A pure flame, sincere and human

Mulk Raj AnandMulk Raj Anand, in his nearly 100 years, lived life on his own terms. He, perhaps, came very close to Rabindranath Tagore’s concept of the Universal Man, writes Ashwini Bhatnagar

FOR nearly three quarters of a century, Mulk Raj Anand blew like an energetic breeze across the literary and cultural landscape of the subcontinent. He invariably inspired and created, provoked and startled and tugged at the heartstrings and the other parts of our being like a breeze trying to get under our skin.

Anand took the literary and cultural world by storm when he arrived on the scene in the 1930s. For several decades thereafter he was the presiding deity at many a height. But when he left, he did not leave the landscape windswept in his wake.

In fact, when he died last week, falling short of the magical century mark by a whisker, it was as ironical as his life had been. He could have been one of the greatest Indians on the literary and cultural scene given his immense talent. However, his natural curiosity about the world around and beyond him distracted him from the single-minded pursuit of literary and cultural accomplishments. Anand definitely cannot be put in the also-ran category. He was a thorough-bred artist who could run many races at the same time with equal ease. From philosophy to poetry, from revolutionary jargon to real-time lighting up of deprived lives and from Gandhian asceticism to a taste for fine blends of brandy, he straddled the contradictions, ignoring the personal and artistic cost that he had to pay for doing so. These costs defined both the man and his work. It was because of these that he was once described by a critic as a "multifoliate rose, crowned with knots of fire" and as "a pure flame, so sincere and human" by his Irish girlfriend, Irene. Fire, then, defined him. It was within and without, and he stroked it relentlessly.

Writing about his ‘compulsions for creativity,’ Anand lights up the imagery of fire himself. "Of course, there is the contribution of heredity (and the time one is born in), which may give enough vitality and light up a fire through the sparks that are always being scattered about from the invisible creative forces in the universe."

He admitted that the compulsions to write or to be creative were many. "These compulsions are more often than not the result of so much inner tension and born of such a variety of outer experiences, that one cannot sum them up in a neat little phrase." Hence, when the first compulsion of experience arrived in his life, while he was a student in England, he poured it out in 2,000 pages for the benefit of Irene. She liked "the passionate, frank manner of the utterances and its bold truthfulness and naivet`E9." The book was never published but the two dozen novels and six collections of short stories that he published over the 75 years of his creative life were typified by Irene’s assessment of his first work.

Anand wrote intuitively and, therefore, compellingly. It is this characteristic that separated him from his other two equally celebrated contemporaries – RK Narayan and Raja Rao. The trio was the first to graft native sensibility into a foreign tongue. Narayan, answering to his muse, created the magical world of Malgudi wherein character after character took centre-stage charming audiences worldwide. He was a writer as an observer of life.

Raja Rao displayed his class early. Kanthapura was about social activism and the impact of Gandhi in a nondescript village. His skill to translate the ambience of local life and its tongue into a foreign mode earned him the reputation of a master craftsman. Raja Rao turned reflective and his work acquired the polish of a philosopher-storyteller.

The third face of the trio — Mulk Raj Anand — was the most volatile. Ceaseless energy filled him and he moved from experience to experience. For him, the rawness was embellishment enough. He was a writer as a participant.

"Through the many adversities, trials and errors, heart-rending experiences and several breakdowns, the characters from my long confession have become a miscellany of novels and short fictions. The passions which have occupied them are, perhaps, my dominant moods, and, therefore, all those characters may be said to be part of the same autobiography of torments, despairs and ecstasies`85" he wrote about his art. In one way or the other, several of his contemporaries or immediate seniors, including luminaries like Munshi Prem Chand, Allana Iqbal, Yash Pal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, too reported a similar affliction. But even when they combined social activism and writing, they were not distracted from their primary urge.

In contrast, Anand had a nervous energy that "lifted him like a wave, a leaf, a cloud," made him curiouser and curiouser and set him on different paths at the same time. He was hence both a man of letters and a connoisseur of the arts. Marg, the magazine that he founded and edited, was a trail-blazer in the field of arts. It set standards for art criticism and produced folios in its issues on Indian art that are still to be matched by any other publication or critic.

As his writing was drawn from his real-life experiences, art history and criticism, too, was not an armchair preoccupation with Anand. For the fine arts, he learnt to draw, subjected himself to tuitions to educate himself on mudras of various dance forms and travelled the country to see for himself art and architecture in their natural setting.

It is only natural, therefore, for a man with such variegated talent that he became the only Indian to be a Fellow of both the Sahitya Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi, besides heading the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian Peoples’Theatre Association at different times in his life. He was also an academician of fine repute and a much-respected teacher who lectured at different universities.

He learned philosophy "in conversation with Bertrand Russell," discussed literature with EM Forster and resolved to "go beyond him," poured his ‘self’ out to Sigmund Freud, took advice from WB Yeats on his writing and came back to India to imbibe Gandhian values. He met Mahatma Gandhi and promptly made him the editor of his novel. Gandhi, Anand has recorded, cut 150 pages out of his 200-page draft of Untouchable and asked him to rewrite it. "I realised that I had been converted to truthfulness and sincerity in writing."

Unfortunately, none of these influences stayed for long. Anand was combative and eager about everything, never tarrying long enough to climb the heights of excellence. He wanted to go "beyond Forster," answer Kipling’s Kim by writing Coolie and devise a language ‘Pigeon Indian’ as a response to Yeats comment on ‘Pigeon Irish.’ He professed Marxism and practised Gandhism and then tried to "rely on the wisdom of the heart of my mother’s Sikh faith." Later, he recorded, "I found the individual human being fascinating."

"I hope I learn enough English to join The Tribune one day...."

As a young student, Mulk Raj Anand visited Kalinath Ray, Editor, The Tribune, in 1923. Reproduced here is the conversation. Anand wrote of his encounter for the centenary souvenir of The Tribune in 1981.

Kalinath Ray
Kalinath Ray

IN the year 1923, with the euphoria of youthful enthusiasm, I visited a student of the D.A.V. College, Lahore, who was a self-avowed terrorist and believed in the overthrow of British rule by starting acts of violence. He was engaged, with some others, in making bombs in the basement of the Kali temple on the outskirts of Lahore not far from his college. I went to sleep on the cool marble floor, but suddenly heard a big blast, the shrine shaking as in an earthquake.

The CID men came and arrested five bomb makers and myself. After a few days in the Central Jail Dr Muhammad Iqbal (whom I had seen on the morning of the day on which the bomb burst) had come to secure bail for me. The Judge freed me.

As I felt guilty about having deserted my comrades in custody, I went to seek advice from the redoubtable Kalinath Ray, Editor of The Tribune, on how to communicate to my friends that I had not betrayed them but had been bailed out because of the efforts of my mentor who saw my name as one of the accused in the Kali temple conspiracy case. The little wiry giant received me in his shabby office and the following talk took place:

MRA: (With joined hands), Sir, Namaste.....

K.N.R.: I am not an Englishman. So do not call me Sir... .... You are....?

I am one of the accused in the Kali temple conspiracy case. I have been released because I was just visiting Lala Kedar Nath and was asleep in the verandah of the shrine. I don’t know what the other five will think of me... They may suspect me as an informer...

Taking off his glasses, rubbing his eyes and looking at me sideways). Are you an informer?

(Eagerly) No, sir.

Again sir! You boys learn to be servile from your English teachers! ... Are you from Government College?

No. I am from Khalsa College, Amritsar.

The Principal there is Mr Wathen?

But he is quite nice. Speaks Punjabi.

So did Henry Lawrence, who helped to deprive Duleep Singh of his kingdom and delivered him into the hands of Lord Dalhousie, who took the Koh-i-Noor from him...

I have heard the story.... But Professor Harvey told me that Henry Lawrence was good to Duleep Singh and his mother, Rani Jindan.

Good! (with a smile) ... I suppose the watchman in a zoo is also good when he pats little lion cubs from outside the bars of the cage.

In Bengal I hear you have many terrorists.

If you are not an informer, as I don’t think you are, I will tell you something. We Bengalis don’t agree with Gandhi that India can win freedom with non-violence. We can embarrass the Government with non-co-operation. But they will not go with our dharnas. Some of our young students have turned terrorists ..... You know one of the men who threw the bomb at Lord Hardinge in 1911 was a Bengali called Rash Bihari..... He escaped to Japan afterwards... And one of our writers, Sarat Chandar, has written a novel lauding the gospel of tit for tat...

Rabindranath Tagore is not for violence.

He gave up his knighthood after the Jallianwalla Bagh shooting of innocents.

I hear he does not approve of Gandhiji’s non-violence...

Yes. He says that the illiterate people in a non-violent dharna may not remain non-violent. The natural thing men do is to defend themselves. Only the Jains are supine. And Gandhi is from Gujarat, where Jainism is still practised.

(Bent head and confused) Then do you think Lala Kedar Nath and his friends were right?

(Looking at M.R.A. straight in the face) I wish I had the courage to do something more than write editorials.

I came to you because I have been reading your editorial every day.... I want to be like you... I hope I learn enough English to join The Tribune one day....

You must learn Punjabi. You will get nearer your people.

But English is spoken all over India. I read a review of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora in The Tribune. If there was no paper in English, I would never have known about this novel. I got my college library to get it. And I and two friends have read it — wonderful....

Sarat Babu goes further.

I wish I could read more of Tagore’s novels. I hear he has written about love marriage against arranged marriage.

‘Yes, Nauka Dubi ... Macmillan has published it. Also Ghare Bahire.


Nauka Dubi is called The Wreck in English. And Ghare Bahire is The Home and the World.

I would like to go to Santiniketan.

Yes, go during your next holidays. I will give you a letter to the poet.

May I come and see you on my next visit to Lahore for the letter to Rabindranathji.

(Getting up from his chair) Before you go to him read all his books..... I like his stories..... Come, let me give you Hungry Stones.

Thank you...

(Fetching a volume from his shelf) I hope you will write stories of Punjab like these.

Ray was the Editor of The Tribune from 1917-1943 and Chief Editor from 1944 to 1945.