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Mark his words: Tully’s loves, karma & caste
Mark Tully

London, June 15: Sir Mark Tully appeared as a guest today on the long-running and very popular BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, during which he defended “the good in the Indian caste system”, picked three Indian pieces of music out of the eight allowed, and spoke frankly about how he balances his personal life between his wife, Margaret, in London, and his partner, Gillian Wright, in Delhi.

Asked by the programme’s presenter, Sue Lawley, how he could possibly defend the caste system, the BBC’s former man in India said that he was not opposed to change.

“What I have said is we have to look to the good and the bad in the caste system,” Tully argued. “The good side of it is that it offers security, it offers companionship, a community to belong to and that sort of thing.”

When Lawley interjected with, “A community of untouchables'”, an animated Tully responded: “Wait a minute. There were a lot of people who were actually outside the caste system and they were treated as untouchables and that was wholly indefensible. The community is one of the good sides of the caste system and one of the reasons why I wanted to find a balanced view on caste is because so many people dismiss the whole of Indian religion, the whole of India, because of the caste system.”

Tackled on whether western-style economic progress should come to India, Tully said: “I believe very much that India must progress and I would be an absolute idiot if I did not think that the Indian economy should grow. But I don’t believe necessarily that our way (the western way) of doing things is the right way for India. Consumerism is based on greed and who can say that greed is a healthy human emotion' We are the people who have to change because we are the advocates of consumerism and we are also the people who have the economic clout and economic muscle.”

Questioned whether he was at peace living between two women, his wife in London and his partner in India, his reply was candid. “I am not entirely at peace with it, obviously for obvious reasons of my Christianity but it is something which has happened and there are two wonderful women of whom I am extraordinarily fond,” he replied. “I would not like to say they are totally at peace with it because it is a strange situation but it is not unique. I remember I was friendly with John Betjeman and he was in quite a similar sort of situation.”

Quizzed on whether the arrangement was an attempt to avoid divorce, his answer was: “I don’t think divorce is a healthy or good thing. It is also in part because I wanted to preserve as much as I could of my family life. It is also going back to fate. It is something which has just happened. I do my best to live within it and both Gilly and Margaret do their best to live within it and it’s a situation we find ourselves in.”

Among his eight records were:

Ragini Yamani by Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan (“very dear to me; two of the great masters of Indian classical music; I like various forms of Indian music, including Indian classical music”).

Shahbaaz Qalander by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (“Where I live in India is called Nizamuddin, opposite a Sufi shrine, and Nizamuddin was a great Sufi saint, so I have chosen some quwaali played by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, written in memory of another great Sufi saint, Shahbaaz Qalander”).

Ghanan Ghanan from Lagaan, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, music by A.R. Rahman (“People in India test your Indianness by asking you, ‘Do you like Bombay movies'’ And I like Bombay movies and this is one of the great hits, a very recent one called Lagaan”).

Tully spoke of how his parents, and especially his European nanny, had sought to isolate him from Indian influences when he grew up in Calcutta, where he was born in Tollygunge (to friends he still jokes the place was named after him).

“Nanny’s job was to stop me going native, as you put it,” he told Lawley, adding: “I am not sure I like that phrase.”

When his nanny heard him counting in Hindi, which he had been taught by the family driver, she gave him a clout on the head and scolded him, “That’s the servant’s language, not your language.”

He felt that it was his karma to go on living in India — “one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about India”.

He explained: “India has had a profound effect on the way I live and the whole way I think. It has given me a much greater appreciation of the role of fate in one’s life.”

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