Mark Tully’s Upcountry Tales brings vintage Purvanchali stories with a unique flavour of the lyrical, sensuous and romantic lilt of the purvaiya (easterly wind) in the rarefied English literary power corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi. The celebrated Indophile BBC journalist, travelling through the historical and fictional interiors between dusk and darkness, resists the labelling of Purvanchal as backward, casteist, patriarchal, mafia-ridden, corrupt and much else. Blending the poignancy of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s Maila Anchal and the sizzling realism of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, Tully wittingly admits that “some of the stories are light-hearted, others more serious” in the collection, and “all these stories could have occurred in Purvanchal”. No wonder, plots and characters in the stories stand out for their shape-shifting mnemonic and itinerant qualities.
Set in the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh during the raunchy uprisings of Mandal, Mandir and economic reforms in the post-license, permit-Raj India, the seven short stories in the collection are about “unlikely rebels, delightful pragmatists, bunglers and bumblers”; they are memorable people—neither eminent nor ordinary—who, in their individual ways, battle quotidian corruption and injustices. Written as lacquer portraits of fasting and feasting India, most characters in the stories are figments of imagination, but draw on the characters that Tully met in his illustrious reportorial career in India. Also, these stories are inspired by real-life familial and political circumstances. For instance, most people know Tully as a surrogate Indian in life-long love with adventures in Pax Indica, but many don’t know that three generations of his family also lived in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His great-great-grandfather R Nicholson had served for 18 years as an opium agent in Gorakhpur. And his grandfather Herbert Nicholson Betts was born in Aurangabad in Purvanchal’s neighbouring state Bihar. So make no mistake, the choice of setting these stories in Purvanchal is deliberate and determined. As if reminiscing his long-winding, grinding travels across Purvanchal, he self-mockingly writes in the story, Slow Train to Santnagar, “the train was immensely popular. When anyone complained to a railway official about the speed of the Fast Passenger, they would be told, ‘It is a fast train, it only goes slow’”! This highlights how Tully underpins his witty clear-sightedness with empathy; it is impossible to be funny if you have no affection for human and non-human failings. In other words, Tully’s fictional-realist storytelling style has evolved from careful brushstroke compositions of a juror to more spontaneous, calligraphic narratives of a master storyteller.
Most stories in this collection are colloquial and provincial, yet cosmopolitan to the core. After reading these stories, you will agree with Tully that not all people in Purvanchal are squint-eyed demons or yogis in bound-lotus postures at the couch of power. Following Chekhov’s art of curating characters, Tully reminds us that no one is wholly bad or good. That’s why his stories are grey, bituminous and subliminal.
For instance, not all policemen in Purvanchal are corrupt and heartless creatures. In the story Murder in Milanpur, protagonist thanedar “Prem Lal not only saved an innocent person from life imprisonment or perhaps even hanging, his prejudice against the CID had been justified and he also demonstrated his skill as a detective, and he could remain in sleepy Milanpur a little longer”. Perhaps after the 2G case fiasco, the top brass of CBI in New Delhi could learn a lesson or two in criminal investigation from Prem Lal! We hear so much about a dystopian educational world in eastern Uttar Pradesh, but Pandit Madan Mohan Tiwari nurtures young Ajit’s talent and inculcates the spirit of social work in him. Both Budh Ram, the hero of The Battle for a Temple, and Ram Bharose, a Dalit-turned-monk in the story, The Making of a Monk, fight against caste atrocities. Women in Purvanchal are no longer mute witnesses to the violations of their rights. It is a woman, Aruna Joshi, who leads the fight to save the train to Santnagar, writes Tully. Short stories are not defined arbitrarily by length, but by their unique ability of recreation of the silences and absences in our lives. Tully realises this rare experience of narrative grief by adopting a script-like rendering of dialogue and employment of allusions from a first-person point of view.
Consider this stab-at-heart denouement from The Reluctant Lover. Aditi and Ajit spat over their career choices on whether to join the elite Indian Administrative Service or do social work. At the story’s end, when Aditi fails to persuade Ajit to drop his plan to start an NGO in his home district, “she threw herself back onto the bed and lay with her arms open, still weeping. She pleaded like a child. ‘Ajit, my little buddhu, come and let me hug you, then you will understand how much I love’. He went to the bed and stood over her. She grabbed his wrists and tried to pull him down beside her. He resisted, pulled himself free, and stepped back, crying, ‘No, no, no, I can’t. I must go… Let me go.’ Ajit burst into tears and walked out of the room. On his way back to the hostel, he realized that once again he had been diminished by anxiety… In spite of all the evidence that Aditi loved him, he had not been able to convince himself he was the sort of man any woman could love. He was running away to hide, that was the truth of it”. You can easily spot how much narrative power Tully packs in here, giving the illusions of foregrounding routine and rupture in the same brushstroke.
In other words, Tully’s genius lies in not only demanding precision and brevity in short stories, but also mirroring human experiences with stammers and stalls. Speaking in polyphonous voices, from villages to university campuses, these unusual-usual stories are a deeply haunting, funny, illuminating bag of quirky truths about the great Indian hoax—comic and absurd. I am sure readers will be animated by the smoky narrative warmth and crackling wit in this collection. So read these tender, startling stories with “trembling eyes of a child fluttering to sleep in the season of phantasmal light”.
I won’t be surprised if you require a second reading, which is a common human foible and literary indulgence too. So read these stories again, perhaps mumbling-muttering in the voiceless cries of azure skies. Savouring the rancid smell of humanity in Purvanchal will liberate you from enchanting spells of what Tully calls “false optimism” generated by neo-liberal economic reforms in India. In the end, these stories soul-wrenchingly evoke Mohammad Rafi’s immortal Godaan song, “Pipra ke patwa/sarikhe dole manvaa/ki hiyara ma uthat hilor/purvaa ke jhokvaa me aayo re sandeshvaa/ki chal aaj desvaa ki aur” (Like the leaf of a peepal tree, I quiver and a hope surges through my heart/the easterly wind blows with the song of homecoming, calling me home). Though in recent times, Purvanchal has become the abandoned homesteads of native ghosts, these short stories—vivid, powerful, disturbing—force us to mediate on upcountry homecoming. Like Ajit, the reluctant lover, I am also not sure how I’ll handle that!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, writer and senior fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His recent anthology is titled Banaras and the Other