I have no plans to leave India. It is my destiny to be here,” says Sir Mark Tully
I recently had the pleasure of meeting and then interviewing Sir Mark Tully, a British writer and journalist, considered to be an expert on India, who lives in Delhi. In the interview the veteran former BBC correspondent, who was once very outspoken of the corporation’s restructuring, talks about why he remains in India, what he wants to see changed and why he does not consider himself an expat. Since you are my loyal blog readers, I have posted the entire interview belowJ Please share your comments.
Your last book, India’s Unending Journey, was published in 2007. Yet you seem very busy. What are you working on right now?
For the past 13 years I have been making a programme for BBC Radio Four called Something Understood. I make 30 of these a year and we make them in batches of six and I am doing six right now. I make three in India and the rest in the UK. It’s a discussion about matters, which you cannot understand fully, such as philosophy, poetry, religion, all sorts of things, but less in the rational field and more in the intuition field. I am also writing another book on how India has changed since economic liberalisation. It’s like my book No Full Stops In India (NFSII). Next year will be 20 years since liberalisation and also approximately 20 years since NFSII was published.
So, what will that book say? How has India changed?
Well, it has changed rapidly in some respects. There has been a huge release of entrepreneurial activity, as a result of the licence permit of the Raj being lifted.
Industrial production and consumer goods increased, such as the motor car. Twenty years ago, India was still in the age of the Maruti and the Ambassador and even they were only limited to a few people then. The permits were lifted in 1991. Until then there had been a socialist system whereby all industrial expansion had to be subjected to licence processes. These are some of the positives. However, the negatives are the systems of governance and the institutions that affect them have not been tackled. The book is based on reportage, it is not academic. NFSII was about how Indian culture needs to be protected, but the issue of governance was touched on in it. I have written another book called India in Slow Motion, which is about governance in India.
India’s Unending Journey often touches on spirituality. Do you believe India is still spiritual?
I think Indians on average take religion much more seriously than people do in the UK. They are more observant of religions. Religion is a great spiritual tradition in India and I believe that tradition is very much still alive, and I don’t think it’s been lost – but the fear is that it will be. I think the culture has been preserved to an extent; but unbridled materialism, capitalism and consumerism is bound to undermine it. My appeal in India’s Unending Journey is that these things be taken too far and there should be a middle road between government control, socialism and capitalism. You must look at the negatives of economic growth too, the most obvious being the environment.
What inspired you to write that book?
I’m a great believer that 90 per cent of life is destiny and 10 per cent is free will. A very talented editor came to see me and said she was interested in my programme and asked me why I didn’t write a book about the subjects I was covering on Something Understood. And that’s how it came about. It is targeted at western and Indian readers.
In the book, you said you had never thought of writing an autobiography because you don’t want to give the impression your life is particularly important…Yet, you are a household name in the UK. Do you believe you are in India?
I couldn’t possibly comment.
How do you think Indians view you?
I know that I have been shown great kindness and respect in India, far more than I deserve.
Do you plan to retire here and spend the rest of your life here?
As I said I believe life is 90 per cent fate or destiny and that’s why I say it is in the hands of God. At present I have no plans to leave India.* *I keep coming back to this point. To a large extent it’s a matter of accepting one’s destiny. I was born in India, in East Bengal, and spent nine to 10 years of my childhood here under the British Raj. I have always felt peculiarly at home here. Almost all of My BBC career was spent here, so I do feel that it’s largely that I am meant to be here. I have an Indian son-in-law and another son used to be based in India but his daughter, my youngest granddaughter got leukemia so they returned to the UK. I have four children with my wife Margaret.
Are you divorced?
No. She is in the UK but we are separated. I live in Delhi with my partner, Gillian.
Do you dislike the UK?
I don’t dislike the UK at all. Some people have that mistaken impression. I did once say when I came back from India once, that I feared the prospect of permanently living in the UK . I was depressed by it, but I don’t dislike the UK at all. I always say, no more can I rid myself of the years I have spent in India and its influences, can I rid myself of the years I have spent in the UK and its influences.
What would the UK have to do to lure you back?
I don’t think I see it like that. I go back to the UK regularly but I think I could say there is nothing that would break my links with the UK, nor do I see anything strange or contradictory in having deep links with India. I think India is a fascinating country because of its diversity. I am particularly interested in its religious traditions, its huge potential and unresolved problems that it faces. I think it’s a fascination with what India is and where it could go. I love its geographical beauty and I am very saddened by the decline in architectural standards because I don’t think modern India is very beautiful. This is a country with a wonderful architectural heritage and it seems to be going in for the worst face of pragmatism in architecture.
Why did you leave the BBC in 1994?
The BBC at the time was going through a managerial revolution and I was critical of that revolution and I was asked to address the Radio Academy, a major annual event. At the time, some people who worked in the BBC accused those of us opposed to the revolution, of not being courageous enough to speak out, so since I knew I had the opportunity to speak out, I decided to take it and I said in my speech I believed in evolution, rather than revolution and that the ethos of the BBC was being undermined. So, a year after that it became clear to me I could not go on staying on working there, having made that speech.
What was the revolution all about?
It was about busting the existing structure of the BBC and putting in very complicated structures in its place – all conceived by management consultants – and it took away the autonomy of different departments.
What do you think about the fact the BBC plans to close down Asian Network?
