Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: India's Unending Journey, by Mark Tully

This piece appears in Mint's Lounge today.

Mark Tully explores the nature of his spiritual beliefs in his latest book, in which India lies at the centre. In India’s Unending Journey, Tully advises readers to believe in doubt. He writes that uncertainty, the middle road, and doubt contain no absolutes and so are effective in balancing extremes. He espouses humility as a way of living in peace. To wander from this path would mean shutting the door on truth.

For this Tully seeks religious figures and accomplished academic experts who explain religion, culture, and economics – the issues that keep modern India occupied. He encourages readers to understand India’s journey because it “is the journey of us all, towards a future in which we must draw deeply upon our spiritual and material resources, and strive to find a balance in the face of uncertainty”.

Balance is everything to Tully. Recollecting his school days in a chapter titled ‘Marlborough: An education in absolutes’, he says that humility counted for very little. “Rather,” he writes about his education there, “it taught me that life was all about striving to be ‘a damn fine fellow’ and lift myself up without help from anybody else.” It bothers him that academic and athletic successes were attributed to effort, and did not take into account God-given gifts, circumstance, and earlier education. Entrenched in reason, Marlborough did not encourage questioning, Tully writes. This deviation from the Bible’s definition of a life lived well – “to ‘humble myself in the sight of the Lord’, or to be confident that ‘He shall lift you up’ ” – clouded his thoughts for years after school. Men are never truly independent, he implies, and to deny the existence of a creator or ‘sustainer’ is to give too much importance to human success alone.

The writer’s opinions on balance lead him to conclude from a friendly conversation that the pursuit of success leads people to do anything:

“Rich boys think they can do anything they like. They have absolutely no humility.’
‘Isn’t this part of the whole modern business of worshipping success?’ I wondered. ‘Because their fathers are revered for being rich and successful, the boys think they have the right to do whatever they like?’
‘You know,’ Richard sighed, ‘I think it also comes back to what we have often talked about in the past – competition and the school going in for this unwholesome encouragement of success.’”

The book is littered with similar instances of unsuspecting causes welded to effects by Tully. His quest for balance leads him up familiar avenues – disparity in wealth, the hollowness of consumerism, and even gyms versus yoga – but the arguments are unconvincing. Tully visits a Dalit familiar to him in Uttar Pradesh who is as rooted in poverty as he was ten years ago, and concludes: “Advocates of growth as the panacea for countries like India maintain that the wealth generated will trickle down to the poor, but it was quite clear that little or no wealth had trickled into the pocket of Budh Ram…” The existence of poverty is seen as a failing of capitalism. Yet, only a few paragraphs later, Budh Ram explains how government schemes meant to help the poor are misused.

There are passages of superb journalism, among them an encounter with Dr. Manmohan Singh, which lasts two paragraphs. He explains the prime minister’s challenge in making capitalism work for India, “introducing reform gradually; taking a step, watching and waiting, before taking the next step, in the same way that trade in the rupee has gradually been liberalized”. Note the breaks in the sentence, with each comma depicting a decision but not an ending.

Tully’s tone in this book is gentle, wise, and is filled with empathy for his subjects. His connection with this country is visibly strong, and he seeks to understand the things that drive its. His voice encourages conciliation and mediation, and is one of peace. But what does this mean? Ending a chapter on globalization, his writing exudes his message of peace, that the middle path is the best path of all – most chapters end on a somewhat similar note – but it is the nature of the middle path that it sometimes leaves us less close to a resolution than a firm stand would: “So…how can globalization be made to work? The answers may lie in keeping the correct balance between decision made at the global and the national levels, in strengthening the international organizations, in ensuring that the market doesn’t lead us by the nose, and in keeping the role of the market and the government in balance.” What will a reader looking for answers derive from the approach prescribed?


Anonymous said...

On the concept of 'balance'. While I agree extremisms are loathsome, there is such a thing as too much middle.

Referencing Jim Hightower and road kill: there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

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S.Ach said...

Nice Review.

I am currently reading the book. A tad disappointed. Looking at the chapter titles, I expected more of a travelogue with social commentary. However, the book is more autobiographical discussing, as you mentioned, keeping a balance between the extremities, especially in religious point of view.

Shouldn't this book been called "Religion's Unending Journey" ?