SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: Can a nearly spotless journalistic career of 45 years—30 of those for one of the most trusted broadcasters in the world—be tainted, tarbrushed and tarnished by a pathetic paperback written under a pseudonym?
And the book that is causing all the damage to the reputation of the man India knows as Mark Tully is the 166-page Hindutva, Sex and Adventure written under the nom de plume “John MacLithon“, and published by Roli books, whose promoter once published the Sunday Mail newspaper from Delhi.
For 30 years, the Calcutta-born Tully was the BBC’s voice of India; his classic, halting signoff “Mark Tully, BBC, Delhi” as much a reassurance that all was right with the world as a stamp of authority of what we had just heard. After retirement in 1994, he settled down to write columns and books, many of them on the land of his birth (No full stops in India, India in slow motion, India’s unending journey, et al).
So much did Tully sahib endear himself to the establishment that he was decorated with India’s third and fourth highest civilian awards, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Sri.
Now, a nice little question mark has been hung at his door at No. 1, Nizamuddin (East) by a cowardly, scurrilous and unimaginative roman à clef that makes no pretence of hiding who it is based on and worse, hangs the entire body of work of a 74-year-old on his alleged political leanings without giving him the chance to respond in public.
MacLithon doesn’t, of course, take Tully’s name in the book, but in discussing the life and times and adventures of “Andrew Lyut, a radio journalist who is posted to India because he was born there and speaks a smattering of Hindu”, reviews and reviewers are doing the damage:
# In his India Today review, Dilip Bobb writes “the book is so obviously based on Mark Tully, the ex-BBC bureau chief and media star who spent almost his entire career in India, covering the region.”
# The Times of India‘s Crest edition says the “protagonist Andrew Luyt has plenty of similarities with Mark Tully. Luyt can be an anagram for Tuly. Like the famous BBC correspondent, he is born in India, works as radio journalist and quits his job over a disagreement with his boss.”
# The tabloid Mail Today newspaper remarks that “the author’s bio is both impressive and suspiciously familiar: he has interviewed six Indian prime ministers, dodged bullets on the India-Pakistan border and has covered the Mumbai riots (Is he Mark Tully? Or [former Fortune correspondent] John Elliot? The speculative list just gets bigger.)
# All three items in the gossip column of Outlook magazine’s books pages this week are devoted to the book with Mark Tully‘s name finding mention eight times, without a single mention of the name of the pseudonymous author.
So, who is causing the damage to Tully more—the book and its author and publisher, or the reviewers of newspapers and magazines, for most of whom Tully has written before—is a fair question to ask.
An equally good question to ask is which part of Hindutva, Sex and Adventure is causing discomfiture to Tully: the Hindutva part, the sex part or the adventure part?
It surely can’t be the sex. A 2001 profile of Tully on BBC reveals unabashedly that he “womanised and drank to excess” as an undergraduate at Cambridge. He considered becoming a priest at the Church of England but dropped out after two terms.
“I just knew I could not trust my sexuality to behave as a Christian priest should. And I didn’t want to be a cause of scandal.”
And then, there is the small matter of his girlfriend Gillian Wright, with whom he stays while in Delhi, and his wife and mother of his four children, Margaret, with whom he stays when in London.
It can’t also be the “adventure” part of the title. From the wars with Pakistan to the Bhopal gas tragedy, from the Emergency to Operation Bluestar, from the killing of Indira Gandhi to that of her son Rajiv Gandhi, Tully saw plenty of adventures, upclose and upfront.
What probably rankles Tully, or perhaps, what really the pseudonymous author wants to irritate Tully with, is the veiled accusation that he was a closet Hindutva supporter all along without letting the mask drop before his listeners, readers, employers and other benefactors.
Here are three of many quotes from the book that the author uses to underline Andrew Luyt’s veering towards a soft Hindutva vision:
# “I am an Anglican and some of my clergy think yoga is very un-Christian, but how can you dislike something born in your country, that has taken the world by storm.”
# “The first question he asked Benazir Bhutto was about Kashmir, since she was the one who had called for ‘Azad Kashmir’, a Kashmir free from India, which had triggered ethnic cleansing of most Hindus of the valley of Kashmir.”
# “He had expected a rabid fundamentalist, a dangerous man. Actually, Andrew discovered over the years, L.K. Advani was a gentle soul, who would probably be unable to hurt a bird.”
If this is proof of Tully’s leanings, it is old hat.
In fact, in 2003, seven years before John MacLithon’s book was published, the political commentator Amulya Ganguli wrote this in the Hindustan Times:
“For several years now, the BBC’s Mark Tully has provided indirect support to the BJP’s Hindutva cause. His contention, as reiterated in a new TV documentary, Hindu Nation, is that secularism is unsuitable for India. The reason: it is a doctrine which keeps religion out of public life, an attempt which is bound to fail —and has failed—in a country as “deeply religious” as India. Hence, the Congress’s decline and the BJP’s rise.”
