SIR MARK TULLY is one of my all-time heroes, but a terrible glitch occurred in the matrix when I came to write up this interview. For weeks now writer’s block has dogged me, rewriting the feature three times (or three times so far) with cries of I’m losing the Tully running round Hove all winter.
Finally a wise friend advised me to just tell the truth – even if it means starting this interview with the shadows of my long-dead, complex, beautiful mother. So here goes.
My mother loved Mark Tully. She never met him – to my knowledge – but they were born in the same year, 1935, in the same Indian Bengali district, raised in the same town – Darjeeling – and pretty much schooled in the same street: a colonial childhood, ayahs, tea-garden vistas, and the sing-song accent. Forests of rhododendrons, servants. Kanchenjunga. The Club. Mummy left India in 1953 at eighteen – but India never left her and the rest of her life was spent in the shadow of the childhood that made her. Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s she would sit in our Surrey drawing room watching the BBC news when Tully, then Bureau Chief for the BBC in Delhi, sent his India dispatches about that tumultuous period in Indian history: Indira Gandhi, Operation Blue Star, the Bhopal Gas disaster, Rajiv Gandhi, assassinations. How well I remember her concentrating intently on the box. Sush, she would call out, Tully’s on the telly.
Tully was her lifeline to India.
When I approached Tully for an interview none of this was uppermost in my mind, but the mind is a strange place – and by the time I fly to Delhi and find myself arriving at the bright-red iron gates of Tully’s Nizamuddin West Delhi residence, in the cool light of a winter’s morning, I realise with real dismay that it is my mother I’m thinking of, not Tully.
She’s hitched for the journey.
She’s as real by those red gates I’m knocking at, as real as the pariah dog who nuzzles my leg and seems to eye the red gate as expectantly as I. I try to bat her away, look around me. It’s the old Muslim quarter, quaint, residential, narrow lanes of low mustard houses, a scattering of jungle, well-fed street dogs. It could be the elegant, faded backstreets of Palermo or Naples. My driver has murmured that it’s a posh Muslim area, and sure enough here are Muslim school boys in white kurta and topi walking to school and suddenly in the cool Delhi morning my imagination roams: did their childhood selves ever meet? Did they pass one another on Darjeeling Mall road? Go to the same birthday parties? Mummy has been dead twenty years, so why now her spectre? The ancestors are hungry. Deep in my imagination, my mother and Sir Mark are tangled, rosette marks on the same leopard, they share the same beast of experience, empire – and … and then suddenly the red gate opens and there he is – Tully Saab – in sandals and socks and a navy pullover.
I find it an immensely moving encounter.
This is the Tully of my many imaginings, a broadcasting legend, knighted in England, in India decorated by successive governments with the Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan. author of No Full Stops in India, which I clutched, as a girl of twenty-one, on the ‘toy train’ up to Simla beginning my own relationship with India.
‘Come in, come in …’
It is the familiar voice of Radio 4’s iconic, hugely popular religious programme, Something Understood: faith, spirituality, big-themed life stuff. In the red-gated enclosure I walk past a three-legged dog resting on a charpai and an ancient yellow Labrador wrapped up in a mackintosh coat.
No wonder the pye-dog was hopeful.
Still a tall man of real bearing, Tully is immediately warm and hospitable, asking his helper in Hindi to put his hearing aids in (‘Then we have better chance all round …’) and, as we settle on the sofa, candid, philosophic. His house is full of contemporary Indian paintings, some 19th-century prints of Delhi, images of mandalas, and in the bookcase a small altar of Hindu religious objects. I try to park my mother just beside the elderly mackintosh-Labrador. She always preferred dogs to humans.
He’s writing his memoir, or trying to. ‘I’m eighty-seven now,’ he says. ‘I’ve reached the end virtually …’
‘But is the book going well?’
‘I want it to be readable about what India means to me. One thing it means to me is the difference between western Christianity and Indian spirituality. I must stress that I’m not someone who meditates a lot. I enjoy reading and thinking about spirituality. But you know …’ he pauses. ‘I don’t know if I’ll actually finish it. There’s actually too much of modern India and not enough … about me …’
The me of Mark Tully. The central protagonist, the hero. The psyche, the soul. Inner worlds. A Raj childhood, exiled to boarding school at six, a hateful public school, distant parents, the trauma of it all (my words, not his). Marlborough College, a hopeless school (his words, not mine). The college chapel, his only solace. A relationship emerging with the Anglican liturgy: ‘The only thing that meant anything to me was the chapel. I loved the chapel and I loved the services.’ Theology at Cambridge, training to be a priest. Not becoming a priest. Running wild at Cambridge: ‘I was more suited to the pub than the pulpit. Lots of drink and not much work.’ And then – through a fated series of twists – broadcasting and an exceptional career at the BBC. ‘Given you had no journalistic experience,’ I hear myself saying, ‘you were exceptional at it.’
‘I was just exceptionally lucky. In fact I’m thinking of calling my memoir, A Lucky Boy.’
All this sifting, remembering. A memoir. Such a very difficult proposition. Raj lives full of a complicated psychic weave.
‘Is this more a life review or are you trying to see a pattern?’
‘Yes, a pattern,’ he agrees. ‘I’ve had so many powerful experiences pulling me back to India. I look on my life as deeply fated and I believe it’s very important to have belief – whatever percentage. The acceptance of Fate, trying to make the best out of what God gives you is a hugely important part of life …’ By the Labrador my mother stirs. I am startled. She too would always talk about fate. ‘It’s fate,’ she’d shrug at her own unhappy life. All that life wishing to return to India and write, but a rotten early marriage at nineteen and a love of alcohol skewed the odds against her. I wonder if it’s an India-thing, all those Raj children raised in India running round the world for the rest of their lives – fate. You can take the child out of India but you can never take India out of the child… Out loud I ask:
‘Is it a peculiarly oriental concept?’
‘One of the troubles of traditional western Christianity is what I’d call its being result-oriented: we are over conscious of sin, we are under conscious of the hand of God and fate …’
Fate, again. Such a big concept. Big like the Himalayas, big like empire. ‘Ninety percent of Mark Tully is fate …’ he says.
The Ed’s mother – schooled in the same town but fate was not so kind…
It is at this point in the audio that I begin to talk about my mother. When I listen back now, it is to his enormous credit (he really would have made a fine sadhu) that Tully listens, responds, asks me questions. There is something about that in Tully, a deep listening, being able to feel the shades and shadows in people’s lives. I tell him about my mother. I tell him that she too liked to talk about fate, that in our family we called it the ‘F’ word. ‘Fate,’ she used to say with a shrug, her own fated acceptance of stolen powers. Why is one person more fulfilled than another? I tell him that all she wanted to do was return to India. It was always India, always. But beyond her control. Certainly not the amor fati – the love of one’s fate – that Jung refers to and I think Tully is alluding to. I hear myself telling him that India was the key to her life, and asking if it is the key to Tully’s life? ‘India is clearly … a self-realisation for you?’
‘Yes, it made me.’ Then: ‘When I think of the times when I come back from India or I am saved from leaving India … they are all very crucial moments of my life.’
‘A kind of, what the Hindus might call, Shiva’s Dance? Everything connecting, interwoven …?’
‘Would you say it made you spiritually?’
‘Oh absolutely yes. Yes, ya ya. Hm, yes.’ That’s an awful lot of yes.
I would hate Tully not to finish his book. I find myself wondering why he can’t put enough of me in it. Too shy? But he’s not so shy about talking conversationally about the darker aspects of his life:
‘I’ve often thought that had drugs been what they are now at Marlborough, I would have taken to them, smoked weed …’ And again: ‘When I think back on my life I realise that if India hadn’t come into it, I might have got stuck in the admin departments of the BBC, had a big chip on my shoulder, and been dealing with people making programmes without making them myself – and I could have easily taken to drinking and ruined my life.’
