World Literature

Mulk Raj Anand

 

BORN: 1905, Peshawar, India

DIED: 2004, Pune, India

NATIONALITY: Indian

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Untouchable (1935)

The Coolie (1936)

Across the Black Waters (1940)

 

Overview

Throughout his novels and nonfiction writing, Mulk Raj Anand chronicled the life of early- and mid-twentieth- century India and acted as a spokesman not only for the downtrodden, but also for a new social order that would grant equal opportunity to all.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Embraced Nationalist Beliefs. Anand was born in Peshawar, Punjab, India, on December 12, 1905, to Lal Chand (a coppersmith and soldier in the British indian army) and ishwar (Kaur) Anand. in india, a caste system had been in place for several thousand years until the beginnings of its demise in the mid-twentieth century. A caste system is a somewhat hierarchical social order with social, economic, and religious distinctions, and a person is born into a particular caste and remains in the caste until death. Anand’s family was part of the Kshatriya caste, second in rank and social prestige only to the highest-ranking Brahmans. Anand attended the University of Punjab, where he graduated with honors in 1924. While a student, he became actively involved in the indian nationalist concerns, as the country sought its independence from its longtime colonial ruler, Great Britain.

Influenced by European Experiences. Anand enrolled at the University of London in 1925 for a doctoral degree in philosophy. By the time he completed his studies in 1935, he had developed intimate relationships with prominent English writers and critics. Anand’s deep immersion in European intellectual thought and his direct involvement in English politics helped him to understand the British mindset, especially in relation to its response to India’s nationalistic desires. Afterward, Anand studied at Cambridge University, then fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. He was one of many foreigners who went to spain to fight the fascists led by General Francisco Franco, but Franco remained in power there for the next four decades. However, Anand’s fight against fascism likely influenced his later work.

Addressed Societal Wrongs in Early Novels. Returning to Great Britain after his time in Spain, Anand would remain there for much of the next decade as he launched his writing career. As a writer Anand’s career can be divided into two stages parallel to Indian history: the Anand of the colonial period, who steadily critiqued class exploitation, the caste system, colonialism, imperialism, fascism, and racism; and the Anand of the postindependence era, who spread his energies and interests into several directions that became available with the new aspirations of India as an independent state.

Untouchable (1935) was Anand’s first novel. Someone who is ‘‘untouchable’’ in traditional Indian society is at the bottom of the caste system of social classes and is restricted from interacting with people of higher castes. Anand’s novel portrays Bakha, an untouchable, as a true human being. This novel set the stage for the type of social protest writing for which Anand would become famous. The book stems largely from a childhood incident in which an injured Anand was carried back to his house by an untouchable, only to watch his mother reprimand the untouchable for laying his hands upon her son.

Next came The Coolie (1936), then Two Leaves and a Bud (1937). The former condemned capitalism, while the latter was about exploitation of Indian workers by a British- owned tea company. These novels depicted India’s underclass as Anand witnessed it, without giving them much hope.

Continued Focus on India. As Britain became engulfed in World War II, Anand was employed by the BBC’s film division in London from 1939 to 1945. He worked as a broadcaster and scriptwriter, while continuing to work on his own novels, which remained focused on India’s ongoing internal struggles. In 1939, Anand also married his first wife, Kathleen Van Gelder, an actress.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Anand wrote his Village trilogy: The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940), and The Sword and the Sickle (1942). These novels deal with the three stages of growth of Lal Singh, a peasant’s son, as he struggles against the societal forces keeping him pinned at the bottom of Indian society in the midst of the stormy struggle for India’s independence and the various sociopolitical events that faced Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Embraced Civil Disobedience. In 1942, Anand became enthralled with Mohandas Gandhi’s Quit India movement, a call for mass civil disobedience against the British colonizers and their government. His next novel, The Big Heart (1944), again touched on the tensions in India. It portrays laborers from the community of coppersmiths who are threatened with displacement from their hereditary profession. It also replicates the fierce conflict that took place in Europe between modernity and tradition.

