Article publlished in "THE TELEGRAPH" on Sep 29, 2004
Mulk Raj Anand
Mulk Raj Anand, who died yesterday aged 98, was the author of a series of grimly realistic novels about India in the 1930s which, with the aid of fashionable Marxist convictions, earned him a place on the fringes of London literary society.
Regarded as a founding father of the English-language Indian novel, his most celebrated work, Untouchable (1935), was a chilling account of a day in the life of Bakha, a young low-caste lavatory cleaner, who accidentally bumps into a member of a higher caste. After the resulting explosion of anger, Bakha consults a Christian and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and concludes that although the invention of the flush lavatory will deprive his family of a task they have performed for generations it will also be a liberation for them.
It was a tribute to Anand's determination that he continued to believe in the book after 19 rejections from publishers. On returning with the manuscript to India, he called on Gandhi at his ashram at Gujarat. The Mahatma was appalled by the apparition of the Anglicised young man, who appeared in his corduroy suit, silk tie and suede shoes, telling Anand he looked like a monkey and offering the service of his secretary to provide him with homespun kurta. Nevertheless, Gandhi gave him some useful advice. "Your untouchables sound too much like Bloomsbury intellectuals," he said with a laugh. "You know an untouchable boy wouldn't talk in those long sentences."
On returning to London, Anand did a drastic rewrite, and injected colloquial Hindi expressions into the novel, which was published, considerably shorter and with a preface by E M Forster.
Some orthodox English literary acquaintances were shocked to find liberties taken with the language, though others speculated that Anand could be India's Charles Dickens.
In injecting Indian colloquial sounds into an English novel, he anticipated Salman Rushdie's supposed breakthrough in Midnight's Children by more than four decades. Although the novel's celebrity inevitably faded, when the London Indian theatre company Tamasha began in 1989, it chose a dramatised version of Untouchable for its first production.
The son of a soldier, Mulk Raj Anand was born at Peshawar near the North-West Frontier on December 12 1905, and went to Khalsa College, Amritsar, before graduating from Punjab University. Arriving in Britain on a scholarship set up to mark the silver wedding of George V and Queen Mary, he continued his studies in Philosophy at Cambridge and London University, which later awarded him a degree. He lectured at the League of Nations' School of Intellectual Co-operation in Geneva, but he turned down the chance of a post at Cambridge and spent much of the 1930s lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association in London.
Determined to be a writer, he depended, with difficulty, on a meagre second grant from the Leverhulme Fund; but he had an ability to charm, which soon led Virginia Woolf to invite him to tea, and then to meet the Bloosmbury set. Anand enjoyed a complicated relationship with England. As a small boy, he had pored over Army magazines and longed for the way of life affected by British Army officers in India. But the slights and humiliations he encountered in England because of his support for Indian independence led to the relationship becoming one of "love-hate".
Anand's first writing was an essay prompted by the suicide of an aunt who was excommunicated by his family for sharing a meal with a Muslim. He started producing notes on books for T S Eliot's magazine, Criterion, which led him to make the acquaintance of Herbert Read and Henry Miller. He further strengthened his metropolitan credentials by going to Spain to support the Republican cause.
The quality of his fiction was confirmed by Coolie (1936), about a 15-year-old girl who dies of tuberculosis, and Two Leaves and a Bud (1937), which recounts the fatal attempt of a peasant to protect his daughter from being raped by a British soldier.
It was around this time that he met, at a London party, a young English actress, Kathleen Gelder. An "English rose", she had gone to Rada, beating Celia Johnson into second place in a competition. Anand seemed strikingly different to her, and they married in 1939, settling happily first at Chinnor, Oxfordshire. But on moving to Primrose Hill after the outbreak of war, the marriage disintegrated.
During the hostilities he was asked to write for the Eastern section of the Empire broadcasting service. At first he declined because, although horrified by Fascism, he was suspicious of Britain's unstated war aims. But George Orwell eventually persuaded him to participate in several series of talks, though one on the Spanish Civil War was cancelled by the Ministry of Information censor. Nevertheless, Anand took part in a poetry programme with Orwell and William Empson and also enjoyed discussing utopias and anti-utopias with George Orwell and H G Wells at weekends. Since the Blitz made wartime post erratic, Anand was astonished more than 40 years later to read copies of letters which he had not received from Orwell and which were still preserved in the BBC archives.
Such broadcasting work did not interfere with Anand's novels, in which The Village (1939) had been followed by Across the Black Waters (1940), and then The Sword and the Sickle (1942), a title which Orwell gave him as they walked across Primrose Hill in the blackout.
With his marriage over, after the war Anand returned to India, where he was recognised as a significant local literary figure. He founded a fine arts magazine, Marg, became a director of a publishing company and taught at various Indian universities while producing work on diverse subjects, including Marxism in India, studies of Nehru and Tagore, as well as erotic sculptures and ivory paintings. Inevitably, his work had less impact on Britain, whose interest in its former charge faded. With the exception of The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953), which contained a strong biographical element, his fiction seemed to offer little new.
But he produced several volumes of autobiography. These included Morning Face (1968), which recounted his search for a higher sense of self-awareness. In 1981 he published Conversations in Bloomsbury (1981), which were reconstructions of encounters, such as meeting Bonamy Dobree in a pub outside the British Museum; attending a sherry party at Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop; and talking nonsense with Eric Gill in Gordon Square. It was a polite, civilised volume, to which he added some sharper anecdotes in a later radio interview, when he recalled Edward Sackville-West's advice: "There can be no tragic writing about the poor; you can only laugh at them."
Anand periodically returned to England and, on his last trip, made a farewell visit to Chinnor where he had spent some of his happiest years. The fondness for England and things English was revived after he returned to India.
He and his wife were divorced in 1948, and he later formed a relationship with a Parsee woman, Shirin Vajifdar, who survives him with his daughter of his marriage, Sushila Anand, a popular historian.