BY: SHYAM M. ASNANI
Dr K. R. S. Iyengar’s pioneering and perceptive study (Indian Writing in English) has firmly established the existence of the tradition of Indian Writing in English. Its achievements and a measure of significance can no longer be challenged. It is now possible, thanks largely to his efforts, to make further specialised studies in certain individual aspects in the field. An attempt here will be made to study the socio-political concerns in the first three novels (trilogy) of Dr Mulk Raj Anand.
The emergence of the pre-independence Indo-English novel out of its early romantic-idealistic arcadia into the expansive landscape of realism runs parallel to the gradual development of a national ideology from its early phase of reformist exuberance to the growth of a revolutionary consciousness among the common masses of India, that they had to struggle relentlessly for their emancipation from the steel frame of their politico-economic exploitation by a foreign imperialism as also from the colossal weight of old tradition, hide-bound casteism and the die-hard dogma of religious conformism.
The struggle for independence in India was not merely a political struggle, but an all-pervasive emotional experience for all sensitive and enlightened Indians in the twenties, thirties and forties of this century. It is a coincidence that the Indo-English fiction achieved a flowering maturity in the ’30s–a period during which the star of Gandhiji was on its apex on the Indian horizon.
Under Gandhiji’s moral-cum-spiritual leadership, the freedom movement percolated, for the first time, to the very grass-roots of Indian society. Parallel to the struggle for political freedom started another struggle for freedom on the social plane. That was a fight against superstition, the caste system and untouchability, poverty, illiteracy, the erosion of religious belief–that were sapping the very vitality of our society.
No writer, writing in those decades or writing about that period, could avoid reflecting this upsurge in his work. Fiction, of all literary forms, is intimately concerned with social conditions and values, and at this time, Indian society, “galvanized into a new social and political awareness, was bound to seek creative expression for its new consciousness and the novel has, in all ages, been a handy instrument for this purpose.l The socio-political movement, which had caught the imagination of the entire nation, inspired the Indo-English writers as well, who had an added advantage of Western liberal education. Among the significant works of fiction inspired by this struggle are the novels like, Kandan the Patriot by K. S. Venkataramani, Inqilab by K. A. Abbas, Waiting for the Mahatma by R. K. Narayan, Kanthapura by Raja Rao, Untouchable by M. R. Anand, Into the Sun by Frieda H. Das, Motherland by C. N. Zutsi, We Never Die by D. F. Karaka.
The aim of this study is to see how these political and social concerns are reflected in the first three significant works of Mulk Raj Anand.
Paradoxical as it may sound, the dynamics of Gandhian thought helped open the way for the influx of Marxism in the literary field in India. But at deeper level there is no paradox as the basic attraction of both the Gandhian and Marxian appeals was their idealism despite the wide difference in their ideological framework and the terminology employed. Gandhiji’s lifelong crusade against colonial exploitation of the weaker nations by the stronger, his no less vehement condemnation of any form of economic exploitation, his insistence that what is not shared with the dispossessed is stolen from them, and his passionate confession to talk of God to a people whose bellies were crying for bread–these rather than his exaltation of prayer and fast, of spinning and celibacy, of non-violence in thought, word and deed, had impressed the Indian intelligentsia. Between this aspect of Gandhian crusade and the almost parallel faith of Marxism the only difference was that Marxian dogma appeared to be more consistent in its ideology and more realistic in its interpretation of history. This explains the phenomenon of the thirties when many Indian writers and intellectuals who were first inspired by Gandhi later veered towards socialist or Marxist ideologies. Prem Chand who began as an ardent admirer of Gandhi, later on came to believe more and more in the desperate remedies advocated by Marxism.
Mulk Raj Anand, like Prem Chand, passionately concerned with the villages, with the ferocious poverty, squalor and backwardness coupled with gross ignorance and the cruelties of caste, with orphans, untouchables and urban labourers, took upon himself the task of attacking social snobbery and prejudice; urging for a larger outlook more tolerance, more intimate and benevolent understanding and more self-sacrifice. The Indian life that he depicts in his novels is that of outcastes, peasants, soldiers, the depressed and suppressed ones of the society. He has resurrected the outcastes, the labourers, the farmers and the bottom-dog of his country from the obscure lanes and alleys of the hamlets, villages and small towns. Like Prem Chand in Hindi, Anand is the first of the Indian novelists in English to have written of this motley crowd, which had hitherto been largely ignored by the then Indian writers.
