A creator with social concern

Print edition : October 22, 2004

Mulk Raj Anand, 1905-2004.

WITH the passing away of Mulk Raj Anand, India has lost one of its great progressive writers. He belonged to a generation of writers committed to the democratic ideals of egalitarianism and social justice - including stalwarts such as Shivram Karanth, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Gopinath Mohanty, Tarasankar Banerjee, Phaneeshwarnath Renu, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Sri Sri, Jayakantan, L.S. Ramamritam, Si.Su. Chellappa, Abdul Rehman Rahi and a host of others - who were inspired by the Gandhian identification with the marginalised and the Marxist principle of the struggle for class justice. These writers, whose time begins with Premchand and Saadat Hassan Manto, and whose lineage can ultimately be traced back to the Bhakti and Sufi poets such as Basava, Kabir, Raidas, Chokha Mela, Gora, Bulle Shah, Baba Farid and Sheikh Abdul Lateef who rebelled against every form of hierarchy on earth, created their own epoch of secular and socialist literature with its own aesthetic of resistance.

Coming from a family of hereditary craftsmen in Peshawar, Anand inherited from his father the pieties of craft and from his mother the rich tradition of mythology. He grew up, as he himself wrote, like most of his contemporaries, "a very superficial, ill-educated young man, without any bearings". After graduating from Punjab University, he won a fellowship to study at the University of London. He obtained his Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of London in 1928, at the age of 23. Exposure to Marxism, a personal encounter with Mahatma Gandhi and a deep study of Gandhian ideals, participation in the anti-fascist struggle in Spain and involvement in the national struggles for freedom and democracy, strengthened his commitment to socialism and democracy.

Anand himself traced his growth as a progressive writer in a conversation with this writer at his Hauz Khas cottage in New Delhi in 1992: "My earlier writings were naive, impetuous and sporadic utterances coming from intense feelings. I found myself embroiled in sad moods, despairs and agonies. My teachers thought that my confusion was the natural expression of adolescence. They did not know that behind the broken lines there were many feelings about my good mother turning into a cruel mother-in-law, my father, a servant of the Sahibs even while being a pseudo-Arya Samajist, my professors, mostly pompous, and senior students, admirable because they were thinking brave thoughts."

He then reflected on how he met Muhammad Iqbal, the great poet who invited his attention to a question from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that inspired his long poem, "Asrar-i-Khudi" (Secrets of the Self). The Upanishad says: "A devotee asked the sage: What may I do with my life? And the sage answers: Ask yourself every day: Who am I? Where have I come from? And where am I going?" He began to ask himself these questions and put down his loose thoughts in his diary, thoughts that hovered around the cruelty based on caste, class and gender he saw around him. He was also inspired by Guru Nanak and Kabir, whose compassion he failed to find in Advaita philosophy.

At that time he fell in love with a Muslim girl. However, her parents married her to a railway guard as his third wife. The guard murdered her as he found Anand's love letters in her bag. This deepened his agony. Annie Besant's talk in his college on the freedom struggle, however, gave him hope; so did the tales of Balgangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo Ghosh and Mahatma Gandhi. Annie Besant's chanting of the Rig Vedic hymn on creation moved him deeply. When the Principal was given a punishment transfer for having invited Annie Besant to the college, Anand and his collegemates went on strike and spent a month in jail.

His father's ire at the wayward son made him flee home. Again he went to Iqbal, ready to follow in his footsteps. Iqbal dissuaded him from going to Germany; instead he asked him to go to England and meet his friends there for help. He went to London with the Rs.101 Iqbal gave him and an equal amount gifted by his new Principal for having done well in the honours examinations.

In England, he was admitted for research in philosophy. The notes in his diary grew gloomier as he was being ill-treated even by the Indians - the `brown Sahebs' - in England and Churchill put down the coal miners' strike in 1926. Here he read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rabindranath Tagore and others. During one of Virginia Woolf's reading sessions at her home that he attended regularly, a young critic, Edward Sackville, asked him what he was writing. He replied that he was writing about an outcaste, and the critic reacted superciliously: "O, there can be no novel about the poor! One can only laugh at the Cockneys, like Dickens." This was unnerving.

