(Published in Sify.com on 11 February 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/gandhi-would-be-horrified-at-india-aiming-to-be-a-superpower-imagegallery-columns-mckudCefjea.html?html=5)
When I ring the bell at Mark Tully’s house in West Delhi, a voice calls out, “kaun hai?” Assuming it’s a neighbour, I begin to identify myself in Hindi, when the gate swings open and I find myself face-to-face with the very blonde, very British Gillian Wright, Tully’s colleague and partner of three decades. “I’m here to interview Mr Tully,” I say, when I’ve recovered from the surprise. “Oh! Does he know you’re coming?” Ms Wright seems just as surprised. And the absent-mindedness of the man who’s brought India to Indians, travelling to parts of the country many of us wouldn’t think to go, endears him all the more to me. Over the next hour and a half, he would chide me for being more familiar with English than my mother tongue, get flustered when I partly blame the book he co-wrote with Ms Wright for making me want to return to India, ask me nearly as many questions as I ask him, and speak about religion, jugaar, language, radio, teachers, high-handed police and...oh, yes, also his book Non-Stop India, which was my excuse for meeting him.
There are a lot of allusions to your 1991 book No Full Stops in India in Non-Stop India. You refer to that book in the cover, in the conclusion, and even in interviews. But I thought it was rather more like India In Slow Motion – the travelling, the talk of corruption in the system...
Yes, I think there is a similarity to India in Slow Motion. I think with No Full Stops in India, there was probably a more definite theme, the theme of preserving Indian culture. But I do think there is a link between the two, because of the twenty years’ gap between the two, and there are sort of bits in the book where I do try and draw out the difference between what is happening now and what was happening then.
You know, when No Full Stops was written, India was still pretty much in the doldrums, and internationally, it was written off really, and not many people were interested in its economy. And since then, the whole India story has taken off. But I certainly understand what you say, that it’s more like India in Slow Motion.
All your book titles carry the sense of a journey: Heart of India, India’s Unending Journey, India in Slow Motion, Non-Stop India.
Well, I’ll tell you why that is, really. It all started off, to be honest, with No Full Stops in India. And that was a complete accident, the title. Because we were fiddling around trying to find a title, and suddenly, my editor drew this out of what the artist Swaminathan once said, and she said ‘This is a brilliant title, it says just what you say’.
And why I was so pleased with that title is that it says something that I believe is profoundly true about Indian culture, which is, as I say in India’s Unending Journey, this business of not getting stuck on certainties, having an open mind, and regarding life as a non-stop learning experience. You see, I think that in Western thought, and in Western religions, we sort of reach conclusions, and we get stuck there. And if we take religions, although I am a Christian, I cannot say to myself, as many believe Christians should, that “Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, the life, and nothing else.”
I think modern-day atheists make the same mistake – they say there is no God, and that’s the end of it, you know. But these questions are open, and therefore our life is perpetually in motion, and Indian thought is perpetually in motion, because Indian thought never comes to absolute conclusions.
Once, I asked the Dalai Lama what he thinks about God, and even he himself is still thinking about it, in a way. He’s not saying there is no God, really, he’s saying something more like “Well, we have to think about it.” The Buddha himself, really, seemed to say well, it’s something we can’t think about, it’s too big to think about. Some would say the Buddha said it’s not relevant. But it’s this open-mindedness, this not reaching final conclusions, which is why I’m fascinated by the idea of journeys.
Having lived here so long, do you think you have imbibed certain values from Indian thought, not necessarily Hindu thought – for instance, destiny, which is a pan-religious concept in this country?
Yes, recently, I did an interview for The Daily Telegraph, in which I tried to explain how, within the Christian context, you could believe in karma and in reincarnation, for which I got some interesting responses.
And I said I find reincarnation a more easy-to-believe-in-and-
understand idea than the Christian concept of Heaven. And I certainly believe, and I’ve said a lot about this in India’s Unending Journey, that karma is a very important lesson, for two reasons – not just because it does teach us that, you know, we have to live responsibly, otherwise we will pay a consequence for it, but (b), because it also teaches us that when we come into this world, a whole lot is given to us, and we must not try to be something other than what our karma is.
