Mulk Raj Anand: A Tribute (1905-2004)
He was, indeed, first amongst equals. He started it all. This triumphant journey of the Indian English novel into the western dawn. Working as a part-time proof-corrector in the Hogarth Press — while studying Philosophy in London — provided him an access to Virginia Woolf's drawing room in Tavistock Square, and thus into the charmed Bloomsbury circle in the late twenties of the last century. A taunt by Edward S West, about his writing about an outcaste led him to Ireland (where he met W B Yeats, and poet a.e, (George Russel), and then to Gandhi ashram back in India to rework the novel, Untouchable into a simple narrative on the Mahatma's advise.
Its eventual publication with a preface by E M Forster in 1936, after 19 publishers had turned it down, has since been translated into 42 languages of the world and earned the status of a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic. An honour unmatched by another Indian till date. It was around this time, without in any way being acquainted with one another, that two other Indians — amongst the many more unknown one is reasonably certain — were also vying for a place in the English writing sun—R K Narayan and Raja Rao. Their first novels too came out shordy, though like Anand, Narayan too found a publisher courtesy an English novelist, Graham Greene. And both Greene and Forster did so for similar reasons. Though sitting in Paris, the third angle of the famous triangle, Raja Rao needed no such patronage to find a publisher for Kanthapura. These works by young Indians transported them into a different world. And paved way for the success of subsequent generations of the Indian English novelist. The eventual success of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy should not be mistaken as the advent of the Empire writing back.
My relationship with Mulk Raj Anand began on a sour note. One's opinion of him wasn't much different from that of some other –academics, critics, and fellow-writers — one would interact with in those heady days when writing for newspapers was fun. And the opinion was, one realized subsequendy, and rather bitterly, based on a limited reading of his work, and an over-exposure to an overbearing man at literary and other meets. The private, recluse R K Narayan had always been the first choice, and perhaps will continue to be for a while longer, though unlike Mulk Raj Anand, his oeuvre had been limited and critical response more positive and pronounced. The same, to a certain extent, applies to Raja Rao whose output, in any case, has been limited in comparison. The sour note was the fallout of a book review I did for The Hindustan Times that led to a long, unsavory controversy because the editor of Tales from Modern India took exception to a question about the selection. And one of those who pounced on the young reviewer without carefully applying himself to the point raised had been Mulk Raj Anand, who nursed the grudge against the young reviewer till years later. And despite having adopted him as a favourite nephew.
Raja Rao, whom the young reviewer had quoted in the said review, continued to have a mild laughter during subsequent meets. And the late Bhabani Bhattacharya sent letters of appre ciation from the distant USA for the bold, measured stand. But needless to say, the differences about critical responses, and a reviewer's freedom to comment on a piece of writing — regardless of an author's standing — persisted till almost the end. He did feebly raise the point when I met him in May this year in Khandala. This was in response to a question about whether he had been continuing with his writing. And he said a big No. Saying in the same breath: "Aren't you happy?" This was, perhaps, because he always insisted on my reviewing his novels, and I kept condemning his verbosity. I wasn't happy. I was rather bitter and disappointed. I wanted him to complete the promised confessional. I was also unhappy because I had let him down earlier on another count as well. I had neither applied myself to the task of compiling a Mulk Raj Anand Reader (one hopes the Sahitya Akademi, having taken up the ambitious task, redeems the promise by his next birthday) nor seriously started work on his literary biography.
I agree with him and many others, now in retrospect, that having been very close to him in the decade of the nineties when I started shooting my ambitious documentar)' on him independent of a sponsor (an idea he did not ap preciate to begin with as he did not want me to invest my meagre savings), and recording a lot of facts about his literary growth, encounters and adventures I was in an ideal position to work on the book. But I was wrong like him. Thinking there will be time for it later. But time lost is never regained. But as one got to know him better, and re-read some of his works, the initial skepticism turned into admiration. Three things struck. His honesty, sincerity and humility. Anything he took on he jumped into it with total commitment. That's why he became a political activist, a social crusader as the situations demanded. Uncle Mulk was a 'truly the only' Indian renaissance man after Rabindranath Tagore, a multifaceted achiever he held in great esteem, and, perhaps, unconsciously tried to emulate. And achieved distinc tion in almost every discipline he put his hands into.
That's why he was the only one who was elected Fellow of all the three Akademies, Sahitya, Lalit Kala, and Sangeet Natak. His cultural rediscovery of India and Asia through the 136-volumes of Marg that he founded in 1948 and edited till the early eighties is by itself an achievement that will immortalize him. Without doubt. The fact that even his detractors accepted this exceptional work speaks volumes about the man's commitment. Beginning with Untouchable in 1935, Mulk Raj Anand published an other two dozen novels and ten collections of short stories till his death (he died a lonely man in his estate, though interaction with like-and-dislike minded people had been his lifeline) on the eve of his 99th birthday on 28 September 2004 (not many are aware that the novel, stemming out of a personal childhood experience, had been originally conceived as a play). Someone will have to rise to the occasion, and resurrect the two incomplete volumes of the promised seven fictional autobiographical accounts. The story of the naive poet Krishan Chander Azad that began with Seven Summers and runs like a river through Morning Face, Confessions of a hover, The Bubble, Pilpili Saheb, Caliban and Gandhi, Little Plays of Mahatma Gandhi, Nine Moods of Charata (these actually form the fifth volume in the series of the con fessional novel). He himself learnt the mudras to comment on dance. He was himself an amateur painter.
