Every word he pronounced in his clipped British accent, over the crackle of the radio, was accepted as the absolute colour of truth. In those pretelevision days, millions of Indians hung on his every word—as he engaged with wars and disasters, announcements and deaths, upheavals and turmoils— yes, it was always the dependable voice of Mark Tully.
Though he was born in Tollygunge, Kolkata and spent his first ten years in India, his ardent love affair with the country began in 1965 when he joined the BBC in their administrative department in New Delhi. And in his inimitable style, Mark Tully says, “I arrived with the Tashkent agreement.” (We like this veteran broadcast journalist for his dramatic statements.) Working out of the administrative department he first began to do pre-recorded programmes and “it was infrequent.” He explains that in those days to do a live programme was difficult. “The telephone connectivity was haphazard and it was not easy.”
After covering much of eventful India through two decades he began his foray into the verbose world of books. He laughs when he recounts, “I was used to doing small reports and at the end of it I would sign off as Mark Tully, so when I started writing books, at the end of every 250 words I would want to sign off. My first book with its cutoffs and slashes was a total mess. Radio has always been my first love with its brevity, clarity and simplicity whereas writing books terrified me.” However much he says books terrified him, he has written over half a dozen books. And he continues to do a regular Sunday morning programme on BBC UK called “Something Understood” that deals with art, music, religion, literature and philosophy.
His reading takes him into philosophy, religion—his major areas of interest and as for novels it is the ones from the Victorian era—Dickens, Hardy, Kipling that still capture the attention of Mark Tully. “I read them over and over again. I think in most of the modern novels the narrative is weak. The emphasis is on the verbal pyrotechnics and it is too adjectival. I like Graham Greene and R K Narayan too. They are spare and brilliant like the radio.” (We like that too —his undying devotion and fidelity to radio.) Tully who has witnessed the transition of India from a socialist state to the liberalized state writes about those years in his book India’s Unending Journey. “Consumer goods were in such short supply that foreign diplomats’ wives preparing to leave the country found a ready market for their half-used lipsticks and their underwear.” He says, “Before the liberalisation started much of India’s entrepreneurial energy was bottled up. India lost at least ten years to a country like China.”
Tully strongly stresses in his books how India has changed him. “I used to look for absolute answers and it was in India that I learnt the uncertainty of certainty. I also got a sense of balance.” Inspite of all that he has imbibed from India, Tully still retains his Britishness after four decades of living here. “I am British by blood, British by birth and I believe in karma. I cannot throw away that part of me,” says Sir Mark Tully.
Memories Of Tamil Nadu
“Chennai, or Madras as it used to be known, has a sober south Indian culture which is less concerned with money making than with the old fashioned virtues of manufacturing.” Mark Tully has been coming to Chennai and the state to cover events, to do documentaries and to research for his books. He writes in India's Unending Journey “Chennai, or Madras as it used to be known, has a sober south Indian culture which is less concerned with money making than with the old fashioned virtues of manufacturing.”
He says that after the hectic pace of Delhi, he finds Chennai orderly and refreshing. It is the perfect place to unwind. He recalls how he loved the time he camped at the beautiful seaside Rameswaram. “Soon after the IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka, a politician threatened to swim across the sea to Sri Lanka in protest. So an entire troop of reporters camped there waiting for him to do that. And every morning we would watch him enact a drama but he never did it and we had to come away. Our editors were not too happy with us for going there.
P.S: Those of us who gathered around the radio on that fateful day- October 31, 1984 -believed it was the voice of Tully that announced at around six in the evening: "India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi is dead." Though she had been shot dead in the morning the official Indian media was strangely silent so we had to wait all day for BBC to pronounce it. I was in boarding school and a group of us had gathered around the maid’s radio and we had listened in hushed silence. There were, perhaps, millions of Indians like me glued to the radio that day, BBC in particular. And I had always believed it was Tully so I was sorely disappointed when he said, “No it was not me. I was away on leave when she died.” He had spoiled the beginning of the piece I had planned on him and I was none too happy. I stubbornly repeated the question hoping he would give me the details of that day. He just as stubbornly shook his head. Interestingly, the New Indian Express had thought like me and they had in their edit in January 2011 (I owe the month and year to google) said the same.
First published by The Times of India in 2008, Chennai