And so many of us spend our lives, you know, trying to be clever when we’re not intellectually very clever. I mean, I’ve never been an intellectual genius by any standards! So, yes, trying to be clever when we’re meant to be something else, rejecting being good with our hands, because we think that’s demeaning, when in fact, our great talent may be for gardening or something like that. And so many of us make ourselves unhappy because we reject our karma.
So, those things, I believe one has to try and fit into one’s beliefs. And I got a letter, just today, which I’ve just answered really, about the interview, which speaks of how the idea of karma within the Christian religion is interesting.
But, you know, I would also add to this something which I think about a lot: Christianity places a greater stress on loving God, which I find helpful, and I think Indian religions are more individualistic, while Christianity is more of a corporate religion, giving you a sense of community, you know, and I like the corporate side of Christianity.
And lastly, I would say that, I, like the Mahatma, believe that that religion in which we were brought up in is probably, not absolutely necessary, but probably, the right one to practise and belong to. And I was brought up as a Christian, and at one stage, I was a very fervent Christian. So, I think I’ve always rejected the idea of leaving Christianity, for me. I’m not saying you should join in! (Laughs)
Do you find that the idea of being intellectual, or even intelligent, tends to be divorced from the idea of being religious, especially in India? In that, atheists are treated as more scientific, and therefore more rational, and more sensible than believers of any religion?
Sadly, atheists tend to think people who are religious are in some way warped, stupid, a bit cranky, that sort of thing. That I do find, but I know plenty of highly intelligent people who are very interested in religion, so I wouldn’t say that is inevitably true that they’re not intelligent. Plenty of scientists are religious.
The problem I have had in this country is actually nothing to do with Christianity. It’s a different one. You see, it’s embarrassing in a way to say you’re religious, because then people think you’re saying you’re very saintly, or something like that. I’m anything but saintly, and I have not led a regular Christian life, according to the dictates of the religion. (Laughs) But I’ve read theology at university, and I’ve always been interested in religion and theology. And because of that interest in religion and theology, and because I strongly oppose both Hindu fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism, and secular fundamentalism, the secularists, many of them, think I’m a supporter of BJP or the RSS, automatically.
And that is, in my view, because of secular fundamentalism – because secularists cannot see or understand any good in religion, and therefore they think, if you are saying that certain aspects of Hinduism have come to mean something to you, that means you’ve become a rabid Hindu fundamentalist.
That is the problem I have come across. No one has ever criticised me for being a Christian. What I have been criticised for, and absolutely wrongly in my view, is for what I have said about Hinduism, because it has been taken by secular fundamentalists to mean I support Hindu fundamentalism.
You speak of an instance where a maulana confronted you as if you were to blame for all the evils of the British Raj. Does coming from colonial stock have uncomfortable associations here, in a country you love so much?
Well, yes and no. The funny thing is that, personally, I have never had any opposition to me because I’m British, or, as I’ve openly said, because my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side was an opium agent! (Laughs) He lived in Eastern UP, and he probably was a fun man, I don’t know!
I’ve never faced any opposition, but obviously, there are a lot of people who blame a lot of the problems India faces, and has faced since Independence, on colonial rule. But if you read No Full Stops in particular, I too blame a lot of the problems on India’s having been ruled by colonial powers, including the British.
And I still think, in two respects, there is a colonial hangover – one, in the lack of respect for Indian languages among the elite in this country, the idea that English is the passport to the elite, really; second, although this has changed dramatically since No Full Stops, there is a sense of inferiority, which was given to India by the colonial powers. That, I think, has got far less than it was before, though I daresay after the recent performance of the Indian cricket team, a sense of inferiority has returned again! (Laughs)
In fact, I think this is a tremendously good illustration of what I mean about journey and everything like that – very few things are utterly bad, or utterly good. And there were some good things about the Raj, just as there were a lot of bad things. And there werepeople in the Raj, whom you may think mistakenly, but were genuinely dedicated to this country, and to what they thought was bringing progress to this country, and you know, I think that should be realised. But basically, the idea that a foreign country could come and rule a country with a culture as old as India’s, is obviously, not the right thing to have happened.
