Monday, January 22, 2018


On a warm and bright Monday, I along with my two friends, launched into the herculean task of interacting with the veteran BBC correspondent and author, Sir William Mark Tully. His impressive credentials made us extremely nervous as we made our journey to his house in Nizamuddin, armed with all we knew about the ‘Revolt of 1857’, the topic we wanted to be discuss with him.

Sir Mark Tully was born in British India in 1935 (Tollygunge, Calcutta) and stayed in India till the age of nine, thereafter, he moved to England in 1945, returning only in 1965 as a BBC correspondent. Since then there had been no looking back, Mark is well settled in the ‘jugaad’ way of life (as he terms it) and does not intend on leaving India anytime soon. In 1985, Tully was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, he also received the BAFTA award for lifelong achievement in journalism, the same year. He was awarded the Padma Shree in 1992, was knighted in 2002, in 2005 he received the Padma Bhushan.
The door was opened by Sir Mark himself, dressed in a plain red kurta and white choodidar, followed by his rather excited Labrador, Soni. Once we settle into his carefully decorated living room, and took permission to record the conversation, I took out a phone and started the recording. Almost immediately his curiosity was aroused.

Mark: it’s a telephone, and it records as well?
Kunalika: Yes.
Mark: My goodness!
Kunalika: Do you not have a phone?
Mark: I have a phone, but it is a very old one. It doesn’t do anything like this!
All laugh, beginning with the interview.

Lavanya: Sir, what is your take on 1857, in general?

Mark:It was a major turning point in history and a reflection of social changes taking place in British India. It put a shadow over British relations with India. Jallianwala bagh, in 1919 happened because the British feared another mutiny. From the British point of view, the thing started as a mutiny but then it became an uprising, which is a different thing, because a mutiny is something within the armed forces, uprising is more widespread. First war of independence, in a way it was – previously there had been minor mutinies, but certainly it was the first major one British faced. It remained a major movement till the nationalist movement. People remember the cartridges but there were many other factors behind it, the main ones were the annexation of Oudh, unrest, land surveys, impeaches in land revenue, Royalties were upset as their sovereignty was challenged (e.g.: Rani of Jhansi), then there was the problem of the arrival of the missionaries– they preached moral nationalism and loyalty to Christianity and wanted the British to maintain their distance from these sinful people. They disturbed order and created hostile environment in the entire of India. So the unrest was actually present in the minds of Indians throughout, and was gradually simmering away when the mutiny, in Meerut in particular was a sort of spark which blew the whole thing, their small victories in Delhi and Meerut gave them the courage to continue, because it showed them that the British was not invincible. However, 1857 was not pan-India. British don’t always admit to the brutalities that occurred in India post the restoration of British order after the mutiny. However, it was these post war hostilities that left a big mark on India.

Lavanya: Why were there such vast regional differences in the intensity of the revolt?

Mark: The north was more involved in the revolt because if you see, the revolt was fueled majorly by the Indian sepoys within the British army and most of the sepoys in the British army were recruited from the region of Bengal, so obviously the region would be more active in the mutiny, also major annexations of kingdoms was here. Moreover, India in those days wasn’t one country at all and so the south didn’t see any connection with the mutiny in the north, at all.

Siddhi: How important do you think women were in the movement?
Mark: To be honest, except for individual cases, I don’t think that they were important. It was an uprising of the men, women in those days in India, or even Britain for that matter weren’t very important figures in the public or even the domestic sphere. However, there were great impacts on the lives of women and children. What happened to women and children in Cawnpore for instance became a great source of anger for the British and fueled their fight against the sepoys.

Siddhi: Which do you think are good sources to read about 1857?
Mark: Well you could read Dalrymple’s ‘White Mughals’ or ‘The Last Mughal’, Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s ‘Oudh in Revolt’ and ‘The Nightrunners of Bengal’ by John Masters. I also feel that if you read a novel or two it is better than laboring through pages of raw facts, it gives new perspective and it’s much more fun (laughs).

Siddhi: How did the revolt impact the later nationalist movements?