Anand himself makes it clear in his preface to the second edition of the Two Leaves and a Bud: “In so far, however, as my work broke new ground and represented a departure from the tradition of previous Indian fiction, where the pariahs and the bottom-dogs had not been allowed to enter the sacred precincts of the novel, in all their reality, it seemed to become significant and drew the attention of the critics, particularly in Europe which only knew Omar Khayam, Li Po and Tagore but very little or nothing about the sordid or colourful lives of the millions of Asia.”
Anand, “a son of a copper-smith turned soldier, and of a peasant mother,” knew, saw and felt fully and intimately the rural life of the Punjab, the villagers, groaning under abject poverty, the village-life being sucked dry by the parasites and religious priests. He found himself propelled towards them and decided to write about those people who suffered continual indignation and despise at the hands of the white sahibs, the zamindars, the money- lenders, the priests, the landlords and the big business bugs. Thus, the sweeper, the peasant, the plantation labourer, the city drudge, the soldier, in spite of their thwarted purposings, became the heroes of his first two trilogies. In the same preface Anand claims:
All these heroes, as the other men and women who had emerged in my novels and short stories, were dear to me, because they were the reflections of the real people I had known during my childhood and youth. And I was only repaying the debt of gratitude lowed them for much of the inspiration they had given me to mature into manhood, when I began to interpret their lives in my writing. They were not mere phantoms...They were the flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood, and obsessed me in the way in which certain human beings obsess an artist’s soul. And I was doing no more than what a writer does when he seeks to interpret the truth from the realities of his life.
Anand, throughout his novels, has, by implication, been impressing on his readers to recognize fundamental principles of human living and exercise vigilance in regard to the real enemies of freedom and socialism. He has relentlessly been advocating the need to help raise the untouchables, the peasants, the serfs, the coolies, and the suppressed members of the society, to human dignity and self-awareness in view of the abjectness, ignorance, apathy and despair they are sunk in.
The first trilogy–Untouchable, Coolie and Two Leaves and a Bud–deals with the misery and the wretchedness of the crushed and poor and their struggle for a better life. His subsequent novels are almost a variation on the same theme and are intended to bring home to the reader the plight of the ever-burdened peasant who is powerless to fight superstition and social convention and who is baulked at every step in his aspirations for a better life.
Bakha, an eighteen year old boy, like his father Lakha, a sweeper, a cleaner of latrines, is regarded as an outcaste by the society. Anand, as has been suggested by Prof. H. M. Williams, “exemplifies the problem of ‘untouchability’, the treatment of the latrine-cleaning class condemned to isolation and deprivation as handlers of excrement; he exposes this as a social evil and suggests its remedy”.2 The method is to narrate the single day’s events in Bakha’s life. Sturdy, genial, easy-going, athletic Bakha lives and works in the army camp pathetically aspiring to be as much like the sahibs as possible and playing hockey with their children. But early on the fateful day, he touches a Brahmin by accident and is reviled as a disgusting creature who has made the Brahmin unclean. He then sustains the terrible shocks of indictment quite a number of times: he is abused and slapped for polluting a merchant, he is chased out of a temple by a priest who has been trying to molest his sister; he receives a shower of abuses for polluting an injured child in his attempt to help the wounded child. An anguished cry comes of his mouth:. “I only get abuse and derision wherever I go. Pollution, pollution, I do nothing else but pollute people...” For a moment he stands aghast possessed by his rebellious self. His whole countenance lights with fire, the strength, the power of his giant body glistens with the desire for revenge in his eyes, while horror, rage, indignation sweep over his frame. But this momentary rage and revolt, soon evaporate when he finds that he is still too much bound to his low-caste-status. His anger and fury can only make him painfully realize that his rebellion would lead him nowhere as there is a futility written large on his fate. So in the highest moment of his strength, the slave in him asserts itself, and he lapses back, “wild with torture, biting his lips, ruminating his grievances.” He walks out frustrated and highly disappointed. Colonel Hutchinson, the Salvationist, with his shield of casteless society and salvation for all; Gandhiji with his strong dislike for untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism and his views that untouchables are in fact the Harijans–“men of God”, and then Iqbal Nath Sarshar with his new machine (the flush) that “will clean dung without anyone having to handle it”–all these three encounters raise hopes in him for a while. But he returns home, to his wretched bed, smothered by the misery, the anguish of the morning’s memories, thinking intently of the Mahatma, the Christ and the Machine in turn, but preferring none of the three, which perhaps reflects the fundamental crisis in the mind of the writer himself and is responsible for the gloomy end of the novel.