Later in Ireland, he met the poets A.E (George Russell) and W.B. Yeats. When Anand reported to A.E. what Sackville had said, the poet asked him to go to Gandhi and join his battle against the caste system and imperialism. He wrote to Gandhi. Anand reached Ahmedabad in March 1927. Gandhi laughed at Anand's corduroy suit but agreed to look at the manuscript of The Untouchable. The next day he told Anand to refrain from using big words and write in a simpler language and transliterate what the `harijans' say. He rewrote the novel at Gandhi's ashram; Gandhi approved the draft. Nineteen publishers in London rejected the script, but with E.M. Forster's preface, it was accepted by a publisher. The Untouchable went on to become a modern classic and was translated into 20 languages. That was the birth of Mulk Raj Anand the novelist.

Anand, the ideologue of the Progressive Literary Movement, was born simultaneously. Sajjad Zaheer, Dr. Ghosh, who taught Bengali at Oxford, Cedric Dover, an Anglo-Indian scholar from Calcutta, and Dr. M.D. Taseer, an Urdu poet, were the first to frame the manifesto heralding the new Movement. The manifesto condemned religious bigotry, casteism and superstitions of all kinds and exhorted writers to confront the dual reality of imperial hegemony and internal social decadence.

Since the manifesto attacked fascism as a pseudo-imperialist movement, intellectuals outside India such as Andre Gide, Andre Malraux, Laurence Housman, Ilya Ehrenberg, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Toller and Thomas Mann too welcomed its clear anti-fascist stance. With this the writers from India began to be invited to international conferences of writers. Anand and Sajjad Zaheer attended the World Conference of Intellectuals in 1935 organised by Gide and Malraux and presided over by Gorky.

Later Sajjad Zaheer came to India to organise the first Progressive Writers Conference next year; it was chaired by Premchand. Anand went to Spain to join the battle against fascism and participated in the World Conference of Writers in Madrid in 1937. Coming back to India, he organised the Second Conference of Progressive Writers in Calcutta; it was chaired by Tagore. While Anand and his group of writers were attacked by Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, they found supporters in Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Tagore, Iqbal, Manik Banerjee, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Tarasankar Banerjee, Vallathol Naryana Menon, Thakazhi , Karanth, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Ismat Chugtai, Umashankar Joshi, Premchand, Yashpal, Amritlal Nagar and a host of other thinkers and writers from various parts of India.

The Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), with which he was associated, was instrumental in spreading the message of democracy and socialism, backed by the Communist movment. It was the period of creative turbulence that fired Mulk Raj Anand's imagination: the same that had produced Premchand's Godaan, Thakazhi's Chemmeen, Gopinath Mohanty's Paraja, K.A. Abbas' Inquilab, Renu's Maila Anchal and Karanth's Chomana Dudi.

ANAND brought to fictional life Bakha, his boyhood companion, the untouchable sweeper boy, in The Untouchable. Anand's mother abused Bakha for `polluting' her son when Bakha carried home a bleeding Anand, hurt by a stone. Bakha is reviled by caste Hindus as he cleans latrines; but Anand captures Bakha's pride in his work: he tackles his odious job with a conscientiousness that invests his movement with beauty. The novel was not only a powerful social tract, but a remarkable technical feat as in a single days' action the author builds round his hero a spiritual crisis broad enough to embrace the whole of India. Forster wrote in its introduction: "It has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it."

Anand continued his interest in social themes with his next few novels dealing with the destiny of the working class in India. Coolie centred around Munoo, an orphan boy dying of tuberculosis brought on by malnutrition. It exposes the whole system through its victim's tale of exploitation. Even in the dreariest of surroundings, the little hero retains his qualities of warm-heartedness, love, comradeship and curiosity. In The Village, inspired by the experience of Anand's mother's family whose land was taken away by the landlord of the village, the novelist explores the state of the poor peasantry under British rule.

If The Old Woman and the Cow is about the underprivileged women in Indian society, The Big Heart is woven around a coppersmith whose existence is threatened by mechanisation. Across the Black Waters, another of Anand's widely translated works, is about a peasant hero who joins the army only to fight another's war. The agony of the sepoy is reproduced here in ironic good humour. In The Sword and the Sickle, this hero is back in India to join the peasant movement floated by M.N. Roy and Kanwar Brajesh Singh (who later married Svetlana, Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin's daughter). Anand wrote this novel while staying with the peasants in Kalakankar. It was published at the same time as Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine that dealt with a similar theme.

