Prose Sketches of India
`THE real travelers," painter Edgar Degas once observed, "are the ones who never arrive." They can be defined by what they are not: goal-oriented and schedule-conscious. The peripatetic essayist, literature's equivalent of Degas's traveler, can be similarly described as a writer who puts pen to paper with neither a thesis in mind nor outline in hand.
Mark Tully, a BBC journalist, has lived and worked in India for more than 25 years (since 1972 as head of the BBC's New Delhi bureau). A nimble and discerning reporter, he has provided astute commentaries on the politics and policies of post-Nehru India in both broadcasts and books (the latter co-written with various Indian colleagues).
His new book, "The Defeat of a Congressman and Other Parables of Modern India," is an unhurried, wide-ranging album of prose sketches, reflections, digressions, and leisurely discourses about contemporary Indian culture. Contrary to the book's misleading title, though, the 10 pieces in this collection are not parables, but sinuous, adventitious essays about a reporter's adopted land.
Tully begins an essay called "The Return of the Artist," for instance, by explaining the new political status and privileges accorded members of India's tribal communities - traditionally considered a "backward" segment of the population. As he accompanies a nationally respected artist home to his tribal village, the essay detours into a lively exposition on the funding of India's national highways, the advantages of the Hindustan Ambassador automobile over other domestic cars, the perceived value differ ences between art and folk craft, and the history of the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Along the way, Tully offers a wry commentary on the city of Jabalpur: "Situated at the exact geographical centre of India, the city should be a place of distinction, but it is in fact most undistinguished.... Its streets are lined with small shops, tea stalls, purveyors of various sorts of cuisine, sweet-makers boiling great pans of milk on Calor-gas rings - every sort of fire and health hazard." He then cuts to a description of village life in Patangarh and a note about the government's displacement and
"rehabilitation" of tribal peoples in the name of various land-development projects.
In other essays, Tully writes about religious fundamentalism, Indian Marxism, a wildly popular soap opera based on a Hindu epic, and his own conflicted feelings about the importance of the caste system to his servant, Ram Chandra.
Tully strikes a slightly wounded pose when discussing the detached attitude of India's politicians toward the poor or the "new colonialism" that has taken root in the ranks of the elite, but more often he is even-handed in his approach.
Discussing a famous case of sati (widow-burning) that drew the attention of the international human rights community to India in 1987, Tully is concerned primarily with the various reactions of India's politicians, feminists, religious leaders, and press - as well as the local response in the village where the sati took place.
In "Typhoon in Ahmedabad," Tully recounts a visit to one of the largest cities in the state of Gujarat in the aftermath of riots that erupted after state-assembly elections in 1991. After talking to a group of Muslim women about communal violence, family planning, and local work cooperatives, he provides a rundown on bootlegging and police protection in India's "only large city where prohibition is in force."
Returning to the issue of sectarian violence, he is told by a Congress Party leader, who echoes the opinions of others Tully has already interviewed, that "there would be no communalism in India if it weren't for the power brokers. The power brokers turn Hindus and Muslims against each other, so that they will become vote banks." The essay then eases into a description of some of the programs SEWA (the maverick Self-Employed Women's Association) has established to help rural, frequently illiterate women form trade unions, secure loans, and open bank accounts.
In "The Defeat of a Congressman," Tully proves himself an agile essayist - meandering but persevering, effectively indirect in his questioning, and fair-minded in his commentary.
By the end of the book, we're well on our way to believing that one good journey is worth a thousand trips.
Degas would be pleased.