Too close for comfort
UPCOUNTRY TALES: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE HEART OF INDIA By Mark Tully, Speaking Tiger, Rs 599
Nostalgia can be potent - as a killer that is. In the introduction to Upcountry Tales, Mark Tully sounds like the great-uncle who shares the same gossip about his political connections - people long dead and gone - every time you meet him. Then, he holds out hope by proclaiming that he writes not of "prominent" people but of "unlikely rebels, delightful pragmatists, bunglers and bumblers", from India's heartland. That he turns to fiction instead of a journalistic account strengthens the reader's optimism that will only be belied by the short stories themselves.
Tully has never been among the droves of foreign correspondents who wrote off India as a caste- and corruption-ridden failed state. His immersion in India and its culture, however, is at the crux of the problem with this collection. As Samuel Beckett once put it, if the author is too preoccupied with the idea behind the piece of fiction being written, he would be better off writing an essay. The stories are neither compelling nor the slice-of-life accounts of a rickety India inching towards modernization under the young prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that Tully tries to present.
That the author has a finger on India's pulse cannot be denied though. His descriptions of rural Purvanchal and its people are not just accurate but also full of dry humour. The stories carry the same flavour as his earthy, boots-on-the-ground reportage. While Tully calls his characters out on their flaws, he never has anything but empathy for them. Yet his protagonists border on the fantastical, poking and scraping at power hierarchies but never piercing through. And no matter which walk of life Tully's characters come from, the press is always at hand to save the day. The standard trope in these stories is that any issue that makes it into the pages of a newspaper is likely to get solved. This may not be too far off from the general perception in the country but it gets boring after the second story.
What shines through is Tully's language. The clarity of his prose is matched by his knowledge of the Indian tongue. But even the lucidity of his narrative cannot salvage Tully's enterprise. In the end, the collection is as much a damp squib as the period during which it is set - Rajiv Gandhi's tenure.