A BBC Institution in India

Briton Mark Tully talks about his `fluke' career, his book, and foreign journalism

MARK TULLY has been the British Broadcasting Corporation's bureau chief in New Delhi since 1972, so asking him to lunch at a club patronized by many of the city's rich and powerful is begging for interruptions.

One woman comes to the table with her husband, praises Mr. Tully's new book, and says they will soon be off to England to visit their daughter and "two naughty grandsons." She rolls her eyes with a smile. "Oh, lovely," says Tully, a large man who squints a lot and whose mostly black, wiry hair seems perpetually unkempt. "Lovely to see you," he adds.

Later a politician wearing the homespun Indian clothes popularized by Mahatma Gandhi - long since the uniform of leaders claiming solidarity with the common man - comes by to congratulate Tully. Last week he received a national honor called the Padma Shree, roughly analogous to Britain's Order of the British Empire, which Tully also holds. "We are very proud of you," the politician says.

With the awarding of the Padma Shree, which as far as anyone can remember has never been awarded to a foreign journalist before, it's safe to call Mark Tully an institution. The BBC is widely heard in India, and Tully's reports are often translated and rebroadcast on the BBC's various Indian language programs, so he is one of the best-known journalists in the country, foreign or Indian.

But his work doesn't let him say all that he wants to about this country and its problems. Journalism too often limits itself to "the obvious sorts of subjects," he says, like politics and economics. "Basically the stories we're all meant to produce are all the same ones, really."

So in his third and latest book, called "No Full Stops in India" in the edition published here and in Britain, and "The Defeat of a Congress-man" [Knopf, 313 pp., $22] in the United States, Tully sets out to illustrate "the way in which Western thinking has distorted and still distorts Indian life," in the words of his introduction.

Sitting amid the burgundy velvet drapes and white tablecloths of the dining room of the Gymkhana Club, a British institution that is now a home away from home for the Indian elite, Tully is very comfortable. He is himself a product of the British raj - he was born of English parents in Calcutta and lived in India until he was 10.

A failed cleric, Tully "just fluked into the BBC" in 1964, landing a job on the personnel side of the organization. "I loathed that, and I hated living in London," he says, so in 1965 he took advantage of an opportunity to come to the BBC's Delhi office. The small staff made possible a transition from administrative to journalistic work, and Tully has been broadcasting the first draft of South Asian history ever since.

His career has allowed him to conduct an "inquiry" into India, he says; "The Defeat of a Congress-man" is one of the fruits of his researches.

The book contains a profile of Tully's longtime servant, Ram Chander, that explains how he lives within his caste, and how important the system is to him. One of the things the book has been criticized for in India, Tully says, is his attempt to show "that there are good things about caste as well as bad things." There's also a polemical account called "The New Colonialism" in which Tully argues that the West's belief in its superiority over countries like India persists with vigor. He writes about a Bri tish sculptor who exalts his "art" over the "craft" of Indian temple carvers, and explores why English remains India's lingua franca.

He also reports on some well-publicized issues like sati (a Hindu custom, officially discouraged, that allows a widow to be cremated alive on her husband's funeral pyre), and communal rioting in an attempt to place these events in their Indian context. About a riot in Ahmedabad, he writes: "[T]he politicians and the press continue to blame the riots on religious fundamentalism ... but according to the victims - who ought to know best - it's just not true. The victims of the riots don't even know the mean ing of the word "fundamentalist,' but they do know that it is not religion that divides them."

In talking about the book, the conversation turns several times to the Western media's role in covering developing nations. "We haven't really thought about this problem - coverage of third-world countries - properly," he says. Tully would like to see many more attempts "to analyze and discuss and bring out what I think are the real problems of this country.

"And there is far too much, in Indian journalism especially, of people sitting in offices in Delhi or Bombay and pontificating - writing about slums that they've virtually never been in or villages they haven't seen for God knows how many years."

"Soon," he says, broadening the issue, "there will be no room for anything on the news except violence. Because there is so much violence going on in the world, [and] we are so interested in every damn bit of it which takes place."

Tully is reminded that elections also never fail to draw news coverage.

"Yes, exactly," he says. "With the odd economic crisis thrown in."

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