Book: Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 599
A glimpse at the title will make you ponder at the unusual way of presenting it for this book review. When you give the major transformation era of India (the 1980s) into the hands of master craftsman of words, Mark Tully, what you get in return is his immense ability to convey ideas and often facts in a highly thought-provoking manner. A keen observer of Indian politics and society at large for the last five decades, Tully through his writing and interviews of the Who’s Who of Indian politics has always been vocal about the follies and the evils existing in the world’s largest democracy.
Upcountry Tales revolves round the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh in the second half of the 1980s when India was driven by the word ‘Technology’ under the young pilot turned Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Despite the changes that were occurring in the urban mindset, the rural folks were still deprived of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. Every tale scripted by Tully highlights several lacunae that existed in the society then and sadly we realise some exists even today.
“You thought you could get a school built on this land, and look at its condition. Not a child has ever sat there. No teacher has ever taught there. We saw to that. So clear off and I’ll use the sand and cement for some repairs on my Shankar Mahadev temple,” a threat given by the Gosains to the Dalits over possession of a piece of land in the opening tale ‘The battle for a temple’ speaks volumes about existing situation then. Religion is preferred over education, and if at all one learns it is mainly through singing or listening to traditional songs. Vote bank politics and corrupt officials both having firm footing even today amid strong divide of caste.
As the reader scrolls down the pages, there are several characters which Tully has brought alive highlighting their traits. Like Prem Lal, a thanedar by force and not choice. He wanted to be a teacher but his father considered teaching to be not a manly job. His father’s reasoning by asking Prem Lal that have you ever seen anyone offering a bribe to a school teacher, speaks volumes about the deep rooted practice of graft in society. But amidst all for a thanedar like Prem Lal small gossips matter a lot and journalists turns out to be great source of information.
Having seen India up, close and personal, this book strongly brings out the observational skills Tully has gathered over the years. In one of his tales titled ‘The Ploughman’s Lament’, he beautifully narrates the era of kerosene lamps, PCOs and highlights the fear in the mind of a farmer who thought that tractors would threaten the very survival of bullocks which he had regarded and nurtured since childhood as members of his family. Mention of cars like Hindustan Ambassador and Maruti, brings in that perfect blend of vintage and modern while reading. And one can’t help but visualise these marvels of bygone era. Wife’s personal savings and open mindset to usage of modern technology against corrupt bank officials shows the women empowerment in India in very grounded manner.
Having spent most of his career reporting for the BBC in the licence-permit raj and been witness to its death with emergence of new era, Tully has been part of changing mindset too. Right from party politics turning into a family business to the gimmick of spreading political rumours to damage opponents image, the book also offers different shades of public life. Tully has made a sincere effort in showing the brighter side of otherwise bleakly painted Purvanchal. Amidst all the existing social evils which are carried out in the name of tradition, politics or religion, he has highlighted the positive side of individuals too. Just as he writes in one of his sentence attributed to a Jat that ‘There must be some black in the daal’ literal translation of the often used Hindi phrase ‘Daal Mein Kuch Kala Hai’. We as readers have a choice to gulp down that daal quietly without any resistance or throw it away opting for a new and better one. Just like few of the characters in ‘Upcoming Tales’ does, setting an example for the readers.