Mark Tully: My unending journey through India

Travel about the subcontinent and you will find a land of opposites constantly seeking a middle way. That's why visitors either love or loathe the place, says the broadcaster and author Sir Mark Tully

The World Economic Forum recently assessed the competitiveness of the travel and tourism industries in different countries. India, in spite of its unique attractions - the Himalayas, the Rajasthan desert, studded with castles and palaces; the Taj and all the rest of them - came just above the halfway mark. Heading the list were Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore who all have one thing in common: they are renowned for their efficiency. India, on the other hand, is renowned for its inefficiency. Could that be the reason for its failure to compete more successfully in the global tourism and travel market?

Inefficiency can be irritating, inconvenient and sometimes incapacitating. A friend of mine recently missed her flight to Delhi because she didn't get her visa on time. But efficiency has its disadvantages too: uniformity, rigorously enforced regulations and regimentation, lack of adventure and, indeed, lack of freedom, obsessions with cleanliness and punctuality too.

Orderliness, a by-product of efficiency, is often boring. India has plenty of rules and regulations but there's almost always a way round them; it has no obsessions and is certainly not boring. From years of experience of meeting visitors to India I have never met one who was bored or indifferent. Tourists and business travellers all leave either loving or loathing the country.

Those who come to love India take a balanced view of its inefficiency. They come to accept the uncertainties of travelling in a country whose citizens say "there must be a God because no one else could run our chaotic country". They marvel that a country described by its own people as chaotic has a culture so strong that it has survived centuries of Muslim invaders and frustrated the British Raj's attempt to impose what we Britons claimed was our superior culture.

Although there are signs that its resistance to our consumerist culture is weakening, history suggests that at the very least consumerism will have to adapt itself to Indian tastes because India has shown a talent for absorbing other cultures rather than being absorbed. Few ancient cities survive today and those that do, such as Athens and Cairo, cannot claim their ancient culture is still intact. The holy city of Varanasi is the only exception to that rule that I know. Its ancient culture is still alive. On my last visit to Varanasi I asked a Hindu monk why that was, and he replied: "A tree that bends in the wind will not break."

India can bend in the wind because it is the land of the Buddha who taught that we should follow the Middle Way and of the Hindu sages who stressed the importance of retaining balance, of not going to extremes. Those who travel the Middle Way are not going to be swept off their feet by the modern fad for efficiency, for running everything as though it were a business.

The Buddha achieved enlightenment in the state of Bihar, which is renowned for its inefficiency and its ineffectual administration. Biharis themselves say it's the only place in the world where the state has withered away, fulfilling Karl Marx's prophecy.

If the Buddha were to return today he would undoubtedly say that Bihar has taken inefficiency too far but, at the same time, he would not recommend it should become a Switzerland or a Singapore. He would be sensible enough never to imagine the unimaginable, and wise enough to see that the state needed to find a middle way.

Where can visitors to India see the middle way? They can start with a bit of train travel. Indian Railways is run on the middle track. The trains are getting faster but they are not so fast that the joy of rolling gently through the countryside is lost. And the middle way between progress and tradition is being followed.

While constructing a new freight network running the length and breadth of the country, Indian Railways is also investing money in the gallant, Lilliputian, narrow-gauge steam engines which still struggle up the foothills of the Himalayas to Darjeeling. Grand stations have been preserved but modernised to cope with India's burgeoning population.

The sea of commuters that pours through Bombay's Victoria Terminus, an Oriental Gothic extravaganza, makes rush hour at Waterloo look like a gently flowing brook. The terminus has been renamed after the warrior Sivaji, who challenged the might of the Moguls, but it's commonly known as VT and its architecture remains intact. Indian Railways has not committed architectural sacrilege such as the pulling down of the arch at Euston.

Of course, there are disadvantages to Indian Railways' middle way between an obsession with punctuality and tearing up the timetable. I once enquired about a connection I was catching at Mughalsarai, one of India's many Crewe junctions, and was told it was "indefinitely late". "You mean it's lost?" I said, "You could say that," replied the man at the enquiry desk "but then again maybe it will be found." That could have been highly inconvenient as I was in the middle of a complicated journey in which any missed connection would have been a disaster. But the God who runs India was on my side. Another heavily delayed train turned up right on time from my point of view.