Not only his Two Leaves and a Bud was amongst the first Indian English novels to be adapted for the Hindi screen, he himself made a touching short multi-award-winner film out of his famous story The Lost Child. He was amongst the founding-fathers of the Progressive Writers Movement, the manifesto of which was co-authored by him in London) after the Second World War in which he was himself a participant together with George Orwell, and others. He was the lone Indian who managed a breakthrough into Virginia Woolf's coveted circle of Bloomsbury writers because he happened to work as a proof-reader in the Woolfs' Hogarth Press. Many of these conversations with literary giants like T S Eliot, D H Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, E M Forster, Bonamy Dobree, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Herbert Read had been recorded in the 1980 publication, Conversations in Bloomsbury. He eventually had to borrow my copy of the book, in which he made corrections in his own handwriting, when Oxford University Press wanted to reissue it some years ago.
While I never got the promised copy of the new edition from OUP, the original is now a proud possession. And had it, perhaps, not for the purposes of this tribute, I wouldn't have noticed these corrections. Mulk Raj Anand advocated freedom, and fought oppression of-any kind: social, artistic or political. He was not only a witness to the turbulent twentieth century, but a product, a participant in it as well. His novels speak about human predicament. Despite his strong principled stands against oppression at heart he remained "a naive poet who refuses to become sophisticated, to whom the smiles and tears and laughter of children are as valid as the self-will of Kant." Talking about his work, he once observed: "The substance of my work is the whole of my varied experience, the theme of my work became the whole man and the whole gamut of human relationships, rather than only a single part of it." And elsewhere: "The whole urge of my writing came from love of art as an illuminating factor in human experience and of poetry as a medium through which one can think humanly." He also said that while a writer must try to become an instrument of social change, his intent should be "not to write epics, but to live them."
Therefore, the range of realism in his fiction is unlimited, whether telling the story of a coolie, or a prince, which makes Private Life of an Indian Prince an important social document. Born on 12 December 1905 in Peshawar, Mulk Raj Anand graduated from Khalsa College, Amritsar, and then sailed for England in S S Victoria, an Italian boat, with letters of recommendations from Sir Mohammed Iqbal whose Israr-e-Khudi ('Secrets of the Self) was to be his window to the world. Going to England was also, in a way, an escape from his father Lai Chand's tyranny the latter had beat up his mother, Ishwar Kaur; for hiding the truth of his being jailed for participation in an Amritsar bandh because he had fixed a job for Mulk in the army through King's Commission. A Fellowship enabled him to research in Philosophy under G Dawes Hicks. In London, Mulk fell in love fairly frequently, and married theatre actress Kathleen Van Gelder. A daughter was born soon after. Her infidelity disillusioned him, and on the rebound during a visit to Bombay he fell in love with Anil de Silva who gave him the idea for the formation of Modern Architects and Artists' Research Group (MARG). He undertook a hurried trip to get a divorce from Kathleen but the waiting period proved fatal and de Silva decided to marry a Frenchman. Next in line was a Greek dancer. He eventually married Shirin Vajifdar, one of the three dancing sisters in Bombay to whom he remained officially married till death did them apart.
Uncle Mulk had begun to get disillusioned with an India which was Sures h Kobli not in consonance with Nehru's ideals and beliefs. He blended Gandhian philosophy, and Nehruvian thoughts to create a worldview of his own. That's probably why in later years he not only found solace in Khandala hills in Maharashtra, but also satisfaction in working for the depressed and the downtrodden for whom he adopted a village, complete with a school and a dispensary which was funded by Sarvodaya Trust to which he bequeathed all that he possessed in the mortal world. On hindsight his moving away from the glare of public life was a precursor for a quiet exit from the disillusionment that the India of his dreams had come to mean. Uncle Mulk will be missed for his fiery presence more and more in times to come. Talking about Seven Summers, the first in the series of the semi autobiographical which Anand had sought to define as a confessional narrative, the beginning of which had been made after an escapade with first love Irene, at Mount Snowdon in the late twenties, K N Sinha (one of his earliest academic admirers) described it as "a novel of intense feeling.
Here, Anand dramatizes his own consciousness through the first seven years of his life and presents a soul-searching diary of the real, intimate life known to himself... (Its excellence lies in the personal intensity, in the purity and immediacy with which the author records his experiences, dimmed by the passage of time." And it was this intensity, this immediacy which he sought to bring to all his writings.