Returned to India. After World War II ended, Anand journeyed back to India in 1946 and remained there for several decades. While working on his writing, he also was a lecturer at various Indian universities from 1948 until the late 1960s. Anand wrote Private Life of an Indian Prince in 1948, the year India gained independence from Britain and started a trend. India was one of the first of many Asian and African colonies to gain its independence from European colonizers in the years after World War II. This novel, published in 1953, chronicled one prince’s experience at having his kingdom absorbed into the Indian Union.

Focused on Self in Autobiographical Novels Anand’s personal life was also being transformed as India worked through its early days of independence. He divorced his first wife in 1948 and married Shirin Vajifdar, a classical dancer, in 1949. Anand’s life also became the focus of his writings. The first of a seven-title autobiographical novel series called ‘‘Seven Ages of Man,’’ a novel about Anand’s childhood entitled Seven Summers (1951), was not published in the United States until 1973. Of the planned seven novels, Anand completed four.

Over the years, Anand was lauded for his work as he affected change in India through his writings and employment. Anand died of pneumonia in Pune, India, on September 28, 2004, at the age of ninety-nine.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Anand's famous contemporaries include:

B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956): Born into the untouchable caste, Ambedkar fought against the caste system; he became a well-respected lawyer and helped draw up the Indian Constitution.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970): English writer and member of the Bloomsbury literary group in London who wrote the introduction to Untouchable; his novel A Passage to India was one of the first to address British mistreatment of Indians under colonial rule.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984): Prime minister of India for four terms (1966-1977, 1980-1984); assassinated while in office by two bodyguards, who were political radicals.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948): Indian political leader and a key leader of the Indian independence movement, famous for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance; assassinated by Hindu extremists.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964): First prime minister of India after its independence from Great Britain, from 1947-1964, and father of Indira Gandhi; worked closely with Mohandas Gandhi during the Indian independence movement.

 

Works in Literary Context

Rejecting the ideas of disinterestedness and escapism in art and aloofness and alienation of the artist in society, Anand boldly embraced British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s idea of the poet as the “unacknowledged legislator of mankind.’’ Believing in the whole man and in his ability to reconstruct a new, progressive social order, and admiring the humanity of Mohandas Gandhi, poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore, and philosopher and politician Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Anand stressed the recognition of human dignity as a directional force in human relationships as well as the importance of hope and realism in his works.

Humanism. One of Anand’s key themes in his work is the idea that all people are deserving of dignity and basic liberties. This reflects the concept of humanism, or the belief that all people—regardless of culture or social class—are capable of operating by a universal moral code in which all are treated equally. This point of view is expressed in his sympathetic portrayal of Bakha in Untouchable, as well as his depiction of coppersmiths in The Big Heart. Anand counted on the humanistic notion that people of all cultures could relate to universal ideas about fairness and equality in his work.

Hope and Realism. Hope and realism are elements introduced in Anand’s Village trilogy. The Village is a realistic portrayal of village life. Across the Black Waters is a representation of Lal Singh and his friends’ experiences of fighting against the Germans in France during World War I. The first and only fictional account of the use of Indian troops in World War I, the story raises the moral issue of the deployment of Indian troops in a British war and reflects Anand’s own experiences fighting against fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The Sword and the Sickle is a sociopolitical novel that combines two major concerns: the social problem of the eviction of peasants by landlords, and the political problem of national freedom.

Through his writings, Anand helped establish the basic forms and themes of Indian literature written in English. Because of his subject matter and realism, especially in his early novels, many critics believe that his influence on contemporary South Asian literature is similar to that of nineteenth-century novelists Honore de Balzac and (Emile Zola on European letters of the time.

 

Works in Critical Context

Most critics agree that Mulk Raj Anand is among India’s foremost writers. His depictions of the underclass ring true, as do his other portrayals of Indian people. ‘‘Anand’s achievement in the first two novels of the Trilogy’ remarks Meenakshi Mukherjee, ‘‘has not been surpassed by an Indo-Anglican novelist.’’