Untouchable is thus a forthright condemnation of a system which has, for ages, killed human dignity and warped the man, the hideous monster called caste that has seized Indian life in its strangling grasp and we have come to accept the snobbery, the hypocrisy, insularity and stratification of society based on ideas of high and low, thus making a mockery of the great teachings of our holy scriptures that we chant on all auspicious occasions.
As has already been said by me in my paper on Anand’s Untouchable, 3 Bakha is a prototype of millions of untouchables in India, because he represents the agony and anguish, the misery and frustration of the innumerable low-caste people. “The problem of caste and poverty, squalor and backwardness, ignorance and superstition, admits of no easy solution”.4 Almost forty years after Anand’s novel was written (1933), and twenty-seven years after the attainment of independence, the problem still defies a firm and final solution. Despite the fact that the Indian Constitution has made it a crime to practise Untouchability, we still witness Anand’s Sohinis and Golabos, waiting at the village-well for a long time–some standing up, bending and joining their palms in beggary, others twisting their lips in various attitudes of servile appeal and abject humility as they remain seated. We still have the residential areas of the high-caste Hindus through which untouchables are forbidden to take their marriage processions, hotels where the “low-caste people” are not allowed the touch and use of utensils meant for other common customers. We still witness the shameful and ghastly scenes of the untouchables being shot dead by villagers for daring to grow their moustaches upwards (local tradition demands that they grow their moustaches downwards because of their low status in the caste hierarchy). 5 Solution is there, but it needs a planned and concerted action on behalf of the Government, the social workers and the under-privileged. First they are to be educated properly, their standard of living is to be raised, their miserable economic conditions are to be improved and then they are to come out in a defiant mood to break loose the chains of age-old traditions by breaking the ban on the use of public wells, schools, roads and public temples. Only then some semblance of hope can be visible.
Anand does not seem to be satisfied with an understanding of the society in its exterior aspects, its institutions, its problems. He seems to be possessed by a desire, although vague, to seize and express the deeper spiritual reality beneath the flux of bourgeois living. He, therefore, criticises social maladies, human hypocrisies, and individual idiosyncrasies.
In Coolie Anand shows his concern for the savagely neglected, despised and maltreated poor with an angry lack of resignation. Munoo, a poor orphan hill-boy, verdant and innocent, underfed and ill-treated by his aunt leaves the native village to find work and see the world. The very first encounter with reality shatters his dreams. Employed in the house of a bank clerk, Munoo with his inborn naive gaiety amuses and entertains the employer’s daughter by dancing like a monkey for her, but is interfered by he shrewish and vindictive housewife who ruthlessly destroys his happiness by making him realize his position in the world: “He had no right to join the laughter of his superiors. He was to be a slave, a servant who should do the work, all the odd jobs, someone to be abused, even beaten...”
