The reality behind the reality

BOOKS FICTION: THE HEART OF INDIA by Mark Tully, Viking pounds 16
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IS Mark Tully's ambitious title for this book of stories literal or suggestive or both? Does he intend the unhappy echoes of Conrad and, perhaps more distantly resonating, of Naipaul, from Heart of Darkness to An Area of Darkness? I think not. It seems that Tully, who has for over 30 years loved and recorded India, is rather making the point that at the heart of India is its periphery, its unnamed, drifting, lost or "small" people, individuals who simply spin off or are crushed by the wheel of the subcontinent's great inertia and fantastic process. It is these little lives that Tully has set out to fix in words. It is hard to avoid the sense that his motive is love, its object India.

The quality of Tully's broadcasts from India throughout his career with the BBC was unforgettable; his distinctive, faintly spiced voice conveyed volumes of information whose vividness and intimacy were equalled by profound historical and personal comprehension. How fortunate that it was a man so intelligent and compassionate who first told the world of convulsing events in India, the disaster at Bhopal, the deaths of Sanjay, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. His authoritative mediation must have gone some way to defuse wholesale panic. Tully achieved complete sympathy with the country without effort; it came naturally to him and he gave it to us. Away from the terrors and disasters, Tully made broadcasts about happier things; each was an essay in observation and humanity. One could not stop listening.

The stories in The Heart of India are without that compelling quality. They seem to have been written because their author very badly wanted to write them, they are often well expressed, they tell tales that ring true individually as well as in the, assuredly intended, wider sense of being representative of a whole people. Yet they are without the sting and flow that comes from Tully over the air. Can this man whose voice must be one of the most widely recognised in the world not yet have found a voice with which to write fiction?

Of course fiction makes different demands from the impartial recording of truth, and, also of course, it must be a relief for the (we have come to learn) passionately opinionated journalist to escape impartiality by entering fiction. But for the sake of art, he must learn to be less merciful to his characters, not for reasons of crude sadism but to make the reader love them - eventually - more. The most striking example of this is in a mostly good, invariably delicate story entitled "Girlfriends". Two nice girls from very different backgrounds conduct only-just-legal marriages with their university admirers. The pure village girl, who loves her father, remarries later. She is still a virgin, but the scandal any knowledge of her previous "marriage" would cause would ruin her life, her father's and that of her new husband and baby. The first "husband" returns, to blackmail her. Up to now the mood has been well sustained. Suddenly, with the irruption of a few cartoon-like policemen, there's a happy ending, and our belief and sympathy are disengaged.

Among these tales of fraternal rivalry, dignified wretchedness, minute consolation, disorientating education, drug addiction, caste confusion and, suffusingly, religion, there are beautiful moments. A "generous" mother-in-law allows her daughter-in-law to visit her own father as often as she wants. A shrine glows with "seedy sanctity". A boy thinks he's too good for "mud work". The sense that the author seeks "the reality behind the reality" is continual. When Tully's stories emancipate themselves from his heart a little they will do what he wants them to do and make us feel as he does. Meanwhile, they are good enough reading. It is not easy to write a quiet book about a clamorous subject, as I imagine Tully is trying to do, and the successes are few and magnificent, Naipaul and Narayan and Desai. It's not an ignoble shortfall.