However, Anand has been faulted for his shallow descriptions of others, notably the British. Anand also has been criticized for being too propagandist in his calls for social equality via Marxism. Most critics concede that both the characterizations in Anand's later works and his social statements are more evenhanded than those of his earlier ones.

Untouchable. Anand earned high praise for his first novel, Untouchable, upon its publication in 1935. Novelist E. M. Forster, in his foreword for the book, writes, “Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it.’’ Saros Cowasjee, in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, writes: ‘‘The novel is not only a powerful social tract but also a remarkable technical feat. The action takes place within the compass of a single day, but the author manages to build round his hero Bakha... a spiritual crisis of such breadth that it seems to embrace the whole of India.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Mulk Raj Anand was a progressive and unswerving advocate of those at the bottom of society—the oppressed, the victimized, and the dispossessed. Here are some other works that advocate for those who are often ignored:

A Child Called ''It'' (1995), by Dave Pelzer. This nonfiction memoir tells of the author's surviving a childhood of abuse by his alcoholic mother.

Nervous Conditions (2004), by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This novel, set in 1960s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), follows an African girl as she grows up and struggles with traditional women's roles and traditional culture versus Western culture. It was the first English-language novel published by a black Zimbabwean woman.

Oliver Twist (1838), by Charles Dickens. In this novel, an orphan boy must try to survive on his own in Victorian London and gets involved with a group of criminals.

Woman at Point Zero (1979), by Nawal El Saadawi. This novel by the Egyptian feminist and physician tells of the life of an Egyptian prostitute who is in jail for murder.

''I Am Joaquin'' (1967), by Rodolfo Gonzales. This epic poem by the influential Mexican American political activist calls for a new understanding of what ''Chicano'' means.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Anand’s novel Untouchable. What are some techniques he uses to depict the squalid and unfair conditions in which Bakha lives and works? In your opinion, are these effective techniques? Provide examples from the text.

2. Though Anand was a supporter of basic human rights for all, he was a member of a relatively high social class by birth. Do you think Anand could have published Untouchable if he actually was an untouchable in Indian society? Do you think his experience as a member of a higher social class influenced his ability to write objectively about those living in the lower classes?

3. Compare Anand’s Untouchable to E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India. How do the two books portray Indian society differently? Provide examples from each book to illustrate your points.

4. India’s caste system is less enforced today than in the past, but it still makes itself felt. Using the Internet and your library’s resources, research the Indian caste system and write an essay comparing and contrasting it to racial segregation in the United States before the civil rights movement. Be sure to use specific examples in your essay.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Amirthanayagam, Guy, ed. Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Dhawan, R. K., ed. The Novels of Mulk Raj Anand. New Delhi: Prestige, 1992.

Gautam, G. L. Mulk Raj Anand’s Critique of Religious Fundamentalism: A Critical Assessment ofHis Novels. Delhi: Kanti Publications, 1996.

Gupta, G. S. Balarama, ed. Studies in Indian Fiction in English. Gulbarga, India: JIWE Publications, 1987.

Patil, V. T., and H. V. Patil. Gandhism and Indian English Fiction: The Sword and the Sickle, Kanthapura, and Waiting for the Mahatma. Delhi: Devika Publications, 1997.

Prabhakar, T., ed. The Indian Novel in English: Evaluations. New Delhi: Phoenix, 1995.

Rajan, P. K. Mulk Raj Anand: A Revaluation. New Delhi: Arnold Associates, 1994.

Sharma, Ambuj Kumar. The Theme of Exploitation in the Novels of Mulk Raj Anand. New Delhi: H. K. Publishers, 1990.

Verma, Kamal D. The Indian Imagination: Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Periodicals

‘‘Mulk Raj Anand, 999 Famed Indian Writer.’’ New York Times (September 30, 2004): A27.

Verma, Kamal D. ‘‘An Interview with Mulk Raj Anand.’’ South Asian Review 15 (1991): 31-38.