Meanwhile, Anand witnessed the bloodbath of the First World War after he joined the India Section of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) along with George Orwell. The Quit India movement had by then been launched. The British government began censoring Anand's reports with their nationalist bias, but Churchill directly intervened and stopped the censorship as Anand was an anti-fascist. Coming back to India, Anand persuaded Nehru to organise the first Asian Writers' Conference, in which 120 writers from across the continent took part. It was attacked as a Communist conference; but the participation of Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan and Rajaji saved the platform. It also inspired the Afro-Asian Writers' Conference the next year, which later inspired writers such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Reflecting on those days, Anand told this writer: "The writers who criticise the progressives don't understand that there is a search for the other in all writing... The Symbolist movement in France, the Imagist movement in poetry in the U.K. and the U.S., the Impressionist movement in painting in Europe, the Leaning Tower school of British poetry led by C.D. Lewis, [W.H.] Auden, [Stephen] Spender and [Louis] McNiece, the Anti-Fascist Movement in Europe led by writers like Gide and Malraux and, of course, the Russian writers - all these were expressions of a powerful unity emerging among the writers and activists in solidarity with people... . They shared common concerns about human dignity."

Anand's later novels, while retaining his passion for social justice, show greater depths of emotion and achieve a synthesis of the social and personal concerns. Private Life of an Indian Prince is an example of this integration. Based on his experience with lost love, Anand convincingly explores the psychological workings of its hero. The novel is constructed around a youthful prince who holds out against a union with the rulers of three other princely States. He is encouraged to make his choice by his mistress, an illiterate peasant woman. But in the process he loses his mistress, his state and his sanity. In the words of S. Cowasjee, who has studied Anand's work closely, this is a "great historical novel that is at the same time a work of art". He calls it a "Dostoevskyian novel on a grand scale".

In addition to these novels, Anand intermittently worked on a proposed seven-volume series of autobiographical novels titled The Seven Ages of Man. Of these, Seven Summers and Morning Face - which won the Sahitya Akademi award - earned him comparisons to Tolstoy. Confession of a Lover, which won him the E.M. Forster award, and the Bubble continued to represent the aspirations of a whole generation of Indian youth in a momentous period of the country's history. Anand's short stories, which run into eight volumes, illustrate a wide range of mood and tone, from a humorous appreciation of life's little ironies to an awareness of its deeper tragedies. They are written with a Dickensian feeling for character and environment and bridge the gap between the oral and written traditions of Indian fiction.

Equally noteworthy was his passion for painting, sculpture and architecture whose best expression was the issues of Marg that he edited for years. He was a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi, a laureate of the International Peace Prize and a Padmabhushan, honours that never affected his quiet simplicity and dignity as a warm-hearted human being. Accepting the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, he said: "Living in action, as Gandhi taught us to do, means the cultivation of the courage to be human with other humans: it means involvement with all earth's citizens; it entails the acceptance of the heroism of defeat as Jawaharlal showed it because defeat involves persistence in struggle, which makes us more than ourselves, sustains us in compassion, affection and devotion in spite of obstacles... Poetry today has to become courage." This attutide also accounts for his cheerful acceptance of Dalit and feminist writing that he considered the progressive writing of our time.

Anand was to Indian people what Anton Chekhov was to Russians: a profound interpreter of their lives, an analyser of their deepest conflicts, a verbaliser of their agonies. Traditionalists criticised him for his departure from tradition; and dogmatic Marxists called him an ambivalent modernist and a liberal humanist. But he believed to the end in people's ability to change themselves and the world. He followed the Gandhian ideals of self-help and self-renewal, rejected the consumerist civilisation of the West and fought against the forces of revivalism. Anand was critical of much of what is written in English in India today; he was all for developing a literature of concern, of awareness, of intellectual opposition. He was more concerned with the passionate moment than the rigours of form. His bardic manner, however, finally achieved an effect analogous to a musical rhapsody: familiarity and elevation coalesced in his fiction giving it a `composed matter-of-fact magnificence'. He was different from both his eminent contemporaries, R.K. Narayan, with his urbanity of style, and Raja Rao, with his sacred, confessional vision. For Anand, literature was a force that released men and women from pre-ordained fate. In his hands, metaphysics became an ethics without God as when Gandhi said: "God comes to the poor in the form of bread."

K. Satchidanandan is Secretary, Sahitya Akademi.

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