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
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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!