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The Rediff Special/Lindsay Pereira
September 28, 2004
Sometime in 2001, The Sunday Tribune chose to honour 200 years of the coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh by inviting eminent writers to comment.
What Mulk Raj Anand wrote for that feature could, with hindsight, make an apt epitaph for an astonishing career spanning more than seven decades: "Our recalls of the heritages of the past are not from the wish to revive bygone splendours, which cannot come back. We wish to show how the purposive will of men in certain periods of our history have created, out of anarchy and disorder, glories which heightened the quality of life and which may inspire our renascent efforts today."
At 8.30 this morning, September 28, the author who knew a lot about creating glories out of anarchy and disorder passed away quietly. He had spent his last 10 days at the Jehangir Hospital in the Lonavala-Khandala belt near Pune, in the company of his caretaker Ram Gohar.
According to Gohar, the prime minister called the writer's wife and daughter, offering his condolences. The state's chief minister did the same. And, across the country, men and women awoke, drank cups of hot tea, accepted the news, and pressed on with their business.
It is hardly the kind of reaction one would expect for a life as devoted to the underdog as Anand's has been. Even his will bequeaths his property to The Sarvodaya Trust, which he founded.
Awarded the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to English literature, Mulk Raj Anand, son of a coppersmith and soldier, was born on December 12, 1905, in Peshawar. He studied in Amritsar, moved to Cambridge and the University of London, obtained a PhD in 1929, and lectured at the League of Nations' School of Intellectual Cooperation in Geneva.
And then, suddenly, he was brought face to face with India's dark side when his aunt killed herself.
It was this family tragedy that launched his career, propelling him towards writing that would eloquently, consistently, depict the lives of India's poorer castes. The aunt in question had been excommunicated simply because she had dared to share a meal with a Muslim! She committed suicide, and Anand's first prose essay was born as a response to this rigidity of the caste system.
Then, in 1935, came the novel that made him famous. "Dirty dog! Son of a bitch! Offspring of a pig! I'll have to go and get washed." The lines that give Untouchable much of its power can still make us flinch. It is the story of a day in the life of Bakha, a toilet-cleaner who accidentally bumps into a member of a higher caste. Hurt by the latter's harsh reaction, Bakha turns to religion to soothe his soul, tries following Gandhi for a while, and eventually comes to realise that the newly introduced flush toilet is what will save him, simply by putting an end to the toilet-cleaner caste!
In his introduction to the novel, the English writer E M Forster – who, incidentally, championed Anand's work long before Indian publishers did – talks about how the book "has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it".
A year later, Anand turned his eye towards child labour, creating Coolie in the process. It tells the story of a 15 year-old girl who eventually dies of tuberculosis. Two Leaves and a Bud arrived in 1937, describing an exploited peasant killed while trying to protect his daughter from being raped by a British official. Underdogs, all; and yet, glory out of such disarray.
After busy years spent across the globe – he volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and spent World War II working as a scriptwriter for the BBC in London – Mulk Raj Anand came back to India in 1946, making Mumbai his hometown, and continued writing. Critically acclaimed novels like The Village (1939) and Across the Black Waters (1940) were born, as was the literary magazine Marg, which he founded in 1946. He also taught at various universities and wrote a seven-part autobiography, one part of which, titled Morning Face (1968), won him the Sahitya Akademi Award.
There were further credits, other honours. Anand received the International Peace Prize from the World Peace Council and the Leverhulme Fellowship. He was credited with being among the first to render Punjabi and Hindustani idioms into English. With time, he, along with Raja Rao and R K Narayan, came to be known as one of the founding fathers of the Indian English novel.
The subjects he worked on were incredibly diverse, ranging from Aesop's fables and Indian ivory to Tagore, erotic sculpture, and the Kama Sutra. Running through it all, however, was the search for a just, progressive India, alongside a personal quest for a higher sense of awareness.
In R K Dhawan's The Novels of Mulk Raj Anand, the author is quoted on what he thinks the real test of a novelist is. He once said that it may lie "in the transformation of words into prophecy. Because, what is a writer if he is not the fiery voice of the people..."
It is still easy, at times, to think of the owner of one of those fiery voices living with his wife in the cavernous ground floor of an ancient building in Cuffe Parade, the flat stacked with manuscripts, his old black mongrel lying quietly by his side. Thank god the work still exists.
For the moment, we mourn. For yet another light that has gone out in the fast encroaching darkness.
Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh