When British authors write of India
Indians have to take it with a pinch of salt!
India’s unending Journey
by Mark Tully,2007,pp 278 Rider,London
This is a book by the famous BBC Chief of Bureau for some 22 years and an much-admired writer and presenter of programmes on the BBC. Sir Mark Tully,born in Kolkatta in 1935, has made his home in India and is an authority on Indian affairs.Tully has a large fan- following and much decorated personality,Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan and the UK govt,a kinghthood.
BBC evokes or evoked at one time awe and authenticity for its news and views.I myself have some pleasant memories of the great broadcasting institution when in the late Fifties I was asked to participate in the BBC overseas Tamil language programme when I was at Oxford.I was given a letter of introduction to Mr.Sundar(Sundaram of Kalki magazine fame) by A.K.Chettiar,the famous travel writer in Tamil language.sundar was running the BBC Tamil language programme then.When I visited BBC,one Mr.Krishnamurthy(from Palghat in Kerala)was in charge.His Tamil was average and since I was already a writer of sorts,he gave me the entire job of writing and broadcasting the same! It was a job I enjoyed thoroughly! Every week I used to travel to London,write my programme and broadcast it.When my aged mother in a remote village in South India would eagerly listen to my voice and the entire village was thrilled at learning my voice from London! In fact,it was a god-send opportunity to keep in touch with home as well as to earn some money! For this work I was paid a princely sum of five guinea,a big money then and I used to visit the bush House at Aldwych and afterwards used to go the India House to read the Indian newspapers and eat at the subsidised canteen.Sometimes I also used to eat at the India League restaurant established by V.K.Krishna Menon,the restaurant used to serve authentic South Indian vegetarian dishes.Another South Indian lady used to participate in the programme and I remember sometimes I used to walk with her down the Strand to have refreshments at the Red Lion restaurant! Oh,those sights and sounds,the smell and the bustle! It was a totally different and carefree world and life then! Now,the BBC is not much in the picture as far as India is concerned,the Indian news channels have taken over and even the BBC fell on bad days,the Iraqi war and the biased news reporting,Tony Blair regime and much else had changed the scene.Al jazeera and other more authentic news channels the world listens to when it is wars in the Middle East and even the CNN is no more what it used to be. So,I don’t know what Sir Tully has got to say about the BBC’s current status as a source of authentic news and views.In my time in England the BBC represented some of the best in Britain,the Brains Trust was truly high intellectual performance.Our Bib Fight programmes,as Tully comments in the book,is all about noise and extremism ,not much for serious introspection. Now,as for the contents of the book under review,it has 11 chapters, printed on good paper and gives the deceptive look of an intellectual, thoughtful and scholarly book.,it has some 72 books of reference,most of them heavy-sounding titles and authors.S.Radhakrishnan’s all heavy tiles are mentioned and quoted. The autobiographical parts of the book reads easily and only when it comes to his basic thesis of Hinduism vs Christianity serious differences of opinion arise. The subject of the book,as I could see in a quick reading,concerns about Indians basic Hindu beliefs and he contrasts these beliefs with his own Christian beliefs.Nothing wrong and could lead to a new enlightenment.But the question is:is this his only objective and does he reaches any such enlightenment for himself or for the readers? After a careful reflection,I came to the sad conclusion,it is not! In fact,the very approach of Tully,in my view,betrays the widely suspect view that when it comes to the British writers,the Englishmen and women, when they write on India,they somehow carry the unconscious baggage of a colonial hangup. This is still the “whiteman”‘s burden,it seems. May be we have to add in this category,the other brown Englishman,our own V.S.Naipaul himself.Or,we can extend this list by adding the newly decorated Sir Salman Rusdhie too. Somehow,there is still the entrenched prejudice that Indian traditional thought,be it religion or philosophy or society,is still strongly rooted in much superstition,there is the entrenched caste system,the oppression of the Dalits,there is this Hinduism’s intuition vs Western(or Christian religion’s?) reason or other and more civilised way to God? Yes,Sir Tully tries hard to prove this distinction and with a professed claim for searching for humility in the Hindu and Christian belief systems,he seems to have found it,almost! I have objection for people like Tully to search for people,their targets,are the people Indians generally would dismiss as not representative of the particular subjects concerned.As for finding meaning in Hinduism,he doesn’t meet the more well-educated,even Western -educated Indian scholars but the more superstitious traditional sadhus and sanyasis! Thus,we find some strange names,strange for me at any rate,some Sankaracharyas are okay but there are others who flock to the Kumbha Mela and also those whose credentials are yet to be established in a more enlightened atmosphere.Also,what is really funny,if we can say so,is the fact that the author searches for subjects like Khajuraho temples(he says some rude things about how the two Indian villagers talk about the sex postures of the Khajuraho figures and also how the rural Indian women practice their sex etc) ,Varanasi rituals and Tantric practices in order to explain to his readers(who must all be must be hungry for some lurid and hilarious sex topics,there are six references in the index for sex and sexualmore,morality and taboos etc)) the art of AMA sutra in terms of Indian tantric practices and also Hindu rituals,yoga and meditation by America-touring new age sanyasis. Varanasi has a separate chapter,some 20 pages.Here again he mixes so much of pilgrimage and pleasure.”As the city of Shiva,it acknowledges the pleasures offered by Kama,the god of love,and also the danger of his arrows”(page 249).What new one can about Varanasi this time?As usual there is the usual descriptions of what people do in the holy city,the pursuit of artha,commerce,the Hindu-Muslim