Since, I’m no longer with the BBC I’m not really the best person to ask. I believe this is a special service for Asians in Britain that they are planning to close down. It is not really connected to me. The BBC Indian language services will continue. There was never a complete English service for South Asia specifically anyway.
Of course I would like to see more programmes on south Asia but I do realise the BBC is for the whole world, it is not a south Asian service but I would like to see India as well represented as possible on it
What do you think of the state of print media in the UK?
I think newspapers are facing a crisis. I personally would be critical of the newspapers there because I think they are filling themselves up with stuff that they think will be popular and if they did an old-fashioned job more, they would be more popular. There are too many columns in British newspapers. I don’t need to know what that person thinks about a particular subject. It’s highly personalized and very tedious. There is not enough foreign news in them. There is hardly any serious political or economic reporting about India in the dailies. I’m not referring to the Economist, which is very good, although I don’t share their economic standpoint. I don’t think newspapers will die out, but they will find their own level. The British newspapers have too many columns, too much celebrity stuff and full pages devoted to say one murder – they fill a whole page with stories that are intrusions into people’s lives.
Is it also too negative?
This is a problem that journalists have never got over. News generally speaking is bad news. It is the duty of journalists to point out what has gone wrong in order for it to be repaired. I think some Indian newspapers are going the same way as the British papers and others are sticking to old-fashioned news values. I don’t sense they are facing the same threat from the Internet, as the British press is. Radio is in a funny position in India as the government doesn’t allow news and current affairs on independent radio. So you just have All India Radio, which broadcasts government news and is very old-fashioned, so I think the state of radio in India is poor. The state of TV is sad. As much as it could have grabbed the opportunity to become an outlet for information, it has striven far too hard to be sensational and it lacks journalistic editorial control and muscle. You see reporters gabbling away nineteen to the dozen and noone tells them they are unintelligible. No one says anything. For the moment newspapers don’t face any threat from TV radio, or Internet in India.
Do you feel Indian media addresses social causes or is too page 3 obsessed?
Some of the media does address social causes and there is solid writing in some of the Indian newspapers. I would like to see more of it because it’s very informative.
In your book you refer to how Gandhi describes the real India as the villages. What’s your view?
No, only partly. I think the real India, as a whole, is not just the villages. I think India made a mistake with concentrating on top-down development and it should have listened to Gandhi and concentrated on growth from a grass roots level, at least, as much of the country would be quite a different place. One of the biggest challenges India faces is making development happen in the villages rather than sitting in Delhi making plans and shelling out the money, without consulting at a village level. The panchayats are there but even at a village level, governance does require some institutions to prevent them becoming corrupt or falling into the hands of the wrong people. At the moment there is inadequate administrative infrastructure. India will make progress on poverty when these problems of governance are resolved. The recent budget hasn’t helped with the questions I have talked about. If you budget some money, then you have to make sure that money is effectively spent, otherwise the whole budget becomes futile. Many business people were disappointed as there was not enough of, what they would like to see, such as tax reductions, in the budget.
Do you think India is going to be the next superpower and take over from the US or UK?
I think this is quite the wrong ambition for India. It should be to be as good an India as it can be – to make India as wonderful as it possibly can be rather than make it more like the US or UK. I don’t think India should develop like America or Britain. I don’t think it should copy those powers.
In your book you comment on what a vast difference there is between the Delhi you first came to know in 1965 and Delhi today. Tell me more.
Well, for starters the size is enormous compared to what it was. There was nothing at all east of the river before. Gurgaon was a small district. The roads were still very primitive and it was a city of bicycles with a few buses. It was rather charming – not very much like anything you would see today, it was not very modern. There were villages in the middle of Delhi, railway crossings in the street, and animals.
You say in your latest book that your confused upbringing (first trying to be a priest and then failing at that) left you open to new influences and that a prolonged sense of failure as a young man was a good thing. “I might have spent my time in India as a foreigner, as an expatriate, instead of developing an interest in the country that has become a lifelong passion,” you write. What do you think of the new wave of expats coming here?
I have never wanted to be an expat. By the term expat, it means you don’t really belong where you are living. I have always thought there is no point in living in India unless I thought I belonged to it. I have always wanted to belong to India and I do go on living here as if I belong here. I am not critical of those who want to live as an expat and I can fully understand it and I think it’s essential India should welcome them, because of the technical skills they can bring. It’s all about whether you really want to belong to India, whether you consider yourself as a temporary person living here for a short period of your life, that’s the main difference. There are many more expats now and I think they are much more varied. It’s so much easier to travel home now than it was earlier, so they can pop home twice a year which people couldn’t before. At the same time I feel they have lost an amount of autonomy. When my father was in Kolkata in the 20s and 30s they communicated rarely by telegrams so they had to take a lot of decisions themselves and could not refer to their seniors whereas now I think expats get told what to do a lot of the time. It’s up to expats how they want to live here, not up to me. I don’t want you to make me out to be an arrogant fart, who thinks all expats are dreadful!
What do you think of the state of literature in India?
I wish there were more books sold. Currently selling 10,000 copies is considered a best seller and I wish more of the books in the Indian languages were translated into English as there is some wonderful stuff. I never keep track of how many copies of my books have been sold.
(An extremely condensed version of this interview appeared in HT Café last week.)