You’ve lived in India for far longer than many Indians, certainly longer than anyone of my generation, and you know more of and about India than most Indians. But you’ll never be seen as Indian, and you’ve spoken of your pride in your own English heritage too. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this particular dichotomy, of being a white man from Delhi?
Well, there was an occasion I remember that made me think about this. I was in Madhya Pradesh and I was speaking to some journalists, and one journalist stood up and said, “Do you think that the respect with which you’re held in this country has anything to do with your colour?” I had to say that I really hoped not. (Laughs)
But I didn’t really know the answer to that. I can only say that I have been treated with great respect and affection in this country, and I’m hugely grateful for it, and I think in part, and only in part, it may be due to the fact that as someone who’s not Indian-origin, I have chosen to identify myself in ways and live in this country.
But of course I’m not unique in that. It’s only because of my having been made prominent by the BBC that I’m in a peculiar position in this respect. There are plenty of other people, foreigners, who have come to live in this country, and contributed probably far more than I have.
You speak of jugaar as something that’s quintessentially Indian, but not necessarily a good thing, definitely not a good thing long-term. But can you recall instances when you yourself have personally benefited from jugaar?
Oh, yes, lots of incidents! I tell one in Non-Stop India about a wayside mechanic, which is a classic example of my benefiting fromjugaar. In the days of the Ambassador, they were always breaking down, and there would always be a jugaar solution.
You benefit from jugaar every time you go on a railway journey, almost, because somehow or the other, the train gets through despite all those minor mishaps that are bound to happen on most long journeys. The last one I went on, for example, the engine broke down, but somehow they found another engine which had to push it to the next station, and there, there was another engine to put in front, and off we went!
As things stand right now in India, money’s a key to getting things moving. And it’s easy to be relatively privileged here, and speed up things with a bribe or two. If corruption were to be rooted out entirely, don’t you think it would paralyse progress for a good period?
Well, only recently, I was at a lunch for bankers in another country, I don’t say which. (Laughs) And there was an Indian banker there, and he said “I don’t believe in all this anti-corruption stuff. We’d never get anything done if there isn’t corruption. Corruption is the only way you get things done.”
But my own feeling is that, we’re thinking of corruption in the wrong way, in this country. So much of corruption is, in my view, a symptom of bad governance, rather than the problem. The basic problem is bad governance, and that’s what this book is about, really.
Corruption is – I always use the analogy – a bit like a boil. You get a boil on your hand, you know, and you squeeze it, and the pus comes out of it. That’s not the answer to the problem, because another boil will take its place. Because the boil is a symptom of poison in the blood, and the poison in the blood of this country is bad governance and institutions which are feeble, far too feeble. That is the fundamental problem, and when it is tackled, corruption will come down dramatically.
And, you know, there are also two different sorts of corruption – you may think it’s harmless, the low-level corruption, if you bribe someone to get a driving licence, for example. But when low-level corruption means that those who should be getting ration cards don’t get them, and those who shouldn’t be getting ration cards do, when it means that those who shouldn’t be getting work under the NREGA – or MNREGA as it’s now called – get it, and those who should be getting work under the MNREGA don’t, then that’s a very damaging form of corruption.
Another very damaging form of corruption is this whole Inspector-Raj business. Because you do need inspectors, you do need people to go in and check that things are happening in factories, for instance, you do need people to check that electricity isn’t being stolen, you do need people to check that fire precautions, in particular, are being properly observed. But under the Inspector-Raj, all you have is people going in there and collecting money for saying that things are all right. That’s going to be severely damaging.
Equally, corruption on the big scale is damaging as well, because you get things like the spectrum scam, or the Commonwealth Games scam. So, corruption at all levels is bad, but fundamentally, it’s a symptom of bad governance.
You speak of triple play in the book, quoting Nandan Nilekani: growth in domestic markets, growth in world economy through migration, rise of outsourcing. MNCs in India have come in which pay salaries that would enable people to have the same standard of life as they did abroad. But do you think India could ever offer the same quality of life, where someone would be safe taking the tube at midnight, or wouldn’t risk falling off an incomplete bridge, or into a manhole?
