What Might Constitute a ‘Global Calcuttan’

A review magazine about Arts, Culture, Current Events, History and Philosophy, and featuring interviews – The Global Calcuttan is a person inhabiting a fortress of the mind – a City of Joy waking to the dawn of Kipling’s dreadful night – thoughts, ideas, memories, hopes and dreams – all inspired, informed, and somewhat shaped by a centre of culture once known as Calcutta.

This post’s featured Global Calcuttan in Mark Tully – you can catch him at the Kolkata Literary Meet, running from January 25th to 31st. For more information, please see: http://www.kolkatalitmeet.in/2014/ or https://www.facebook.com/kolkatalitmeet


By S.B. Veda, Contributing Editor

“Though I am a British, today I feel like more Calcuttan than ever before.”

– Mark Tully, on receiving his birth certificate from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in November, 2012

There are few foreign correspondents who are assigned to a place where from they began. This is generally by design, for theirs is a vocation that requires objectivity as well as familiarity in their reportage on events in far off places, those perhaps largely unknown to their audience. For Mark Tully, his assignment as foreign correspondent in India for the BBC in 1965 has become a process of slowly dissolving into the very subject of his coverage.

A British national, he has become a person of that place from which he was tasked to bring the news. He has grown to be least as Indian as he is English, spending the majority of his seventy eight years in the land of his birth.

When Mark Tully joined the BBC in 1964 returning to India was not foremost in his mind, having just abandoned ambitions to become a priest.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. His story starts during the last days of the British Empire at the very epicentre of their presence during the turbulent days of the independence struggle.

He was born in Tollygunge, Calcutta in 1935, then a retreat on the southern outskirts of one of the busy focal points of the British Raj – a green ocean where the Sahebs played golf, and relaxed, long before the influx of wretched humanity in the form of East Bengali refugees post-independence, marred the pristine landscape with the miseries of partition.

Young master Tully, son of a wealthy English Accountant, was not permitted by the nanny who effectively raised him during his early years, to mix with the natives. Hence, while probably aware of them, he did not witness the history-making events that would shape the nation of his adopted home. He was sent to an exclusive school in The Queen of Hills, Darjeeling at age five, where he was groomed in all things British before being shipped off to London in the middle of the second world war.

In fact, all of his siblings, having been born in Calcutta, returned with him at different times, prior to India’s independence.

“England struck me as a very miserable place,” he later recalled, “dark and drab, without the bright skies of India.”

But India was nowhere in sight for the young British national and recent émigré.  Groomed at Malborough School, and polished at Cambridge, he was bent on studying theology and becoming a priest of the Church of England, looking to the heavens rather than any nation on earth to find his destiny. It was not to be:  the rigours of the priesthood proved too restrictive for his adventurous spirit, so he decided to pursue journalism with the BBC, at a time when it when its television service, opened in 1960, was fast evolving.

A year later, he was posted to the capital of India, New Delhi as a foreign correspondent. No longer a British colony, Tully found in his motherland and adopted home, a people, struggling to define themselves in a world where nation states were losing their significance in favour of the idealogical blocks of the Cold War.

India’s foreign policy, shaped by her first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (who also retained and closely guarded the External Affairs portfolio), chose to remain independent from such polarity, though his and his party’s leanings were distinctly leftist, enshrining socialism in the constitution.  A critical member of the Commonwealth of Nations, post-independence, India initially seemed to be influenced by their erstwhile British rulers but had taken a sudden shift towards the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, even modelling its process of planning on the USSR. So close was the relationship that Nehru sent his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to be first Ambassador to Moscow.  Later, in the face of immense pressure from the Non-Aligned Movement of which India was a co-founder and the United States of America who had promised aid to the then impoverished country, his daughter Indira Gandhi also as Prime Minister of India, refused to condemn the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, still considered to be a border nation, though Pakistan occupied the region of India adjacent to the landlocked Muslim country. This was the environment in which Tully found himself reporting: positions he endeavoured to explain to his largely anti-Soviet countrymen.

Though Tully had been born in Calcutta, his upbringing was, as one might imagine for a scion of the British Raj, extremely sheltered. Reporting from India gave the prodigal son of the soil a chance to get to know the place, revelling in his travels across the length and breadth of the sub-continent via the Indian Railways, where his father had once been a director.

He had remarked as much when in Calcutta in 2012 while elucidating his continued ties to the city.

“It is the connection with the railways that draws me to trams in Kolkata. The other two places I have deep ties with in the city are the St Paul’s Cathedral, where my parents were married, and Oxford Mission Church in Behala, where I was baptized,” he recalls.

His travels soon morphed into a journey that took on the spiritual dimensions for which he had longed at university. Consequently, Mark Tully’s pieces, whether for radio or television, invariably escaped the superficial, delving deep into the subject matter, and evoking often soul-stirring, true to life images behind the headlines and the effect of war, poverty and disease on the ordinary people of India.

His tenure as the BBC’s India Correspondent lasted 22 years during which Tully became familiar to viewers and listeners as “The Voice of India”  for his incisive and thought-provoking reports.

