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Champion of the underdog

`He missed a century by a full run ... .' A.J. THOMAS pays tribute to Mulk Raj Anand.


Mulk Raj Anand... wrote with purpose.

"MULK RAJ ANAND is a 100-year's document of history," said Gulzar, remembering the departed patriarch of Indian English fiction. Anand, indeed, lived through the 20th Century — almost entirely — responding to its epochs in his own inimitable ways. Living in London, the capital of the empire, mastering "the language of the oppressor," as O.N.V.Kurup, Malayalam poet and a former president of the Indian Progressive Writers' Association (IPWA), puts it, "preparing to strike back and to present the case of the Indian proletariat in front of the world"; at the same time, rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in English literature of the century such as T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller, Herber Read, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Stephen Spender, Lawrence Durrell, Andre Malraux, the writers of the Bloomsbury group., et al; and yet keenly aware that he was a citizen of the subject country. He said about his relationship with George Orwell: "In recall, I feel our friendship was an example of independent writers from the imperial country and the subject country getting together."

The long road to fame

Coming under the influence of the writings of Tolstoy, Ruskin, Morris and Gandhi, he became a hardboiled socialist. Namwar Singh, literary critic and scholar, and for long associated with IPWA, says: "Anand founded the Progressive Writers' Association in London along with Sajjad Zahir, as many socialist-oriented Indian writers were there at that time. The two drew up a manifesto, and Zahir came to India with it. In 1936, the IPWA was founded with Munshi Premchand as its president. Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi and others joined later. And it developed to become the biggest writers' movement in the history of India, going strong for several decades, providing a structured framework for carrying on the project of humanism and egalitarianism."

Anand took an active anti-fascist stand, even joining the International Brigade against General Franco, when even the best of European and American minds, except a Hemingway or so, thought it better to keep status quo. In spite of his western rationalistic leanings, and personal lifestyle, he followed Mahatma Gandhi closely for a time, on account of his humanistic, compassionate spirit, living in the Sabarmati Ashram where Gandhi corrected the manuscript of his The Untouchable. It is quite another story that when it was eventually turned down by 19 publishers, he thought even of suicide, as quoted in the "Meet the Author", brochure of Sahitya Akademi. After success came to him later, when staying on in London and pursuing a full-time writing career and becoming a world-class writer was very much within his reach, he opted to return to India and to dedicate the rest of his life for literary creation for the uplift of the marginalised, in a language which was abhorred by traditionalists as the "Mletcha's". He, however, succeeded in establishing himself, along with R.K.Narayan and Raja Rao, as a founding father of the big-time Indian-English novel. Gulzar says that the latter-day Booker-winning tribe should pay obeisance to this great ancestor.

Anand's keen interest in the graphic and plastic arts of the sub-continent made him author several authoritative books on the subject. He was Tagore Professor of Art in Punjab University; he founded a fulltime art journal Marg when big magazines were giving occasional pages to art. And he kept up writing to the last days of his long life, as evidenced by his article that appeared in The Times of India on September 28, 2004.

Committed writer

Though one wouldn't describe Anand a prodigy of meteor-like brilliance, or a genius of Tagorean proportions, one would certainly recognise in him a great writer who was committed. He was fired with a purpose — to highlight the plight of the poor, suffering masses of India. Only he would dare to make the lowest of the lowly his hero, for the first time in the history of Indian English fiction — Bakha, in The Untouchable. He followed it up in his next two novels, Coolie, and Two Leaves and a Bud. He would rise up against any form of oppression or fascist moves. Remember his public denouncement of the demolition of the Babri Masjid?

The history of Indian English fiction grew with him. There are three clear phases in his career. In the first, mainly the above three novels came out with an underdog as a hero; in the second, there were novels like The Village, Across the Black Waters, and The Sword and the Sickle, projecting the idea that man's destiny is shaped by the society against which he is in constant struggle; in the third, he planned to write a seven-volume autobiographical novel, of which four had come out: Seven Summers, Morning Face, Confessions of a Lover and The Bubble.


He had received the Sahitya Akademi Award; Lalit Kala Akademi's Golden Jubilee Ratna Puraskar was conferred on him just a couple of weeks ago. Honours he received include the Lverhulme Fellowship, the World Peace Council Prize and the Padma Bhushan. He was the only writer to be elected Fellow of all the three national academies — the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi.

To lighten the sombre solemnity of the atmosphere during the condolence meeting on Annadasankar Ray's death last year, a few months before he turned 100, a friend made the wisecrack during his speech — "Annadasankar missed a century by half-a-run." Anand missed a century by a full run; he was 99.

A.J. Thomas is with the Sahitya Akademi, Delhi.

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