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Poetics of protest


Remembering Mulk Raj Anand on his birth centenary, which falls on December 12.

Life of Contradictions: Mulk Raj Anand, Gandhian, Marxist, novelist.

"WHAT is a writer if he is not the fiery voice of the people?" asked Mulk Raj Anand and that's what he was through seven decades of his literary career. Growing up under the Raj and writing against the backdrop of colonial rule and anti-colonial resistance, Anand was convinced that art cannot and should not be divorced from its social function. His poetics of protest that projects the writer as a revolutionary bears the unmistakable imprint of Marxist thought. It is also characteristic of the postcolonial rhetoric that emerged during the phase of independence struggles in the colonised societies across the world. Achebe, the well-known African novelist, sees the writer as primarily a teacher and envisages a pedagogic role for a creative writer. George Lamming of the West Indies upholds the role of a writer in the shaping of national consciousness. Anand had posited this position at least a decade earlier to both of them, when he firmly asserted: "any attempt on his (the writer's) part to shirk the responsibility is betrayal of his own power and acceptance of mental and spiritual death".

Humanist position

"Humanist" — this had always been Anand's preferred expression for describing his own position in life, literature art and politics. The term might mean different things to different people at different points of time. But to Anand it always meant just one thing — faith in mankind. Respect for fellow human beings, concern for others, love of peace, anger against all forms of exploitation, commitment to the ideal of freedom or "so many freedoms", to borrow the expression from the title of Saros Cowasjee's book on Anand — this is Mulk Raj Anand for all those who have read him; known him.

Born on December 12, 1905, Anand had already experienced and internalised the ideological conflicts of his time by the time he wrote his first novel, Untouchable, in 1935. His father Lal Chand, a silversmith turned sepoy, worked in the British Indian regiment and was loyal to the Raj. His mother Ishwar Kaur came of peasant stock and shared the strong patriotic fervour of her father, which she passed on to Anand through tales of Sikh heroism. Looking back at his childhood, Anand sees himself as a split self admiring and imitating the ways of the White sahibs whom his father served, and alternately donning the role of Raja Rasalu, the hero of his mother's stories, "the prince who attacked the whole world with sword, bow and arrows". Some of his childhood experiences of colonial terrorism clinched the issue for him. He was 14 at the time of the Jallianwalabagh incident and was himself a victim of the police atrocities that followed. As Anand told me in a personal interview: "Growing up in an atmosphere of such tension and unease had a great impact on me. It is but natural that my novels became notes on my engagements for several freedoms."

Strength and resilience

The publication history of Anand's first novel is worth recording since it demonstrates the strength of Anand's convictions and his resilience of this ceaseless fighter for freedom.As many as 19 publishers turned down the manuscript before it was finally accepted by Lawrence and Wishart, a small left-wing publisher in London. Untouchable then went on to become a modern Indian classic and got translated into many world languages. The best of Anand's work focuses on the travails of the exploited and abused: untouchables (Untouchable, 1935), coolies (Coolie, 1936), plantation labour (Two Leaves and a Bud, 1937), common sepoys (Across the Black Waters, 1940) peasant women (Gauri, 1960). Anand's work chronicles the birth of modern India, critically analysing all the important developments that impacted the process: colonial rule and freedom struggle (The Village, 1939), the rise of Communism (The Sword and the Sickle, 1942), industrialisation (The Big Heart, 1945), the abolition of princely states (The Private Life of an Indian Prince, 1953), Indo-Pak border conflicts (Death of a Hero, 1964). Besides, his multi-volume fictional autobiography records the private life of the author as well as the history of the epoch in which he lived.

Anand was a prolific writer whose interesting and critical articles on a wide variety of topics, ranging from art and architecture to cookery, constitute a rich archive for the study of Indian culture. One of the architects of the progressive writer's movement in India, founder of the art magazine Marg, which he edited for over four decades, Anand played a vital role in shaping the contemporary Indian philosophy and aesthetic of art and literature.

Anand reconciled several contradictions in his life and writing: He was a Gandhian and a Marxist at the same time; a romantic deeply involved with stark realities; moved effortlessly from Bloomsbury to Sabarmati; admired Adi Sankara and Budhdha but remained a karma yogi, a man of action.

He passed away on September 28, 2004, in Pune.

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