Mark: It was considered as the first war of independence but the nationalist movement was so entirely different from the 1857 revolt that I don’t think it had a huge impact. 1857 was a violent uprising and the nationalist movement was a non-violent uprising. Gandhi did not approve of violent uprisings and even though there is no evidence of what he felt of 1857, I am assuming that he wouldn’t have approved of it. This highlights an incredible quality of India, quality of recovery where it emerges from terrible events untouched, its spirit unbroken, if you consider 1857, lots of people died, were murdered and yet the British managed to survive the next approx. 100 years in the country without any major violent attack on them, to be dismissed via a non-violent movement. If you look at the partition it was a terrible event, one would assume India to then be very anti – Muslim but it isn’t, it adopted a democratic, secular constitution. When the mosque was pulled down in Ayodhya, I was writing for BBC and a lot of people would ask me in interviews, ‘Is this the end of secularism in India?’ and I would say ‘No, I don’t think it is the end of secularism because in my experience of India, things go up very quickly, things explode very quickly, but they come down very quickly as well.’ And I think it is one of the greatest attributes of India, it has the capability to forgive and stand for what it knows it the morally right thing to do, and I think that’s what happened after the both the wars of independence.

Siddhi: What about history interests you?

Mark: I love stories, and I think history is like a story, I did my degree in History from Cambridge. I love modern history, but unfortunately I did my degree in ancient and medieval history. And I think one can learn a lot about ourselves from history.

Lavanya: Who do you think was the most influential personality in 1857?

Mark: It has to be Dalhousie. It was because of his annexing policies that there was such unrest. He would be the most important and influential. Mangal Pandey, would be a lesser one but very important, and Rani of Jhansi, Nana sahib, etc.

Another man who played a very significant role was Nicholson, who people often described as a tough and brutal guy, and William Dalrymple, I think, has described him as a “homosexual bully” (laughs, again).

He commanded great loyalty among the people of Punjab and the people of the North-western provinces. He actually brought these people to Delhi when the mutiny was on and these were the people who recaptured Delhi, while John Nicholson was killed in the assault on Delhi.

Lavanya: Was there any change in the way the British perceived Indians or the Indians perceived the British after 1857?

Mark: Yes, I think that the British became more distanced from the Indians, they became conscious of not interfering with people’s religions, and missionaries were not encouraged after that, they did not try to impose the Victorian morality. As long as the Indians accepted British supremacy and authority the British just let them be. For example, my parents had grown up through the repercussions of 1857 and, therefore, ensured that their children maintained the distance from Indians.

Even though we lived in Calcutta, we never played with the Indian children or interacted with them, we rarely moved out of the south Calcutta, we were firmly told that we were Christians, we were not allowed to learn Indian languages.

In fact, my father hired a British nanny and her only job was to ensure that we did not mingle with the Indians who came to our house, including the servants, and so there was a deep change that went into generations much after 1857. And a very derogatory term was used for those British men who had become too involved with Indians, they were referred as the people who had gone “native”.

What was surprising though was the fact that despite all of this, there was great deal of ongoing research on Indian history and artefacts, but in Calcutta we were really a separate society

Lavanya: Do you think India is becoming too modern for your liking?
Mark: Yes, I do think so. I think it is becoming far too consumerist and that is contrary to India’s traditions. I think it’s also going the American way, the rich are getting and the poor are remaining poor. It needs to start believing in its traditions again.

Kunalika: Why did you decide to stay on in India?

Mark My family has been in British India since times of the mutiny. In fact on my mother’s side, my great – great grandmother had in fact written a diary on what had happened to her during times of the mutiny. I left India when I was 10 years old in 1945, and we, the children hated it in London, the war was not yet over, everything was rationed, there were no servants, there was no Indian sun, no music, no color, London was horrible really, but eventually, young as we were, we forgot about India. I did my schooling, national service in the army and then it was by chance that I was offered a job by BBC in India, and I was extremely bored of my life in Britain and so I took the job. On my first day in India, I landed up in Claridges’ hotel in Delhi. I went and stood in the verandah of my room and wondered what on earth I had done coming here, and that’s when I saw malis cooking their food over choolahs and the smell of that food just bought my past to my mind, and it went through my mind as an express train and from that moment onwards I thought India had some special meaning for me. From then there has been no looking back. I believe in karma, and in fate and believe in what happens to us is also about what we do, and obviously I have been very happy here, otherwise why would I be sitting here. I have enjoyed myself here, been fascinated by India, loved it, made friends here, and intend on completing my life here.

Kunalika Gautam
Student Reporter

Siddhidatri Mishra
Student Reporter

Lavanya Singh
Student Reporter