riots and the interviews with the Muslim cleric and the Hindu mahant and the subtle hint there is not much in the Hindus’beliefs in seeking mokhsa here! How about an Indian writer allowed inside the Pope’s Vatican and or into an Anglican church and try to run down the beliefs and practices in such holy shrines?Is there any use in such writings for any readers?In this time of so much changes and so much fundamentalist uprising and religious terrorism?Are the Western readers not bored to read such tripe? Not certainly for Indian readers such books have any value whatever. Why he is not able to meet any other Indian scholars and sanyasis who have some following in the UK or on the Continent?Or,even in India with such enlightened sources like Ramakrishna-Vivekananda maths?He hasnt touched Buddhism or Jainism or charvaka system. He argues with Richard Dawkins,about the existence of God and of course Dawkins is a heavy weight and it is not easy to demolish atheism.The point is that atheism also has a long history from Buddhism onwards in India.Nor Tully had gone deeply into other historic developments,the mystic traditions,the bhakti traditions where religious differences were underplayed. For the obvious reason,he wont get funny and ridiculous quotes!So,the characters who flip through his pages are all nobodys in the Indian scheme of things. This sort of approach to write books is of course to sell abroad.The British publishing industry wont touch more sober titles,they wont surely sell as much as this type of mix of the lurid and the ridiculous characters.His own one-time Dalit cook comes more than once and plays a significant part in enlightening Tully about the transformation of the emancipation of the Dalits in the wake the current Indian economic development. He mentions about the current obsession with economic growth,as if it has not solved all the India’s problems.He quotes only one authority,Amartya Sen is mentioned once to prove the point that after all Indian thought is not one of obeying authority(of Vedas and other texts) but there is room for argument and even scepticism.He has not one word about the successes of India’s economic growth,the spread of literacy or the rising standards of lives in the country.He simply doesn’t India;s status as a software super power!While the Americans are worried over our outsourcing muscle power, Britons seem to be blissfully unaware or don’t care for what the new generation Indian engineers and software professionals have achieved so far. In fact,the author is totally misplaced when he contrasts Indian belief system with Rene Descartes reasoning for certainty in the philosophical belief system.Decartes’s reason and also for science in human knowledge is as much part of Western and the world thought.I am a student of Decartes and I am no more an Indian with any Hindu hangup when it comes to my intellectual belief system. I am as much an Indian with a Westernised intellectual framework ,like so many thousands of others like me,educated in the West and yet leading an Indian way of life. What is the contradiction here?Why search for the more marginalised sections of society to prove your point?Naipaul did the same mistake. One hopes at least from now onwards the writers who come here for a book assignment on India ,dont indulge in this sort of distorting a non-existent India! Even when the British rule was there the Bengal renaissance brought about a paradigm change in pursuing modern knowledge.Even Gandhi and Tagore were very much enlightened universal characters. This reason-based Indian intellectual tradition and modernisation of knowledge is at least more than two centuries are so. The current Indian economic development,Indian democracy’s vibrancy ,the Gandhian legacy of non-violence are all part of the Indian legacy and yet Tully persists with Gandhian economics for today;s India’s needs,a pointless and tired theme already with most of the Gandhian thinkers,both in the West and in India. Again,the theme of East vs West also seems to me pointless,unless we really take some particular issues like war in Iraq and why some countries oppose that war.As for other issues,more so for religion or philosophy,already much work had been done by leading thinkers and today what we need is to confront the issues like Muslim terrorism,why the Muslims are disenchanted with the West etc. In religion in particular,there is no issue at all for the East vs West debate.There is a more universal recognition that in religious matters more tolerance and more understanding is needed and that can be promoted in various ways.No amount of convincing would do to indulge in old style talk of the superiority of one religion as against the other. It is better to drop the Tully agenda,it is simply not worth the effort. Let us turn our energies to understand the younger generations both in the West and in the East,that is outside the USA so that we can all join together to promote a more tolerant world where one or two countries wont rush to war and create confusion and misery as Bush and Blair had done! This book like many such books written by British writers on India has the usual British hypocrisy when it comes to presenting India to the Western readers. These types of book dish out the “masala” mix,so to say,in the typical British”I’m alright jack” attitude. The Brits have no qualms,for instance, to say they live with a companion,here it is his partner and colleague,while Indians would be shocked to see such “co-habitation”or live-in partners as plain adultry! Nor when they,the white men and women take up the job of interpreting ,say Kamasutra, as Tully does here,they present Indian erotic ethos as if it is bordering on barbarism,while they dont care a damn to even say how tribalistic and even boorish their own sex habits are! So too the condescending manner in which they seek to understand Hinduism in the hands of fake god men and women,as Tully again does here! Actually,Indians,more so the more fashionable,”Westernised”Indians have to share the blame for the persisting mindset,running down the more native and traditional habits and social practices and customs of the Indian people as bordering on the”uncivilized”part of India while in the West,in UK,in particular,we can see so many bizarre and even beastly habits that might put off the more polite society in India. There is much work here for a proper balance in the assessment of the exchanges between the “West”and the “East”.