Constant abuses and frenzied rage from his frightening and frowning mistress makes him flee to work in a primitive pickle factory in Daulatpur where the dispute between the two partners leaves him desolate, unshielded and helpless. Exasperated with the frantic competition and cunningness among the fellow-coolies, he finds himself an utter failure in the job of a market porter. The satire here becomes more general, directed not at one or two examples of vice and folly but at man’s inhumanity to man. The generous but feckless Prabha, Munoo’s protector and surrogate father, is betrayed by a cruel paranoiac foreman, harried by an absurd retired judge called Sir Todar Mal (a Dickensian grotesque who emerges with considerable comic power), and is finally nearly beaten to death by the police acting with absurd and habitual brutality”.6 This apparent and senseless deprivation and injustice drives Munoo to still another adventure. After working in vain as a market porter and sleeping on the road pavements, Munoo, with the help of an elephant-driver of a circus company is stowed away to Bombay. Before he is thrown into the vast sea of humanity, the elephant-driver tells him almost like a prophet: “The bigger a city is, the more cruel it is to the sons of Adam.” In Bombay he starts working in the British-owned Sir George White Cotton Mills and is brutally exploited along with other factory-workers and fellow-sufferers including Hari, with whom he lives in a slum. The miserable lives of the workers and their families, their squalor and victimization, the tormenting pictures of “an emaciated man, the bones of whose skeleton were locked up in a paralytic knot,” “a grey-haired black blind man leaning half on the arm of his daughter, half on a stick”–are vividly described. Wage-cut and hunger, exploitation and the retrenchment of workers lead to the eruption of the labour strike which ultimately turns into a Hindu-Muslim riot. Shocked and bewildered Munoo steals out of the clashing crowd but is dashed down to unconsciousness by Mrs. Mainwaring’s car and is transported to Simla to work as a page and rickshaw-puller to Mrs. Main-waring, a sort of an indolent and extremely neurotic, something of a nymphomaniac European mem-sahib. Over-work and under-nourishment gradually fret away his health until he dies of consumption.
Anand’s indictment is against the society as a whole, society that “breeds such prejudice and selfishness and cruelty.” Poverty diffused all over India and like a poison infecting all our society is the root cause of Munoo’s tragedy. The economic exploitation of the proletariat by a few egoistic, irrational, inhuman and cruel individuals very succinctly become the essence of Munoo’s misfortunes and is conveyed to us through one of the characters in the novel:
There are only two kinds of people in the world: the rich and the poor and between the two there is no connection. The rich and the powerful, the magnificent and the glorious, whose opulence is built on robbery and theft and open war-fare, are honoured and admired by the whole world and by themselves. You, the poor and the humble, you the meek and the gentle, wretched that you are swindled out of your rights, and broken in body and soul. You are respected by no one and you do not respect yourselves. (p. 55)
The charm of the book lies in Munoo’s innocence, “in his naive warm-heartedness, his love and comradeship, his irrepressible curiosity and zest for life”–the instinctive urge to live, to go on doing something in order to avoid starving. The Bombay scene with toiling, suffering, struggling, starving masses is at once vivid and realistic, where Munoo, an insignificant part of the millions of half-fed and half-clad workers is “no more than a speck in this tide of humanity”, and it is precisely for this reason that the story does not end here and the author transports him to the holiday-resort where he regains his identity. Coolie, to quote another critic, is a “cosmic painting of the lives of thousands of orphans, coolies, boy-servants, factory-workers and rickshaw-pullers, their health running down “through the hour-glass of Time.” The novel is a treatise on social evil at its sundry levels and phases”. 7
Deeply moved by the abject poverty and innocence of India’s toiling masses, Anand wanted to write an angry bitter book, a book to sear the conscience. It emerges as “an anguished cry, and indictment of the cruelty of the system, and a declaration of pity for the hero, the betrayal and the depraved Munoo. It is more than a social documentary, more than a tract for the times”.8
Two Leaves and a Bud describes the pathetic conditions of the labourers in tea-gardens where the poor Indian coolies work as slaves along with their wives and children. It is a sad and appalling tale of the crushed humanity, of their sighs and tears.
Gangu, a middle-aged farmer in the Punjab, tempted by false promises, is transported to Assam with his wife and daughter to work in a British-owned tea plantation concern. The coolies here are treated like beasts and their wives and daughters have to yield to the white sahibs like Reggie Hunt. These docile, gutless, spineless coolies never raise their voices and go about the plantation with masks of crass stupidity on their faces, whose habitual submission is never disturbed by an outrage of man or beast, by hunger, pestilence or slow disease (p. 198). Anand has successfully portrayed the lot of the Indian coolies–“exploited, starving, cheated, dirty, diseased” as the true heirs of one of the “world’s greatest civilizations.”
Coolies’ joint approach to the authorities for a fair deal is mistaken to be a rebellion. Army is summoned, aeroplanes machinegun the terror-striken coolies and grind them down into submission and order is restored. De la Havre, a sympathetic doctor, a “walking capsule of humanism, socialism, progressivism and left-wing idealism” has to miss his job and his love (Barabara) because according to the planter’s code, his sympathies were wasted on the wrong people.
Gangu feels bewildered, lonely and lost when his wife Sajani dies of malaria. He makes frantic efforts to borrow money for the funeral expenses and is kicked out, beaten and abused. He comes back almost broken to Buta, the Garden Sardar, who had brought him here on fabulous promises:
“The Sahib will not give me a loan,” Gangu said, “I have just been. He beat me for coming out of quarantine. Oh, friend Buta Ram, if only I had known things were going to turn out this way, I wouldn’t have come here.” And he took his hand to his eyes to wipe the tears that had welled up in them with the reproach against the Sardar that he had suppressed into self-pity.
These natural, unforced and unpretentious words successfully convey the genuine “pathos, the suffering and the anguish of the hero”.9
Gangu with his cold passivity, his tender loyalties, his compassion and depth of suffering, symbolic of the Indian peasantry, is by now adept to watch the violent play of God, the storm and the rain washing away the meagre harvest of paddy with an almost imperturbable calm, as if in the moment of his uttermost anguish and despair, he had been purged of his fear of the inevitable. Hopelessly embedded in the toils of a system that can only throttle the life, Gangu has learnt to accept the rigours of life with complete resignation and stoical serenity:
And, as in the old days in his village, so now he plodded on like an ox all day, knowing all in his crude bovine way, grasping the distinction between himself and his masters, conscious even of the days when he was young and had kicked against the pricks and the proddings of the rod, of the hate, the fear and the sorrow he had known, but detached and forgetful in the Nirvanic bliss of emptiness where the good and evil of fortune seemed the equally just retributions, Omniscient Providence, of whom Siva and Vishnu and Krishna were the supreme incarnations...(p. 237).
The novel ends with the murder of Gangu in his attempt to rescue his daughter from the enticing trap of the sexy and lustful Reggie Hunt. The white jury that tries the case finds Hunt “not guilty” of murder by one vote and not guilty to culpable homicide by a majority of vote. Evil is thus shown triumphing and leaving no room for goodness in life.
De la Havre, Anand’s “spokesman character”, with his idealist dream of a “Communist type revolution and recognizes imperialism as an egregious form of capitalist exploitation”.l0 The him the socio-political revolution is the only way to emancipate the vast masses, prisoners of so many chains, bearing the physical signs of grief, of lassitude, even of death. He does protect the coolies and encourage them to resist the onslaughts of gross injustices, insults, and indignities they are destined to suffer at the hands of the British planters and rich Indian exploiters, but Anand through Dr Havre can easily be seen to be ventilating his anger and pity at these swarming, under-nourished, bleary, worm-eaten millions of India suffer so. He surmises:
Is it because the festering swamps of the tropics breed disease and that they cannot check the tribulations of destiny? Certainly it seemed to me so, at first–that fate had here conspired with the seasons to obliterate everything capriciously...But why didn’t it occur to anyone the simple, obvious thing that people don’t need Marx to realize here. The black coolies clear the forests, plant the fields, toil and garner the harvest, while all the money-grubbing, slave-driving, soulless managers and directors draw their salaries and dividends and build up monopolies. Therein lies the necessity of revolution in this country...(p. 122/123).
