Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy's Reviews > Non Stop India

Non Stop India by Mark Tully
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Apr 03, 12

Read in February, 2012

Book Review published in Freedom First Magazine No. 538 April 2012

India is a complex place. There’s some of everything here and it defies a simple definition. You can’t truly know it till you’ve lived here. Some have called it a “muddle,” some have called it “incredible,” others have called it “shining.” Mark Tully calls it “non-stop.” Where others have used adjectives or nouns, Tully seems to use a verb, and this gives it a dynamic, vibrant quality, much like the cover of this book. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, I have to say, I did. And I was both, pleased and disappointed by it.
Mark Tully’s reputation precedes him. He’s a veteran newsman of the old-fashioned kind. He believes in reporting news, not creating it. He is understated and gentle, preferring to let the people speak for themselves – a far cry from the often shrill pontificating that masquerades as news these days. And this comes through in this quiet and understated book.
Tully writes in the introduction, “...All the institutions essential for a democracy to function are in place. There are legislatures right down to the village level, elections, as I have said, are regularly held, there is a civil service, there are courts, the press is free. Furthermore there are politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and journalists who know exactly what their responsibilities should be, and how their institutions should function…Having lived in India for more than forty years I have become affected by the widespread cynicism about governments and governance in this country.” But he remains optimistic about India’s future because he believes that India will find a way to make existing institutions work the way they were meant to.
The book is written in ten chapters that span the whole spectrum of what you read in the papers these days, from Dalits, to Naxals to the debate on English vs. regional languages, community building initiatives to tigers. Depending on the reader’s interests, some chapters may be of more interest than others. The subjects are presented with the old-fashioned reporter’s motto of letting the people be heard. They are interviews of people Tully and Gillian meet on their travels. He doesn’t insert himself into the narrative wherever possible, and other than framing questions, quotes the voices directly. They speak, he listens, and he moves on to his next destination. This makes for interesting and engaging reading because it isn’t often these days that you get to know about original data that is gathered. We are so bombarded with the rush to analyze and speculate and judge and offer solutions.
As you read through the chapters, you move from one village to another, with Tully telling you where you are to go next. He’s certainly not a bad guide to have. Tully, after all is better informed about India than most of us, he has had a ring-side seat to almost all major historical events in the country, by virtue of his being a “foreigner,” and I have been given to understand that he is a self-effacing, good man. Readers will have no problem letting themselves be taken through this book on a non-stop tour of India with Tully as their capable guide. One may suggest that he should have expanded the itinerary a bit. Too much - more than half - of the book is based in North India and this reflects the general tendency of the media to focus on “north-of-the- Vindhyas” stories. Like any journey, once in a way, the telling can get tedious, the writing is a bit uneven, but it is engaging enough to keep going.
There’s the slight problem of classifying this book – is it a travel book, is it literature, is it academic, political, current events? Is it analysis, reportage, storytelling? Is it meant for students or those unfamiliar with India? It is some of these, none of others, but finally, the answer came to me once again, as I stared at the cover. It is, essentially, a book of folk tales: stories of the land, real stories about real people told in the oral tradition. And at this level it works wonderfully. Chapters such as Caste Overturned and Building Communities for this reason work especially well.
Having said this, it is difficult to criticize the book. Let me explain why I say that. It’s certainly not because I loved everything about it.
There’s an old trick that anyone who’s in management – or married – knows. It’s called taking the zing out of the argument. It goes something like this: “I know you think I was insensitive yesterday but that was not my intention.” Well then, nobody can respond to that by telling you that you were insensitive yesterday. They would be stating the obvious, something you already told them you knew.
Similarly, in his introduction, Tully says, “The chapters in this book are all stories of my travels…they are not analyses.” He says it’s always difficult to write for two audiences. And he says that there are difficulties writing prose when you’ve been a radio journalist your whole life. There goes the zing from any criticism I may have of this book.
These, indeed, are the three main problems with the book. But the way I see it, naming the beast does not make it disappear. Tully is clearly self-aware – a good quality in anyone, especially a reporter. But this does not let Tully off the hook. It may have been perfectly acceptable for many journalists, some even well known ones. But one holds somebody like Mark Tully to a higher standard. From a veteran like him, at the age of 76, with his range of experience, one has higher expectations.
First, he says these are stories, not analyses. But even read as stories, the story-teller must offer something of himself. If my grandmother tells me a story, I expect something more of her in the telling, in the message, indeed in the analysis from her experiences, than if a younger sibling were to tell the same tale. Does India need a “sympathizer” who tells a bland tale? Being sympathetic does not mean being soft. Tully is called an honorary Indian and yet retains that he is a foreigner. With the best of both worlds, he should be brave enough to speak his mind and offer his insights into the stories he hears.
As readers, we expect something of his wisdom, some analysis other than the refrain that becomes redundant by the end of the book: “If governance issues are resolved, India would be non-stop.”
Second, it is difficult to write for dual audiences. One wants broad strokes, the other wants more detail. The Preface to the Indian Edition suggests that the main text is the same for both audiences. Like Aesop’s fable, when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. At many points, Indian readers will find that the book sinks into what I call the daal-soup, naan-bread category of narrative. It is tedious to read through superfluous explanations of known items time and again and this does not ease up as the chapters progress. So perhaps the chapters were meant to stand alone and be read in any order. It is a little baffling why Tully would not have insisted that the publishers have the text modified for separate audiences. This could easily have been fixed with a few smart copy-editors on the job.
And third, the difficulty of writing prose. While nobody is expecting literature from Tully, we certainly expect more meat in his content. There is a difference between the spoken and the written narrative and he must control, if not master, the media he presents in. This would mean that he put more of himself and his thoughts onto the written page. Other than in the introduction, there’s not much of Tully in this book. The same aloofness that makes him an excellent radio reporter lets him down in print.
So in the end, when you’re done reading the book, there is a sense that something is missing. Reading the chapters was like browsing through a solo exhibition in an art gallery. Each painting is interesting on its own; some are more detailed, more appealing than others. But at the end of your walk-through, you are left wondering what the theme was. What was the artist trying to say? Did he, in fact, want to say anything?
The key element that’s missing in this narrative is the author’s passion. There’s a reluctance to immerse into the landscape fully, and ultimately, this lack of critical engagement with the subject is what was truly disappointing about the book.
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