“One of the tragedies of religion is that the very people who should be setting an example are very often the people who create trouble. If you think about it, what does the clergy do? They are creating trouble to build a sense of identity in their communities and preserve their own jobs,” said Mark Tully at the launch of his book, Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India, at the India International Centre Wednesday evening.
Responding to author Ira Pande’s question on the “stronghold religion has on the minds of Indians”, Tully said, “If you have a powerful group of people who are determined to cause trouble, you will have trouble. It is all very well to blame the RSS for the Ram Mandir issue and I do think they had a completely wrong approach but I do think that, equally, the Muslim clergy and the community leaders were completely obdurate. I am sure that the vast majority of Muslim people in India would have welcomed some form of peaceful settlement peaceful. What is encouraging is that Deoband (Darul Uloom Islamic school) is speaking up against Islamic terrorism.”
The book of short stories marks Tully’s return to fiction after 20 years. A packed hall, among them Keki Daruwalla, Harsh Mander, Ashok Vajpeyi and William Dalrymple, turned up at the launch. Sunit Tandon read a part of a story. The stories are based in an area rarely visited or understood by foreign correspondents, eastern UP.
He sets the stories in the pre-liberalisation Rajiv Gandhi years, and a picture of the former Prime Minister graces the cover, and heroes people such as a ploughman who prefers his buffalos to the modern tractors, a no-nonsense headmistress who puts a powerful MP in his place, and a clever farmer’s wife who saves her family from her husband’s thoroughly impractical plans.
Significantly, there is also a bumbling foreign-return son of an Indian politician with a degree in developmental economics who learns a thing or two about voters of eastern UP.
“The son has a strong sense of entitlement. Is there something you are trying to tell us through this story?” said Pande as the audience chuckled. Tully did not take names. Instead, he said the story was really about “how a guy who hasn’t eaten the dust of UP or, in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s immortal words, ‘Woh ladke UP ka dhool nahi khaya’, coming back to claim his inheritance”.