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The last of Indian English fiction's grand troika

By Ranjit Hoskote

— Photo: N. Ram

Mulk Raj Anand (at right) is seen with his friends, R.K. Narayan and K. Natwar Singh, at Narayan's Chennai home in September 1995.

MUMBAI, SEPT. 28. Mulk Raj Anand, who passed away this morning in a Pune hospital, was the last surviving member of the grand troika of founders who inaugurated the canon of Indian fiction in English, the other two being R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao.

Born in Peshawar (now in Pakistan) on December 12, 1905, Mr. Anand was the son of a coppersmith who had served as a soldier in the British Army. This circumstance gave Mr. Anand, at an early age, an appreciation of the rigours of the caste system and also the possibility of an honourable exit from its conventions: if caste constrained the self, internationalism could redeem it. Acting on this insight, Mr. Anand committed himself to a process of self-cultivation through reading, discussion and writing. Educated in Amritsar and Lahore, he went on to Cambridge and London University, receiving a doctorate in 1929.

Anti-colonial beliefs

Mr. Anand began his career as a writer while in England, entering a glittering circle of literati that included T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Henry Miller and Herbert Read. His geographical distance from India in the 1930s only deepened his anti-colonial and anti-fascist political beliefs. Dividing his energy between Britain and India, Mr. Anand also fought on the Republican side against Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War, like many British writers who were on the Left. World War II found him at work as a broadcaster and scriptwriter in the BBC's films division.

Through the first half of the 20th century, Mr. Anand was a vocal supporter of the Gandhian movement for national liberation from British colonial rule, although his socialist sympathies took him considerably beyond the ambit of gradualist reform favoured by the Mahatma. Mr. Anand had a visceral appreciation for the proletarian life. He articulated his empathy for the oppressed working classes and the subaltern castes, those marginalised by states and markets, in novels such as Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936) and Two Leaves and a Bud (1937). The first is an account of a day in the life of the latrine-cleaner, Bakha; the second is the story of a child-labourer who dies of tuberculosis; the third tells of a Punjabi peasant exploited on a tea plantation and murdered by a British superior.

Encyclopaedia of arts

Returning to India at the end of World War II, Mr. Anand founded the magazine Marg in 1946. Supported by the Tata Group in this endeavour, he intended the magazine to be a "loose encyclopaedia of the arts of India and related civilisations." Reflecting the catholicity of Mr. Anand's interests, it turned into a lively forum of debate for a wider readership beyond specialist circles, addressing painting and sculpture but also architecture and design. If Safavid painting exercised Mr. Anand and his contributors and readers, so did efficient worker-housing and the need for a `New Bombay'. Indeed, it was in the pages of Marg that the architect Charles Correa and his colleagues presented their proposal for that dream city, from where it was translated, albeit with mixed results, into policy.

Mr. Anand's abiding preoccupation with the visual and plastic arts stemmed from his humanist commitment to the development of the `whole being of man'. As an heir to the tradition of William Morris and John Ruskin, which regards the development of political consciousness and aesthetic sensibility as conjoined rather than opposed projects, he regarded the arts as a necessity rather than a luxury. Similarly, Mr. Anand emphasised the role of the erotic sensibility in the development of the individuated self. In this, he was at odds with many of his Gandhian and Marxist contemporaries in India, who exhibited a curiously buttoned-up attitude to the erotic in which Brahminical piety and Victorian prudery were mixed in equal measure.

Mr. Anand's many books on the arts, to list only a fraction of his considerable output, include Persian Painting (1930), The Hindu View of Art (1933), Homage to Tagore (1946), The Hindu View of Art (1957), Kama Kala (1958), Homage to Khajuraho (1960), Is There a Contemporary Indian Civilisation? (1963), Indian Ivories (1970), Ajanta (1970), Madhubani Painting (1984), and Amrita Sher-Gil (1989).

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