My mother again, I have to apologise how she edges herself in like this: when her parents retired from Bengal to Ireland, she was offered a place at Cork University, turned it down, she was a snob, all those servants on the tea plantation, all that Raj lifestyle. It was Oxford or nothing, but her folks couldn’t afford it. Indira Gandhi had all their money. There was no place for the Raj children in England. My opinion.
It is these dark, alternative narratives that suggest a psychological complexity to Tully, one that might turn his autobiography away from the chapters of Indian history to a deeper dive into the evolution of his own soul. Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, comes out not long after I meet Tully, and I half wonder now if a good dose of such modern introspection – the demons, the daemons, the shadows, the wounded child – wouldn’t guide the former bureau chief into the personal depths of the me of Mark Tully. Maybe Tully’s block is that his own journalistic career was almost too exciting. Too much history. And I suddenly feel that in meeting him, I’m not just meeting Tully: I’m meeting worlds of British history – much of it in the process of being cancelled – decades of fast change, and the psyche’s attempt to play catch up. I tell him how, originally, years ago my own interest in India was dominated by the Raj, but now I don’t even think about that. ‘Shame,’ he says.
Locked within Tully there is a great story of the soul – embattled by terrible cultural mores, public school, legacy religion, the legacy of empire. If, twenty-six years on, we are now appalled by our national collective conniving of watching nine-year-old Harry walk behind his mother’s coffin, how do we feel for the six-year-old sent back from the colonies to England to board? I tell Tully about boarding school syndrome, a relatively new psychological recognition, the trauma of privileged children. ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘Never heard of it. Yes, maybe I’ve got it!’ More laughter.
He has said that it’s not an obvious spiritual relationship he has with India, but I have suggested that it is an ontological statement in itself – he chooses to live in such a God-intoxicated country like India. With this he agrees. The heart of India.
Although, ironically, nearly everything in Tully’s early life conspired to keep him away from the heart of India. During the war he had a European nanny instead of an ayah in order to stop Indian influences, and there was no question of his enrolling at certain local prep schools around Darjeeling for fear of getting the dreaded Anglo-Indian sing-song accent; eventually he was sent thousands of miles away to England. ‘Calcutta was a very racial sort of place, we were asked to believe we were a separate race from the Indians.’ When later he chose to work in India, his parents never visited him as they with did his sister in Singapore; they couldn’t understand the pull, and worried he would have no European friends.
‘What concerns him?’ I ask. ‘About the changing world? About India?’
‘Many things,’ he says. ‘Modi for one. Modi is not India. I don’t go with the Ram type of Hinduism, the militant part – I’m very worried – it’s already not the same … I know what he teaches is India, but it’s a westernised form of Hinduism – the history of this Hinduism sprang out of fighting the missionaries and to fight them they had to be like them; they became organised, when nothing was much organised. There is a strong streak of Brahminical Hinduism in what Modi thinks.’
I ask if he has met Modi: ‘No.’
‘What would you ask him?’
‘I think I’d ask him why do so many people dislike you …’
‘What else concerns you?’
A perceived contemporary lack of faith: ‘One of things that I feel really strongly about is this lack of faith in the modern generation. It’s all about achievement. In our day we talked about God. We discussed religion. Did we believe, did we not believe? In India people do discuss God a lot, but in England they don’t discuss God. I do think that we live in a very faithless world …’
‘But,’ I say to him, because I strongly disagree, ‘actually people have deep spiritual appetites, but I personally do not ask “Do you believe in God?” rather “Do you have a soul?”’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m a traditionalist and tradition is very important. I wouldn’t ask people that question, I’d ask if you believe in God.’
Tradition, formality. Legacy religion. Tully was born into the last wave of the Victorian era. No hippie nonsense for him.