Anand has been blamed for his partisan views of the Britishers. The novel, according to Professor H. M. Williams, is on one level a crude piece of propaganda portraying the British as vicious and absurd. Admitting that the novel is not as best as his early ones, Anand himself offers his defence in the introduction to the 1951 edition of the book:
I do not think that it is one of the best of my early novels. It is perhaps better written, and technically, it is more complex than Untouchable or Coolie because I tried to evoke in it in varying moods of the beautiful Eastern Indian landscape and felt the passions with an intensity which owed not a little to the fact that it was a real story which I was writing in thinly veiled fiction. But I confess, that, as I got into the book, I was biased in favour of my Indian characters and tended to caricature the Englishmen and English women who play such a vital part in this book ... And the truth has to be told about the relations of the blacks and whites, unpalatable as it might be, even as the disease of serfdom had to be analysed in Russia before it could be eradicated. And if in so doing, one’s art spills over into an amorphous passion then, well, that should be forgiven in an age which so often excuses cynicism and contempt and even violence on the other side...” (Introduction, p. vii)
Able, spirited and bold as this defence is, it does not answer all the doubts and questionings. In his over-enthusiastic defiance of the exploitation, Anand makes Gangu brood in an intellectual manner which never seeming true to his character, sounds a crude piece of propaganda inartistically thrust over through the protagonist’s mouth:
I have always said it and I say it now again that, though the earth is bought and sold and confiscated, God never meant that to happen, for He does not like some persons to have a comfortable living and the others to suffer from dire poverty. He has created land enough to maintain all men and yet many die of hunger, and most live under a heavy burden of poverty all their lives, as if the earth were made for a few and not for all men! (p. 247/248):
Lapses such as these are there, but they never infiltrate the total artistic beauty and effect, for the crude part of overt propaganda is made subservient to the human content by telling the unvarnished tale of plantation life in the thirties. Anand has therefore ably withstood the attack of the critics whom he would like to remind that “the catharsis of a book lies ultimately in the pity, the compassion and understanding of an artist and not in his partiality.”
A study of the trilogy gives an unmistakable feeling, that Anand is a serious and committed novelist with definite axe to grind. What he is committed to and what he grinds with his axe is obviously the wishful eradication of the prevalent prejudice and indignation against the under-privileged and under-dog of the society and pleads for the bettering of their lot.
A wishful thinking for the removal of all artificial barriers between classes and masses prompts the author to insist on the innate humanity of man. He is almost baffled by age-long social inertia, and pins his faith not on any future rational re-organization of the society, but on elemental human goodness and sincerity.
The indirect criticism in his novels of the emotional regidity and self-centredness of the superior castes gives place to a more frontal attack on the illogicalities and injustices of society. But this does not mean that his novels are a dissertation on socia-ethical problem, rather an illuminating document of human interest. He has pointed out social conflicts and ills, not because he champions any abstract social theory, but because he has seen and experienced and felt them intimately in his own surroundings.
Anand in his novels, attacking social snobbery and prejudice, urges for a larger outlook, more tolerance, more intimate and benevolent understanding and more self-sacrifice. He seems to stress one thing to be sure–that intolerance and egoistic feelings are at the root of all our social and personal troubles.
Anand, through his creative writing, as he expresses in his Apology for Heroism (p. 139), has been able to live through the experience of other people and realise what silent passions burst, in their minds, what immediate and ultimate sorrows possess them where they want to go and how they grapple in their own ways, with their destinies. He has tried in this sense to express his passionate love for the suffering people without caring for the misunderstanding and the ridicule of those who are better situated in social life and call his pre-occupation with the outcastes, the disinherited peasants, and the eternally wronged women as a morbid, sentimentalist pre-occupation with these “ignorant people.”
Through his pleadings for an unquenchable and unshakable faith in the elemental goodness of man and power of love, a faith which has had all falsity and sentimentality purged of by the fires of intense suffering, what Anand wanted to achieve has been achieved. And that in itself is a unique contribution to the Indian novel in English.
1. Dr M. K. Naik’s essay on Gandhiji and the Indian Writing in English. Banasthali Patrika, special issue on Mahatma Gandhi. July 1970. p. 55.
2 Prof. H. M. Williams: Studies in Modern Indian Novel in English. Writers Workshop, Calcutta. 1973. Vol. I, p. 31.
3 Shyam M. Asnani: Untouchable and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable. Published in the Banasthali Patrika. Jan. ’71.
4 Dr K. R. S. Iyengar: Indian Writing in English. Asia Pub. House, Bombay (1973). p. 338.
5 The Times of India, December 26, 1976, reports that according to the Chairman of the Untouchability Committee appointed by the Union Government, three untouchables in a village in Madhya Pradesh were shot dead.
6 Studies in Modern Indian Novel in English.
7 Prof. K. Kurmanadham: The Novels of Dr M. R. Anand. Triveni (Machilipatnam), Oct. ’67.
8 Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English.
9 Dr Saros Cowasjee : Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud. Published in the Indian Literature (Q). Vol. XVI, No. 3 and 4, July, Dec. ’73.
l0 Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English.
* References to the texts are from the Kutub Popular (Bombay) editions unless otherwise specified.