Much earlier, in 1997, the remarks reportedly made by Tully while addressing the National Hindu Students’ Forum in Britain had created a big buzz.
According to the Asian Age newspaper reporting it, Tully said:
“I do profoundly believe that India needs to be able to say with pride, ‘Yes, our civilisation has a Hindu base to it.‘ And for Hindus to be able to say with pride that they are Hindus.”"
Stunningly, or perhaps not, the author introduction on the back cover of the book and on the website of the publisher has the exact same line as the Asian Age quote.
“Some of John MacLithon’s admirers were shocked when he declared a few years ago: ‘I do profoundly believe that India needs to be able to say with pride, ‘Yes, our civilisation has a Hindu base to it’.”
So, in a sense, the book doesn’t tell us anything humanity didn’t know or had not suspected about Tully’s political leanings; it just packages it for posterity especially with two imputations: a) We should take Tully’s overall “objective” output with a pinch of salt, and/or b) that somehow he has done Hindutva some disservice by not aligning himself openly with the cause” (as perhaps the pseudonymous author has).
# In its short review of Hindutva, Sex and Adventure, The Times of India writes that the “Hindutva bits are quite forgettable”.
# Dilip Bobb says in his review that after quitting his job, MacLithon’s protagonist Andrew Luyt settles down “with a ‘partner’ to write books which go soft on Hindutva and Hinduism.”
# An unnamed reviewer in the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle writes that Luyt’s “very protestant upbringing and secular outlook shapes the way he views the events around him and with every passing episode his stance on Hindutva softens.”
Whether Mark Tully dislikes the Hindutva hint no one knows for sure, although one editor who has known the BBC correspondent, says the Tully’s views on Hindutva and Hinduism “do not in any way reflect” Luyt’s; in fact, he says, he would “disagree with them profoundly”.
But it is quite clear that the pseudonymous foreign correspondent’s motive is to throw mud at Tully and to draw him into the debate on his “soft Hindutva leanings”, which Tully has resisted so far. At least in public.
So whodunit? Who could be behind the book on Tully?
According to the Outlook bibliophile, while signing the contract with Roli Books 18 months ago, the pseudonymous author took great pains to protect his identity, even inserting a clause that treated the “divulging of his real name as a breach of contract.”
But unnamed friends of Tully are quoted by the magazine as saying that the “strangely written” prose and the hero’s “unusual sex” antics are a giveway.
“Mark’s friends say the man behind the book is a French journalist and avid Hindutva supporter, who, like Tully, has been based in India for decades but unlike Tully, is married to an Indian. This journalist published an autobiographical novel in French in 2005.”
Mail Today, which has run two items on the book, claims that after the first piece appeared, the author got in touch with them.
“After we reported the guessing game set off by the soon-to-be launched book, the author chose to ‘come out’ in a manner of speaking and get in touch with us on email: ‘It should be absolutely normal to defend Hindus in a country where 80 per cent of the population comprises Hindus and which has shown throughout the ages that it is pluralist and tolerant. But unfortunately ‘ Hindu’ has become a dirty word in modern India.’
“The mysterious author says that he has spent many years working on the novel—which has lots on the sexual peccadilloes of a Hindutva-loving foreign correspondent in India—but had always known that his peers would brand him immediately after the publication of the book.”
If nothing else, the phraseology of the Mail Today-John MacLithon correspondence suggests that the pseudonymous is obsessed with two of the three elements in the title: Hindutva and sex.
One editor claims he received an email out of the blue from the suspected author asserting that Mark Tully was the author but that he had written it under a pseudonym “because he is scared of coming out openly…. But I have not and I am much more radical than Tully.”
But, surely, if Tully wanted to out himself, he would have chosen a more dignified way of doing so, at least by writing a book in better English with a better publisher?
On his Twitter account, the editor-in-chief of the Madras-based New Indian Express, Aditya Sinha, asks this question:
As if on cue, the said French author, Francois Gautier, has a piece on the books’ pages of The New Indian Express on Sunday, in which he drags the names of other people—Bernard Imhsaly, David Housego, John Elliot and Gautier himself—who could have written the book under a pseudonym but zeroes in on Tully (click on the image for a larger frame).
Already, in its short life, the book has kept the gossip mills active, but in the long term, is it likely to end up besmirching the BBC and its voice in India?
Then again, the Hindutva herd, uncomfortable with the idea of independent journalism, is likely to ask another question: has it become a crime for a journalist or a journalism organisation to be associated with Hindutva?
Photograph: courtesy Outlook magazine