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The fork in the road

The fork in the road
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First Published: Sat, Jun 16 2007. 12 17 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jun 16 2007. 12 17 AM IST
In India’s Unending Journey, Mark Tully advises readers to believe in doubt. He writes that uncertainty, the middle road and doubt contain no absolutes and so are effective in balancing extremes. He espouses humility as a way of living in peace. To wander from this path would mean shutting the door on truth. India has taught him all this, Tully writes, shaping his spiritual belief along the way.
Tully seeks religious figures and accomplished academic experts, who explain religion, culture and economics—the issues that keep modern India occupied. He encourages readers to understand India’s journey because it “is the journey of us all, towards a future in which we must draw deeply upon our spiritual and material resources, and strive to find a balance in the face of uncertainty”.
Balance is everything to Tully. Recollecting his school days in a chapter titled Marlborough: An education in absolutes, he says that humility counted for very little. “Rather,” he writes about his education there, “it taught me that life was all about striving to be ‘a damn fine fellow’ and lift myself up without help from anybody else.”
It bothers him that academic and athletic successes were attributed to effort and did not take into account god-given gifts, circumstance and earlier education. Entrenched in reason, Marlborough did not encourage questioning, Tully writes. This deviation from the Bible’s definition of a life lived well—“to ‘humble myself in the sight of the Lord’, or to be confident that ‘He shall lift you up’”—clouded his thoughts for years after school. Men are never truly independent, he implies, and to deny the existence of a creator or “sustainer” is to give too much importance to human success alone.
The writer’s opinions on balance lead him to conclude from a conversation that the pursuit of success leads people to do anything: “Rich boys think they can do anything they like. They have absolutely no humility.”
The book is littered with similar instances of unsuspecting causes welded to effects. Tully’s quest for balance leads him up the familiar avenues caught between the East-West tussle—disparity in wealth, the hollowness of consumerism, and even gyms versus yoga—but the arguments are unconvincing.
Tully visits a Dalit familiar to him in Uttar Pradesh who is as rooted in poverty as he was 10 years ago, and concludes: “Advocates of growth as the panacea for countries like India maintain that the wealth generated will trickle down to the poor, but it was quite clear that little or no wealth had trickled into the pocket of Budh Ram….” The existence of poverty is seen as a failing of capitalism. Yet, only a few paragraphs later, Budh Ram explains how government schemes meant to help the poor are misused.
Tully’s recollections take him to numerous places, of which Uttar Pradesh is only one; each chapter has a distinct symbolism. The first chapter opens in Puri, Orissa, where he spent winter holidays as a child. The next is at Marlborough, his school. The last is in Varanasi, where Tully is reminded of his mortality.
There are delightful passages, among them an encounter with Manmohan Singh, which lasts two paragraphs. He explains the prime minister’s challenge in making capitalism work for India, “introducing reform gradually; taking a step, watching and waiting, before taking the next step, in the same way that trade in the rupee has gradually been liberalized”. Note that each comma depicts a decision, but not an ending. Elsewhere, at a time when Hindu nationalism is on the rise, he asks an Indian Jesuit whether conversion was still a mission. The man replies: “The Church does not convert; God does, and God does not seem to regard this as a high priority….”
Tully’s tone in this book is gentle, wise and is filled with empathy for his subjects. His connection with this country is visibly strong and he seeks to understand the things that drive it. His voice encourages conciliation and mediation. But what does this mean? Ending a chapter on globalization, his writing exudes the message of peace, that the middle path is the best path of all—most chapters end on a somewhat similar note.
But it is on the nature of the middle path that it sometimes leaves us less close to a resolution than a firm stand would: “So…how can globalization be made to work? The answers may lie in keeping the correct balance between decisions made at the global and the national levels, in strengthening the international organizations, in ensuring that the market doesn’t lead us by the nose, and in keeping the role of the market and the government in balance.” What will a reader looking for answers derive from the approach prescribed?
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First Published: Sat, Jun 16 2007. 12 17 AM IST
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