Podcast: On Mark Tully’s B’day, Listen to the Words of India’s Own

Mark Tully, who is one of India’s finest journalists, was born in Kolkata and is fondly regarded as India’s own.

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Sir Mark Tully is fondly considered one of India’s own.
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(This article was first published on 24 October 2017 and is being republished for his 83rd birthday.)

“You’re from Kolkata? I love that city; do you know I was born there?”

I did, I assured Sir Mark Tully, as we sat discussing his connection with India – the home he’s adopted as his own – on the sidelines of a series of talks at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival earlier in 2017.

Sir Mark is a regular face at the literary festival, and I’d voraciously lapped up as much information as I could have about him, before we got talking. Five minutes into the conversation, he was delighted to hear I was born in the same city, Kolkata, that he was.

Mark Tully was born in Tollygunge, a prominent area in the south Kolkata, on 24 October 1935, and had lived there till he was at least nine. It was where my mother had grown up, I shared – a factoid that promised to open an inevitable exchange of anecdotes about mutually known places and faces. However, he rued he hadn’t known the city intimately in years.

On Mark Tully’s 82nd birthday, let’s revisit the words of some of his most powerful books. <i>(Photo: Urmi Bhattacheryya/<b>The Quint</b>)</i>
On Mark Tully’s 82nd birthday, let’s revisit the words of some of his most powerful books. (Photo: Urmi Bhattacheryya/The Quint)

Did he ever return to look around – perhaps look for his old house? “I hadn’t, in years,” he’d reminisced, “But I did go back a couple of years ago to retrieve my birth certificate!”

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation had, post his request, managed to fish out his certificate from old Raj-era records, something Sir Mark professed to be “overjoyed” by. He’d no longer have to apply for a visa to visit and stay in the country of his birth.

What could it have been like, I wondered, to receive palpable, tangible proof of one’s belonging to a country, after decades of contested claims by commentators not related to him? Disowned as ‘the other’ in the face of a political crisis, then adored as ‘our own’ in the wake of its wane, British-origin Indian Sir Mark’s relationship with India has been sought to be defined by several voices but not his own.

In the course of a single conversation with the veteran journalist-author, however, you will come away knowing that he regards himself as Indian as Indian can be.

Today, on his 83rd birthday, therefore, let’s revisit the words of some of his most powerful books. Because, Tully, apart from holding his own as a journalist, is also a consummate author in his own right.

Excerpt from Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle (First Published in 1985)

(This book was co-authored by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob):

One of those who listened to the BBC for news of the Prime Minister’s assassination was her only surviving son, Rajiv. On 31st October he was campaigning for the Congress (Indira) Party in the Hooghly Delta below Calcutta. A police patrol stopped his cavalcade and told him that he must return to Delhi immediately because something very serious had happened. Rajiv Gandhi drove to a helipad from where he flew to Calcutta airport. There he tuned in to the twelve-thirty bulletin of the BBC’s World Service to hear Satish Jacob report that mrs gandhi’s condition was grave. A few minutes later Satish Jacob confirmed to London that the Prime minister had died. Rajiv Gandhi flew from Calcutta to Delhi where he was met by, among others, his close friend Amitabh Bacchan, the top-ranking Bombay film star.

According to the film star, Rajiv Gandhi’s first concern on landing at Delhi airport was for his own family. ‘First of all he wanted to know whether his wife and children were all right. Then he tried to find out something about the security. From the airport we drove straight to the hospital where his mother had been taken. When he reached the gates of the hospital and could not get through the vast crowd he turned to me and asked me about my illness. “How are you?” he asked. “When I was in Calcutta I met someone who said he had a cure for your illness. I want you to meet him. I will tell you about him.” It is a marvellous thing that he was able to think about the person next to him, about his friend in spite of everything that had happened to him. His spirit was unbowed and he could still think about his friend.”

Excerpt from No Full Stops in India (First Published in 1992):

The greatest temptation journalists face is to regard the stories they write as their own. They are not: they are the stories of those who are involved in the events reported. It’s not the journalist who is the hero, it’s those who suffer the famines or floods, those who fight cruelty or oppression, those who govern and those who oppose them. Never do I feel this more strongly than when I walk away from natural disasters with the material recorded for what I know will be ‘a good story’, leaving the victims to their suffering…

In the introduction to the same book, he continues:

‘How do you cope with the poverty?’ That must be the question I have been asked most frequently by visitors to india. I often reply, ‘I don’t have to. The poor do.’ It’s certainly true. I live a very comfortable life in Delhi, while the taxi-drivers who have lived opposite me for fourteen years have to sleep in their cars in the cold winter and on a charpai or light bedstead in the open during the hot weather. I have a three-bedroomed flat. The taxi rank is their home. My foreign guests expect the taxi-drivers to take them back to their hotels whatever hour of the night it may be. Before leaving, they will check the fare with me to make sure the taxi-drivers don’t get a few more rupees than they are due. That’s the way my guests usually ‘cope with the poverty’.

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