Whether dodging the bullets on the India-Pakistan border at times of war in 1965 and ’71 or during some of the more  explosive periods of peacetime tension,  whether describing abject poverty of the lives of Calcutta’s street beggars or detailing the horrific aftermath of the Bhopal chemical disaster, he gave insight into the life of the subcontinent, which no other foreign correspondent could seem to offer – one of knowing his subject, intimately.

His coverage of Operation Bluestar with Satish Jacob in which the Indian Army was used to eject Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Sikhism’s most revered shrine, was revealing and comprehensive. It culminated in a book: “Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle, the first of many to come. In perhaps his most popular and acclaimed book, “No Full Stops In India”, he wrote about what the state government did right when the Golden Temple was again occupied by terrorists in 1986, preventing a similar debacle from occurring.

The book also elucidated a myriad of diverse stories from varied parts of India, including her tribal peoples, the plight of women, life from the village water well to the office water cooler – and it described with a clarity that is often missing from the Indian media on how religion has been used both by secularists and religion-based parties for political aims. It was a model for books to follow.

His last major story for the BBC was a communal one: the demolishing of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in which his analysis blamed both the ruling Congress and opposition BJP.  It had become the nature of politics in India to harness dangerous prejudices and direct them in a path of one’s choosing, and Mr. Tully was one of a few journalists to write about this with balance and a sense of history, equitably apportioning the responsibility for the mess.

Long a believer in the BBC and its public service ethos, in 1996 he wrote a bitingly critical open letter expressing his concerns over plans for the future of BBC World Service Radio, and interference from management. Later, in a lecture to the Radio Academy, he commented on the management Director General, John Birt as being “run on fear and sycophancy.”

In return, Birt dismissed Mark Tully’s allegations, together with those of scriptwriter Barry Took and Sir David Attenborough as “old soldiers sniping at us with their muskets.” Mark Tully left the BBC the following year, becoming a freelance journalist and authoring more acclaimed books on India and her people.

Tully’s passages across oceans from and then to India, and frequent trips along the rail lines of the subcontinent have been about a search for belonging, believing that there are two kinds of people, those who belong and those who are forever travelling the world, possibly in search for a feeling of belonging.

“I happen to be one who wants to belong. One of the reasons I’ve stayed in India is because I feel like I belong here (in India)” he states.

He was not forgotten in Britain, though, receiving the Order of the British Empire in 1985, and then a Knighthood in 2002.  Similarly the Government of India conferred on him the Padma Shri in 1992 and Padma Bhushan in 2005.  In 2012, he applied for an Overseas Citizen of India Card (OCI) for which his birth certificate was required. The mayor of Calcutta, Souvan Chatterjee furnished the document to him, which was registered by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Alipore on November 21st, 1935.

Despite his resignation from the BBC as New Delhi Bureau Chief, his association with the company has not ended altogether.  More recently, he has presented a BBC television series, The Lives of Jesus, using India, as well as the what Westerners call The Holy Land in the middle east, to explain the mysteries of Christ’s divinity. And, he still anchors a Sunday Radio Four programme called ;Something Understood’, featuring music and prose meditations on spiritual themes.

His spirituality has always had Christian roots but has grown in Indian soil, and bloomed within a Hindu landscape. He is a firm believer in Karma, and finds the plurality and broad-mindedness exhibited by the majority of Indians, essential to the spiritual individual’s quest to find meaning in life.

“India has taught me that there are many ways of approaching God.” he says. “The great thing is that India is one of the few countries in the world which has been influenced, rather than converted by other religions.”

But many in the largely secularist Indian media have branded him an extremist for talking about Hinduism’s unique plurality and inherent acceptance of the multitude of paths to God as being a gift, which India has given the world.

He remarked on this rather emphatically during a speech in 2010, organized by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD) on ‘How certain should we be; the problem of religious pluralism’, that “religion is culturally specific in many ways, but it is also highly individualistic, at the same time creating a culture of pluralism.There is also blind secularism in this country, so that if anyone speaks about Hinduism, he is branded as a fundamentalist!”

He remarks on his identity in the same way that many Global Calcuttans have come to define themselves, squeezed between the cultural tensions of east and west:

“I’m not like those foreigners who come to India and then try to be more Indian than the locals. I certainly don’t live here because I consider it to be the most wonderful country in the world! No… I was born here and have been here, and have been responding to circumstances here. It is a deliberate choice. Living here is a recognition of the role that religion has played in my life. If you have lived in a country for 50 years, you might get frustrated but you don’t get fed-up. In some ways, I belong here, in other ways, I don’t.”

For Tully and the rest of us, culture and identity are fluid concepts – alive – the current drawing us inevitably forward, in which we leave our individual streams for the ocean that awaits at the conclusion of life. In other words, you cannot put a full-stop on culture and identity, for it is sentence that is yet to find its conclusion.

And so, Mark Tully, like many of us, journeys on.

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165 Comments on “What Might Constitute a ‘Global Calcuttan’

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  2. Wow! Mark Tully is really a global Calcuttan. I had no idea he was born in Calcutta, and got his OCI card. Am a big fan. Keep bringing us these stories… Thanks Sushil

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