For me, taking the middle view of Indian railways means weighing inconvenience against all the unforgettable train conversations I have had sparked off by a remark like "this train is running badly". Recently they included a government servant who had become a Hindu monk, and the wife of a comedian whose stock in trade was imitating the different way railway passengers snore. Unfortunately he was not travelling with her so what would surely have been one of the great recordings of my radio career went unrecorded.

However you travel in India you will almost always be able to make yourself understood in English. Even those Indians who speak only a few words of English will do their best to help, sometimes with bizarre results, but nevertheless they try. I was shocked on my first visit to Hong Kong when a man I asked for help at a tram stop turned his back on me.

But if India had not taken the middle way at independence it could have lost its English. There were nationalists who saw English as "a symbol of slavery" and wanted to erase it from the linguistic map of India. Fortunately, a balance was maintained by keeping English and redividing Indian states on the basis of language, so each part of the country could nurture its native tongue, and English be kept as a national heritage.

This year is the 60th anniversary of India's independence and those tourists who come to the Indian capital to see the last architectural flourish of the Raj, Lutyens New Delhi, will also walk in the garden where Mahatma Gandhi held his last fatal prayer meeting. Inside the house where he was staying there is now a museum which tells the story of the man who embodied India's tradition of the middle road by steering a course between passive acceptance of foreign rule and violent resistance to it.

Those following the middle way need to be broad-minded, but the British officer who stumbled on the temples of Khajuraho in the early 19th century thought Hinduism had taken broad-mindedness too far. Commenting on the erotic scenes carved into the soft sandstone walls of the temples he said: "The Hindu religion could not have been very chaste if it induced people, under the cloak of religion, to design the most disgraceful representations to desecrate their ecclesiastical erections."

Not many take the carvings as a sex manual in stone, but there are exceptions to that rule. On my first visit to Khajuraho, I overheard an awestruck young Sikh say "that is not possible" as he stared at a particularly complicated yogic position in which a man stands on his head and a woman sits between his thighs making love. His friend replied, "Oh yes it is. I have done it."

But Indian scholars are able to see that Khajuraho's erotica, because it is carved on consecrated buildings, symbolises a combination of the sacred and the sensual, a combination which is not ashamed of the sensual but acknowledges that it is sacred. In Britain we have swung from the Victorian sexuality riddled with shame, which still lingered on in my childhood, to regarding sex as a recreation. We have not found a middle way between the sacred and the sensual.

Following the middle way inevitably involves avoiding obsessions, and because India is not obsessed with efficiency it sometimes seems more inefficient than it is. It is certainly a lot more efficient than it was when I first came to Delhi in 1965. Then, if you wanted to buy a return railway ticket you had to send a telegram to the station master at your destination before setting out. He might or might not reply confirming your reservation. Now you can buy a railway ticket on the internet.

Until the 1990s, if you fancied travelling by car you only had one choice, the Ambassador, which was the Indian version of the Morris Oxford of the late 1940s, and your journey was likely to be punctuated by maintenance stops. Now more reliable modern cars are available and India is selling them around the world.

There is still a shortage of hotels but if you can get a room you will get excellent service. In the 1960s there were virtually none. But India is still not a destination for those who refuse to do a bit of bending in the wind, who can't cope with the unexpected.

Mahatma Gandhi said that he had never made a fetish of consistency. Hinduism for him was so broad that "every variety of belief found protection under its ample fold". It's not surprising that his country does not make a fetish of the efficiency which demands consistency and which, far from being capacious, only knows one way of doing anything.

'India's Unending Journey' by Mark Tully is published by Rider Books on 3 May, price £14.99

My top palace

Edwin Lutyens designed the vice-regal palace in New Delhi to represent "the ideal of British Empire". Although Viceroys ruled from there for only 16 years before India became independent, the heart of the capital is still called Lutyens Delhi, and something of the empire lives on in the British tradition of Beating Retreat in the square below the palace after Republic Day. As the sun goes down over the shoulder of the monumental pink sandstone secretariat flanking the square, the bands play the English hymn "Abide with Me", a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi who had the vision to see the good as well as the bad in the empire.

My favourite cup of tea

Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas is famous for the bushes clinging precariously to hillsides that produce its unique tea. The mists that nurture them can obstruct the views of Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain which dominates Darjeeling, and the more distant Everest. The energetic can trek even closer to Kanchenjunga. Those like me who take the train have the view of her as the world's pioneering mountain railway turns the corner from Ghum 7,407ft high and drops down into Darjeeling. Try afternoon tea in the New Elgin Hotel to relive the days when the Raj escaped from Calcutta's steaming summer heat.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices