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.

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