A book published in 1991, and so the best part about it is that it involves a fair amount of time travel. It’s a collection of 10 essays with an introduction and epilogue that could pass off as mini essays too! While all of the essays are commentaries, what adds that little flavour is the author’s own involvement in it, which he somehow manages to balance with a near objective view. The first essay, for instance, involves the marriage of his cook’s daughter, and his experience at the village. But it also is about how communities in villages have been solving their own problems even better than the land’s relatively new legal system. It thus serves as an example of how we, the ‘educated elite’ make a clamour for egalitarianism without understanding the positives of the caste system.
Cultural imperialism is the theme of the next essay and is brought out through the carvings at Mahabalipuram, and the interaction and friction between British artists (sculptors) and their Indian counterparts, whom they rate slightly lesser- as craftsmen. The essay also touches upon Dalit Christians and how they are discriminated against even within the Church.
The Kumbh Mela is what the third essay is about and is a vivid telling of the massive festival. The author spends time with VP Singh’s brother, and meets the various people who ply their trade in this enormous festival – the pandas and later, the akharas who look to recruit people or get donations. In this, there is a note of sarcasm that creeps in occasionally, but Tully still manages to capture the faith driven fervour superbly. He has also correctly predicted the potential rise of communal parties towards the end of the essay.
One of the most interesting essays is the fourth one, especially for my generation which grew up watching Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan! The author reminded me of the impact of this mega serial long before we had reality TV and TRPs – taxi drivers who knocked on the author’s door asking for permission to watch it in his house, cabinet swearing in postponed so everyone could watch it, and so on. He spends 2 days with the Sagars while they’re shooting the Uttararamayan section (owing to public demand) and there Ramanand Sagar tells him how he has handled feminists and also the story of his own life. There is an amusing part about the filming of a scene – Lakshman having biscuits between takes, reusing marigolds for extra takes, and so on.
Operation Black Thunder is a more serious essay which involves covering the whole event live. This was an era before live TV and omnipresent crews and the author tries to delve deeper into how a section of the Sikhs and the Central and State governments reached this point, with interviews of civil servants and military, police personnel.
Colonialism in Calcutta is probably my favourite essay as Tully takes us through the city where Marxism, industries and religion co-exist side by side amidst bare remnants of an earlier era. In between are interesting anecdotes like the Oberoi Hotel’s origins. This happens to be the author’s birthplace and the affection does really come through.
The next one was a surprise since it dealt with a modern day case of Sati and it has never been proved whether it was suicide or murder. The author gets the varying perspectives of the villagers, politicians, civil servants, activists, the extended family, and it does bring out how laws at the end of day, should be made understanding the minds of the people they are made for.
Typhoon in Ahmedabad also surprised me but apparently that’s the name they use for riots! This is an era before Narendra Modi left his indelible mark and does show that riots existed long before him. The poor – both Hindu and Muslim, seem the most affected in the politically motivated result of a nexus between politicians and the underworld. SEWA’s activities also get some space as does Ahmedabad as a city.
A journey into Madhya Pradesh in what was the national vehicle of the time – the Ambassador, makes up the next essay. The destination is the village of an artist who has made it (relatively) big in Bhopal with the help of a government program. Jabalpur, the inconspicuous geographical centre of India, represents eminently the feel of a tier 3 city in the mid-late 80s. This essay also covers ground on tribals, their belief systems and I also found what could be the precursor to Arundhati Roy’s essays about the Narmada.
The last essay is about Digvijay Narain Singh, the politician from Bihar who also happens to be the author’s close friend. He belongs to an era when politicians had a conscience, and while you could say that the author is biased, much of the perspective is reportage – opinions from others. The politician’s relationships with Nehru, Indira Gandhi are well chronicled and throws light on the kind of politician who took the responsibility of being a public servant seriously.
The epilogue is a note on Rajiv Gandhi, and through this, the state of India as a nation. It ends with the news of Rajiv’s death and the author’s perspective on what this means for a nation.
In essence, a wonderful read that gave me insights about a time when I was too young to dwell on things happening around me and events that ultimately affected the present I live in.