‘I’m interested in comparing Christianity with Indian religions,’ he says, ‘but I hold to the belief that Mahatma Gandhi had, that it’s good to investigate other religions but that your religion should be basically your original religion …’
‘Because it was your childhood religion?’
‘Not only because that was what was taught you in childhood, but also because that’s what God did for you. But you should search for understanding of all religions. You should realise there are different ways to God. That’s the way I developed in India.’
Tully’s spiritual anchor is Anglicanism. I say to him, ‘You’re committed to Anglicanism, but also to reincarnation. Is there tension there?’
‘Yes,’ he agrees, ‘it is a wonderful tension and yet I don’t feel very tense about it!’
‘At what point did reincarnation become more than an intellectual curiosity?’
‘It was basically because of Purvanchal itself. You know, that Purvanchal landscape, the countryside around Bengal, the Gangetic plain, unchanged … In there I got this very strong feeling I had been here before, when I knew I hadn’t been there ever, at least in this life.’
India – the pull of the soil, the soul. It is Jagadguru, after all, guru to the universe.
He has already said that he doesn’t particularly meditate, and it was an Anglican vicar, Philip Francis, who, also believing in reincarnation, gave him permission to engage with that deep feeling. In fact, in the land of the guru all of Tully’s gurus are Anglicans. ‘As far as Anglicanism goes I’m rather like a football fan. I feel very loyal to the church. I have had the most wonderful priest, Bob Runcie, at Cambridge … I have almost always had a clergyman that is important in my life. The vicar of St Peter’s in Belsize Park is currently my man.’
He says, too, that he had great pride that ‘when Diana got married – I knew all the clergy involved with her: Bob Runcie, my tutor at Cambridge; Alan Webster, a marvellous man, was the Dean of St Paul’s; and Harry Williams, one of my absolute heroes. Bob was his tutor.’
How fast have we moved on, that that sentence sounds more like a description of a sacrifice. When I comment that it was a shame none of those four ordained holy men tried to stop the arranged (nonsensical) marriage and entrapment of a young teenager, his generation flatlines back to mine, ‘Well I expect they couldn’t.’
My mother, again. Married at nineteen to a man twenty-five years her senior. No one tried to stop it either. A bitter life, an alcoholic, India faded out.
Change subject. ‘Is Anglicanism almost a form of cultural Christianity?’ I ask.
‘I think it is cultural, I think it has a lot to do with the liturgy. The church I go to in London is St Peter’s in Belsize Park, a wonderful small tight congregation. You look forward to Sunday because you look forward to going to church. I do think Anglicanism is the most beautiful form of Christianity I’ve ever encountered.’
I am suddenly thinking of my mother’s Anglican burial, in an Anglican plot in a damp field in Surrey.
I hear myself telling him how she wished she had been cremated on the Ganga, but that I couldn’t fulfil her wishes – though I’d so wanted to – and so she resides, apart from here in the corner of my psyche and in this room next to the Labrador, in that plot in Old Windsor with half of Windsor Great Park.
‘What a shame you didn’t know me then …’ he says, meaning it, his voice full of compassion.
‘Do you ever think about dying?’ I hear myself asking on the audio.
‘I do think about dying quite a lot, but not in a morbid way. I think about what will happen. But I am confident that we have a loving God and a loving God doesn’t throw people away, does not land people in hell. This problem of space too; if there’s no reincarnation where does God put us all?’
‘My mother always thought of herself as a white Hindu. I think she wanted to die in India.’
‘Yes, I often wonder if I’m going to die in England or India … One of the places where I often thought I’d like to have my ashes scattered is the church where we went to in Cheshire, where my grandparents are; I loved that church. I love Francis, who is the vicar, who meant a tremendous amount to me. If I die in India, I think I’d rather be buried than cremated – cremation here is rather archaic. It is Christian, basically, to be buried. If I was cremated I’d be happy to have my ashes scattered on the Jumna or Ganges.’