You know, it’s not that good going back in the night on the tube in London – it can be quite unpleasant, for drunks on the train and law and order problems!
I think there are different aspects to the quality of life here and in the West. Yes, I do think in this country, in general terms, if you talk about safety of people and things like that, policing is something that needs to be radically reformed and improved, and it’s an aspect of bad governance and corruption. Everyone knows that the police are corrupt, sadly.
But I see no reason why India should not have proper policing, and that would deal with that problem to a large extent. And certainly, I wouldn’t put Delhi as anywhere near top in global terms as dangerous to people going out at night and that sort of thing. In some ways, the quality of life here is much better than it is in Britain – I think the socialising, people getting on with each other, is different here and better here in many ways. So I wouldn’t say it’s all on the side of the West, or perhaps I’d be living there! (Laughs)
In Non-Stop India, you quote a villager saying, “occasionally, an elderly person may be slapped or a driver get shot”. Does the violence, and the nonchalant acceptance of it here, continue to shock you even today?
Yes, I’m shocked by the violence of the police. About a year ago, I was walking in a park in Nizamuddin East, just below the walls of Humayun’s tomb, and a police patrol car stopped, and two policemen got out. There were a couple of young lads in the park, and they went up to these lads, and took one of them aside, and the first thing they did was sort of hit him across the face. And I went up to them, and I said, “You’re not allowed to do that.” And they said, “But he’s a pickpocket, and if we hadn’t done that, he’d have picked your pocket.” So I said, “But even if he’s a pickpocket, you have absolutely no right to hit him like that.” So they just shrugged their shoulders, walked off, and left the guy right there. Now, if he was a pickpocket, why didn’t they take him with them?
And there was a blatant example the other day, in Delhi station. There was this elderly person, probably pretty poor and everything, lying on the station, and the police were poking him with their lathis and telling him to get up. So again, I went up to them, and said, “What on earth are you doing that for?” They looked at me and basically said, “What’s it to do with you?” and again, they just sloped off. The brutality of the police still upsets me.
It’s troubling, and I think it’s because the poorer people don’t think they have any recourse against the police. They don’t think that if they were to go to a superior police officer, he would pay any attention. So the best thing is to grin and bear it, otherwise it will get worse. If you make a big hungama about it, from being slapped in the park, you could find yourself in the cell, you know. I think that’s the problem. But I think the police are genuinely very unpopular in this country.
Do you see caste as something that must be eliminated, or as something that could just become a part of someone’s identity, like language or religion or any other label, if it weren’t for politicians capitalising on it to create vote banks?
(Laughs) I’m always getting into trouble for what I say about caste! I think caste...well, you can’t just eliminate caste tomorrow.
Caste has played a negative and a positive role since independence. If you were to ask your parents whether they ever imagined there could be a Dalit Chief Minister in a North Indian state like Uttar Pradesh, I’d imagine they’d say no. The oppressed people in this country have chosen caste, rather than class, as the grouping, the coming together, to unite to fight for their betterment. In Britain, it was done on the basis of class, and here it’s caste.
The huge disadvantage of that, of course, is that it is then not a united force. Class is much more unified than caste can ever be. But somehow, it has happened because of the historical inheritance of caste. You can’t do away with that. You can’t say that it never existed.
It does exist, and my own feeling is that it will weaken inevitably, just as class has weakened in Britain. And for the moment, you’ve got to live with it as a reality, maybe. But in the end, in the modern society, I think it will get less and less influential and powerful.
What’s unfortunate is that politicians, when they seek votes in the name of caste, for the most part, don’t even do anything for that caste. That is the sad thing. If Dalit politicians were really doing things for Dalits, then there may not be quite the opposition there is to caste politics at present.
Do you see a parallel between the resentment some people harbour against the British, despite being so many generations removed from the time when the oppression actually happened, and the resentment people of some castes have towards the Brahmins and other so-called ‘higher castes’?
