Indian Society/Culture, Tehelka

Sweating The Big Stuff

WRITING ABOUT India is never easy; it is too large, too diverse and, in general, is given to cussedness of a kind that makes assertions of any type difficult. Insiders writing about India take too much for granted and outsiders extrapolate too much from limited forays into a wide-eyed form of cultural tourism. In this context, in many ways, Mark Tully represents a kind of golden mean. He has been in India long enough to be an honorary Indian, and yet he is nothing if not British, in the best way possible. Sensitive, generous and self-effacing; he is someone who steers clear of grandstanding and is without question someone who understands and feels for India. All these qualities help him in his role as a reporter as he documents what he sees with honesty and empathy, something that works to the advantage of Non-Stop India. Tully tells the story of India through 10 essays, each exploring a different facet of the country. The territory covered is understandably large, and includes most major issues of the day (barring corruption, which gets only peripheral mention).

The trouble with a report – er’s account of India is its size, diversity and complexity, all of which make an inference from one’s experiences refutable. The attempt to knit together one’s observations into a narrative about the country, and to do so with even a semblance of definitiveness, is challenging. And thus it is even for Tully; the parts that move from the particular to the general are the weaker ones — for instance, the bit about Bihar that tries to “find out how voters viewed their Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar”, succeeds in anecdotal storytelling but fails in an attempt to decipher a larger pattern.

Which is why the essays that work in the book are those that are content to look at individual phenomena; it is here where the Tully approach of listening a lot, writing a little less and making fewer conclusions works best. The piece on Building Communities, where the author examines the work done by some NGOs and the impact they have on local communities, the bits on the impact that multinationals have had on agriculture (Far ming Futures) and the essay on Arunachal Pradesh (A Forgotten Land) tell human stories against a larger backdrop. The human portraits Tully paints when he describes the change in Dalit self-image give form to an otherwise abstract social phenomenon.

In the overall scheme of things, however, the qualities that make Tully such a likeable and effective reporter are the ones that let this book down. It rarely becomes more than a few disparate albeit engaging observations about India. And even here, there is too much by way of basic detail, presumably for the international audience. While it is understandable that he is writing for two different constituencies, it does mean that the Indian reader has to wade through substantial amounts of superfluous context, something that makes for uneven reading. But the bigger problem is the author’s reluctance to see a pattern, his inexplicable shyness in gathering his understanding of contemporary Indian reality into an analytical framework and, as a result, leaving too much for the reader to do. If the usual problem with books on India by foreign writers is that they infer too much on the basis of too little and insert far too much of themselves in the narrative, the problem with Non-Stop India is the opposite. It needed much more of Tully, the honorary Indian. There simply isn’t enough.

Tehelka Magazine, Dec 03, 2011