I’m ashamed that my talk of Mummy’s death has brought us to this degree of intimacy, but Tully in his largesse seems to stride out, for suddenly he says:
‘The one thing we haven’t talked about is my strange matrimonial position. Whenever I go to England I stay with Maggie, my wife. We are very good friends. I would be really very sad if she died before I died. And I’m also very fond of Jilly. The thing is, Maggie loved India but she didn’t take it in the same ease as Jilly does. In fact, you’d really find it more interesting talking to her than to me …’
I am so surprised about this confession, that he feels he should tell me even though there is no need to do so, that his ideals and moral sensibility should prompt him to confide the sensitive aspects of his dual relationship. It comes from a place of deep love of and loyalty to the Christian faith. And yet his instinct to say these things is at odds with a world that increasingly doesn’t recognise their importance. So, he feels … guilt, would he say?
‘Yes, I do because I believe in the Christian doctrine of marriage; and I always let a priest know what my position is and they’ve always accepted it. And my mother was very shocked by it. In some ways all of me was against it and yet – I went and did it.’
Mummy stirs in the rooms, pokes me, laughs. Her own life, a terrible marriage, affair after affair, lovers, illegitimate children, bitterness, alcoholism. Always, in the background, India. And Tully settled with a woman who got India, who understood India, something understood. The wife, back in England. To me it makes perfect sense. Follow your heart. Or as the young say, you do you. Harry – running out of England. Tully called back to India. Whatever it takes to survive, to thrive.
My mother – finally in her 60s – got an eccentric little lover, a geologist, who travelled round India with her looking for dinosaur footprints. Her happiest years – those last three. Then – lung cancer. Grief on the lungs. Her last words to the oncologist consultant: ‘Will I be able to go back to India, one last time?’ The oncologist – an Indian himself – lying: ‘Absolutely you will.’
Dead six weeks later.
I return to my hotel and a river of melancholy flows through me. I listen to the audio and I feel my own shadows have hijacked it. I didn’t want to interview Tully because of my mother, not consciously. I have had my own relationship with India, lived here, raised my son in Rajasthan. So somehow – India, a gene. A strange grieving takes over.
I grieve for the girl I once was clutching No Full Stops on the toy train to Simla. She’s long gone. I grieve my mother’s childhood. I grieve the possibility that Tully will not finish his memoir, and if he does – well there might not be enough of him in it. There’s not enough about me. Is Tully right, are we becoming a Godless world, or is God, the universe (and us in it), just ever-evolving, consciousness evolving – with expressions of faith ever-changing? After all, God is in Modi – as he is in Tully, and me writing feebly at my desk, and you reading it.
I have a recurring dream about my mother. Since she died I’ve dreamt repeatedly of her being lost in India. In the dream I am always trying to find her. She appears in front of me, then fades out. Disappears. My last question to Tully was about his dreams. They’re always so revealing, I find, and part of me – I’m still not sure which part – was just not surprised about what in his 87th year he was dreaming about:
‘Ah. I sometimes dream in Hindi, mainly in English. I dream a lot about my parents, actually. I had a very bad relationship with my father. My mother somehow I knew I should love, but I didn’t really know how to love. I don’t want to be harsh on her. I have too many memories of bad times with my father, when my mother tried to intervene and calm things down … until the very end. In my dreams I am having a very strong feeling that they are still alive, not in spirit but that they are incarnated somewhere. The doctrine of karma, from where you’ve dropped off …’
And yes, there is India glimpsed suddenly. Despite all the Anglicanism – all the priests – all the liturgy, the empire, the schooling, the institutional legacy.
Because you can take the child out of India, but … the soul always knows. The soul always tells.
The Ed’s mother – finally made it to India, a year before she died. In Bundi with her grandson. Healing can happen.
APRIL 2023 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK
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