I think the resentment in some castes against Brahmins is much more than the resentment anywhere I’ve come across of the British. Usually, when they say you British did this or that, it’s said almost jokingly. Whereas, when you talk to Dalits, for instance, their resentment against the higher-castes, particularly the twice-born castes, is very deep-rooted indeed. In fact, in the case of Tamil Nadu, the backward castes movement was essentially an anti-Brahmin movement. But across the country, I don’t find it to be specifically anti-Brahmin. In North India, the resentment is directed against the Thakurs and the Rajputs, rather than against Brahmins, because they were more the oppressors.
What is your opinion of reservation? An economic criterion rather than a caste criterion has never been allowed to be implemented. And the largest bracket is for the OBCs and not the Dalits – in fact, ‘Other Backward Classes’ is often mistakenly expanded as ‘Other Backward Castes’.
I think OBCs is a good example. Again, there are things which can be said against reservations, quite clearly, but there are things which can be said in favour. And it is generally felt by many people that reservation for Dalits has produced the Dalit middle-class, and their prosperity and their forward-lookingness. So, reservations have their pluses and their minuses. Caste politics have their pluses and their minuses. But if you sort of try and say we should stop this and do away with it, no one should appeal on the basis of caste and all of that, (a) you won’t be able to do it, and (b) you’ve really got to be patient and wait for things to develop, you know.
Do you see caste as something that ought to be eliminated at all?
No, I don’t see it as something that ought to be eliminated. I don’t believe in ‘ought to’s very often, you see. (Laughs)
I think it’s something which a lot of people feel ought to be, because they feel offended by it, they feel it’s primitive, it gives India a bad name and that sort of thing. I think it ought to be allowed to die a natural death, you know, which it will do, eventually.
And I absolutely believe that crimes on the basis of caste should be eliminated and strictly punished. I think the practice of untouchability in any form is one example. Attacking a community because a girl wants to marry outside into your community is obviously outrageous and should certainly be strictly punished.
But I don’t think you should go out and say you’re not allowed to vote for a Yadav politician because you’re a Yadav, or that a Yadav politician shouldn’t be allowed to say, “I’m a Yadav, so vote for me”, you know.
In a section of the book, you quote the activist Chandrabhan saying English can help eliminate caste differences. But since the word ‘caste’ itself has a Latin origin, don’t you think the idea of language as the tool to wipe out caste is problematic?
Well, yes, I wouldn’t agree with my friend Chandrabhan on that one myself. The majority of the poor of India, of all castes, speak in Indian languages, their mother tongues, and I think they should all stand together and continue to speak their mother tongues. I don’t agree with Chandrabhan that Hindi is the language of Brahmins or anything like that.
You speak of a need for Indians to be educated first in their mother tongues, in the book. But even countries that have never been ruled by England are trying to speak the language, simply because it’s the one universal language we have, and so many developed countries with employment opportunities speak it as a first language. So wouldn’t making English a second language deter the advantage of speaking it as a first?
But, you see, this is the point which, again, it comes back to what I was saying earlier – this absolute right, absolute wrong, either you do this or you don’t type thing.
My argument is absolutely clear to me – it is that people should master and preserve their mother tongue. They should have a basic education in their mother tongue at their young age. But it does not mean that they cannot learn English as a second language, even at that young age. It certainly does not mean that they should not learn English. It doesn’t mean that when they get a little bit older, they shouldn’t be educated in the English.
But the point is, to learn to love and respect and use properly their mother tongue as well as the English they are going to learn. What is happening is that people are showing disrespect for their mother tongues, and that they’re not bothering to learn them properly, and they’re sliding towards English from about pre-nursery school, which is absurd, really.
I’m not saying you should be stupidly chauvinistic about language – one of the worst things that happened to Hindi in this country is when chauvinistic Hindi speakers tried to impose it on the rest of the country, and then there were language riots in places like Tamil Nadu. And now, if you look around, apne aap as they would say, Hindi is spreading in this country all the time, actually, and I’m delighted to see it. If only more people would speak to me in Hindi, I’d be more confident in speaking it myself! (Laughs)
So yes, I’m not in any sense approving of linguistic chauvinism at all. Also, you know, as an English speaker myself, I feel we’re at a huge disadvantage because there’s not enough emphasis in our schools on learning other languages. When I was in school, I only learned dead languages like Latin and Greek, and I’m no linguist – I’ve been struggling with Hindi for donkey’s years!
