past decade, most Indians still inhabit the countryside. As Mahatma Gandhi observed, "India lives in her 700,000 villages... That is real India."

Although each story has a fresh cast of characters, there are consistent themes running through The Heart of India. We are shown the systemic political and judicial corruption, the restrictions and the sense of security that are given by caste, the importance of honour and tradition, the continually changing role of women, and the casual brutality of daily life. The book presents a bleak vision in many ways.

A man comes to Delhi in search of his missing brother, only to be told: "Oh, that arrogant bastard. He was a no-gooder. Died owing me money." When the barbers of an Uttar Pradesh village go on strike, a woman tells her farmer son: "Beat them until they whine like curs, which is what they are. Talk, talk, seems to be the modern way, and it will just encourage them."

Underlying these tales is a collision between old and new, as apparent technological and economic progress brings dubious benefits to the lives of many people. Engines and plastic cups put the pony cart driver and the potter out of work, but no new employment structure is waiting to receive them. There is some nostalgia about all this, but Tully has no illusions about traditional life and the bondage and restrictions that are imposed by poverty. It is his deep sense of acceptance, even fatalism, that holds The Heart of India together.

The stories are an odd mixture of fiction, dialogue and reportage. Some are closer to parables or fables, as the psychological development of characters is subordinated to the need to advance the plot. At other times, they digress into explanations of "Eve-teasing" (the Indian term for sexual harassment) or Ayodhya (the site of the mosque torn down by Hindu extremists in 1992), presumably for the benefit of non-Indian readers. (There is a glossary of Hindi words, but it is incomplete.) This uncertainty of tone gives a degree of inconsistency to the book, but in the end this is only a minor problem. Nearly all the stories remain strong, sharp, moving and thought-provoking.

There are no easy solutions on offer. In "The Goondas of Gopinagar", rival gang leaders are taken on by Ishwar Dutt, "a politician of a very different sort. The source of his influence was his honesty." A popular movement drives them into prison and, although his son is killed in the process, it appears that Ishwar Dutt's honesty has triumphed. But the story ends with a deal between the gang leaders and local politicians: "When Ishwar Dutt read that the two Mafia leaders had been released, he turned to the friends sitting with him on his veranda and said, 'I told you there was no point in politics. I have sacrificed my son for nothing'."

In his Introduction, Mark Tully mentions that while he was writing this book, the Times of India ran an editorial suggesting that "Munshi Tullyji's [Tully the respected scribe's] modern Decameron will mirror the emergence of new forces with their impact on traditional lifestyles and democracy itself". He also asserts that unlike his earlier book, No Full Stops In India, these stories are not didactic in purpose. I am unconvinced. They read like a heartfelt, almost spiritual cry for a return to the Gandhian idealism that brought India her freedom - and they are none the worse for that. "The only knowledge I have", realises a successful civil servant while visiting his elderly father, is of the futility of believing in man". Munshi Tullyji Ki Jai!

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor