This delectable collection of seven short stories by the master story-teller Mark Tully takes the reader to Purvanchal or eastern Uttar Pradesh. The place has a special emotional connect with the author, as he delves into the past to discover it was here that his great-grandmother survived the tumultuous events of 1857. She lived to tell the tale.
Set in pre-liberalisation India or the latter half of the 1980s, when India stood at a crossroads of a stifling socialist order—a world of the all-pervading Licence Raj with its corruption, bureaucracy, neta-babu nexus or Permit Raj.
Indira Gandhi bequeathed this to her son Rajiv, who played along with communal fringes among both the Hindus and the Muslims. Add to this the apparently insoluble problem of poverty.
There’s the story of Radha, for instance, the redoubtable wife of the hero of ‘The Ploughman’s Lament’, she is not a victim of patriarchy, as her life goes askew when her husband tries to secure a bank loan to buy a bullock for tilling his fields.
Like a modern day Sisyphus, he is back to where he starts at the bottom of the hill. Tirathpal Yadav who sees all the changes around him: The Public Call Offices (predating our cell phone age) while the road is potholed and barely motorable. He believes in the old ways and when his bullock, Hariya, has fever, he ‘tries traditional cures, washing his hooves with phitkari (alum), and rubbing him with turmeric.’
Elderly Budh Ram, a timid Dalit, challenges tradition to build a temple to Sant Ravi Das, as the hero of ‘The Battle for a Temple’, while Ram Bharose, the Dalit-turned-monk, fights against the traditional oppression.
Government teachers on the whole come out a badgered lot in these stories but in ‘The Reluctant Lover’ it is a teacher, Pandit Madan Mohan Tiwari, who discovers and nurtures young Ajit’s talent. Then there’s ‘Slow Train to Santnagar’ where Aruna Joshi, a former teacher, spearheads the struggle to save an endangered railway line in a vast country where the 14,300 trains run on a network of 6,59,000 km of track each day.
In ‘The Family Business’, a spoilt politician’s brat returns from England hoping to take on his late father’s political mantle. But it was not to be, even as the old family retainers struggle to teach him that ‘the whiter the kurta of a politician, the blacker his heart’.
All that he achieves is ‘to eat the dust of UP’. Or as one of his political minders look at him and grumbles, ‘If you put a donkey between the shafts you can’t turn it into a horse by making it trot.’
In ‘Murder in Milanpur’, Prem Lal, the reluctant thanedar, is in stark contrast to the venality of the other members of the police force. ‘He could see through the miasma of rumour which hung over villages like a clammy fog, and discern where the truth lay’. But he remained a laid-back, peace-loving, simple policeman who defies political pressure to solve a murder.
Each one is part of this nosegay of unforgettable people—reluctant rebels, delightful realists, jester and clown, city slicker and country cousins are quiet heroes—struggling to find a path through the maze of caste, bad governance and corruption poised on the very cusp of change. An excellent read.