Maybe one of the problems is that class is tied to language so deeply, and most people of the educated elite, prefer to express themselves in English.
That is exactly the whole point! That’s the point my very good friend Ramakrishnan makes in the book. You see, people who take that attitude, of a bias towards English, are denying their own language the opportunity to grow, to develop, to maintain its status as a language in which you can gain knowledge, a language in which you can write about society.
In the book, you quote a statistic saying a language is dying every two weeks. Maybe that’s statistically right, but there’s a sense of panic to it – surely a language like Hindi or any of the official languages of India, which are spoken so widely, will never actually die?
No, I think exactly what you have said illustrates that there is a problem in this country, and it is a problem that should be addressed, that people should be concerned about. You may say that it creates a sense of panic, but there is a measure of urgency about it, you know. One of the things that India is most proud of, and rightly so, is its ancient cultures and its diversity. And language is a part of both those cultures and that diversity.
Between when you first came to India as an adult, and now, do you find a change in the attitude to language?
Yes, in two ways. First of all, when I came to India, it was in the sixties, and the excesses of the pro-Hindi movement were going on. I think that the Hindiwallahs have learnt their lesson much more now, and are prepared to leave it to the natural process to see what happens to Hindi in relation to other Indian languages.
And I also think that the barrier has in some ways been broken. When I originally came here, people of a certain educational status and financial status, didn’t think they would ever learn English really. But now, far lower down the economic scale – I don’t want to say ‘social scale’ – people do realise the barrier of English and are learning it, and this is where the trouble, perhaps, is at its most grave. Because in doing that, they’re going to schools where the teachers themselves don’t speak very good English, and they’re getting neither proper education in their own language nor in English.
Those are the two changes I’ve noticed.
Perhaps that’s why the idea of primary education in the mother tongue is a little scary for some of us – there are lots of people, maybe even lots of teachers, who can’t speak any language properly, neither English nor the mother tongue.
Oh, yes, of course, that is true. Well, if you look at it that way, you’ve got education happening in the English language in many places where the teachers can’t handle it. There are teachers in many English language schools who are more comfortable in their mother tongues.
I think that’s just a question of trying to produce better teachers in this country, in all subjects, not just languages, but in science and in maths and all the rest of it. And I think one global problem is that the teaching profession, which is probably the most important profession in the world, is not held in proper respect.
If you look at everyone in this country, at all the bright young things, how many of them want to be schoolteachers?
And let’s face it, you and I are journalists, and our profession is nothing like as important or valuable – any fool, virtually, can become a journalist. But you have to be really very dedicated to be a teacher, and that’s where the future lies, with the way the children are being taught.
I look back on my schooldays, and I realise how badly I was taught, in many ways, and what a bad education I had, which was so very narrow and constrictive. And I see the damage that was done to my intellectual development by that, and not just intellectual development, for personal development too. We need to have far more respect for teachers, and far more encouragement for bright people to go into the teaching profession.
And money’s not the only thing – salary is very important, of course, but status is a crucial thing too, and we really need to respect our teachers more.
Moving on to another aspect of the non-stop nature of this country, India’s trying to showcase its economy at international summits, and join the UN Security Council on the one hand, while malnutrition and poverty drag people down back home. Do you think there is a tendency to ride roughshod over the people, especially when it comes to issues like nuclear power?
Well, a number of times I get asked whether I think India will be a superpower. I think there is too much concentration on India’s external status, you know, standing outside this country. The ambition, I think, should be nothing to do with India being a superpower.
And I always ask people, “What do you think Gandhi would have thought if he had been told that the country he loved so much was aiming to become a superpower?” I think he’d be horrified, wouldn’t he? I think what India should be aiming to be is a country in which all Indians are given opportunities to develop their talents, to live peacefully together, and a country in which the culture of this country is preserved and shown to the world as an example of one way of a country living together.
I think that’s what we should be aiming for, and I think all this business of the Security Council and so on, is not very important at all.
You speak quite often of your, almost, idolisation of Gandhi. There’s a reference to him in all your books. When did you first start getting influenced by his ideas?
Quite quickly, after I came here, because I had the great good fortune to work on a documentary which was being made to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. And, of course, in order to work on it, I had to read and learn about Gandhi, and I was immediately much taken by Gandhi for several reasons.
But I’m not a blind admirer of Gandhi, I have some criticisms too, but I think in all that he did, he was an outstanding example, and I just wish that the world in general, instead of muttering about the most outstanding human being of the twentieth century and all that sort of thing, would actually get down to living according to some at least of what he believed in.
The last chapter of Non-Stop India, Saving the Tiger stands out somewhat from the rest of the book. If you’re looking at environmental factors, given that the overarching theme of the book is corruption, one would have thought you’d look at the mining scams, for instance, or in keeping with the non-stop theme, at nuclear power projects. What was the motivation for focusing on tigers?
Well, the motivation was, because all these things are to do with environment basically, it seemed to me that if you can’t save the tiger, with all this concentration which has gone into it, what can you save? So you have to take it as a parable, and in it, you have everything, really, in a way, which is wrong with the attempts to save the environment – the corruption, the inefficiency of the forces, the inefficiency of the courts, all the things. So, in a way, to me, it seemed to make an up-summing chapter in a way, and also a parable of a chapter. You know, there’s bits about the mining scandal in the chapter on naxalites, and we were nearly killed as a result of the mining scandal! (Laughs) And that’s why I chose the story of the tiger as a parable.
You speak of yourself as a reluctant writer, but your writing reveals such a love for the written word – you have sentences like “foods serve as a metaphor for cultural hierarchies”, you speak of the “slight American twang that corporate executives adopt in India”, of a man with a “perpetually angry look”.
(Laughs) I am a reluctant writer. In that, I don’t enjoy the process, necessarily, and there’s a funny thing I can’t quite explain to you, but I’ve always felt that we writers have a temerity about us, which is rather unpleasant. Here we are, saying “I’m going to impose my views on you”. What are my views worth, really, anyhow? I’d say there are three factors. Number one, I don’t actually enjoy it, especially this computer business. (Laughs) Number two, I do have this hesitation about saying “I’m a writer” – there’s something presumptuous, slightly ickish about it, you know what I mean? And thirdly, I’m not that confident a writer, I need other people around to tell me whether it’s any good or not. I’ll tell you what the phrase I would use is: there is a tendency of writers to take themselves too seriously, that’s what I really dislike about it, you know. I hope I don’t ever take myself too seriously! (Laughs)
But your writing has a certain vivid characteristic, you try to draw images with words. Do you think this aspect draws from your radio experience, from the need to make the reader see in order to relate to the story, the sound and texture?
Well, I would say one thing. The one medium which I absolutely love is radio. If I were told I can either write books or do radio or do television, I would say I’ll do radio every time. And when I was in the BBC, I always used to concentrate, wherever possible, on doing radio.
I love doing the writing for radio as well, because (a) it’s not too long (Laughs) and (b) we say in radio, that pictures are best on radio, and that is because we believe that we have to draw better pictures than anyone else – not entirely through writing, there’s sound as well, and of course there are people speaking, but the whole composite package does include writing.
And I go around this country speaking to journalist students, like you were once, and when I talk about radio, they say “But radio’s dead, isn’t it?” and I say, “Radio is not dead. Radio may be dormant, but it will rise again.”
Interestingly, over the last few weeks, because I’ve not been able to do much reading for various reasons, I’ve been doing much more listening now. And I said to Gilly only yesterday, “More goes into it when you hear a novel as a radio drama than when you read the novel.” I’ve just been listening to some of John le Carré’s Smiley stories, and it’s wonderful the way they go into your head by listening to them as radio dramas. So I am passionate about radio.