Mulk Raj Anand

Father-figure of the modern Indian novel

Mulk Raj Anand was the last of the great figures who will forever be associated with the Bloomsbury world of the 1930s. Anand was, however, far more than a slightly exotic figure flitting across the path of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whom he assisted at the Hogarth Press, or T.S. Eliot, with whom he occasionally lunched.

Mulk Raj Anand, writer and critic: born Peshawar, India 12 December 1905; married 1938 Kathleen van Gelder (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1948), 1950 Shirin Vajibdar; died Pune, India 28 September 2004.

Mulk Raj Anand was the last of the great figures who will forever be associated with the Bloomsbury world of the 1930s. Anand was, however, far more than a slightly exotic figure flitting across the path of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whom he assisted at the Hogarth Press, or T.S. Eliot, with whom he occasionally lunched.

He was, long before Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth made a designer label from the genre, an English- language Indian writer of immense distinction, translated into over 40 languages. He was "Uncle Mulk" to generations of influential Indians, among them Indira Gandhi. He was the friend of the socialist left in Britain, among them Michael Foot, and in India had long broken through the dismissal barrier to become the acknowledged father-figure of the modern Indian novel.

Mulk Raj Anand was born in 1905, the third among the five sons of Lal Chand, a silversmith turned sepoy, and Ishwar Kaur, a deeply religious woman from the Sialkot region of central Punjab. He spent his early years in two cantonments, Mian Nir and Nowshera, and at the latter's primary school he first encountered European ideas and history. His teenage years were spent in the Sikh city of Amritsar, where from 1921 to 1924 he studied at Khalsa College. It was in these years that he was introduced to nationalist political activity, to non-violent campaigning and to imprisonment, inspired initially by a talk given at the college by the activist Annie Besant.

In 1925 Anand went to London for the first time, registering at University College, where in 1929 his thesis on English philosophy was accepted for a PhD. There is hardly a British writer or artist of the time whom the young student did not get to know. Many of his meetings were recalled in Conversations in Bloomsbury (1981), where the distance of years between the conversation recalled and the commitment of it to paper is sometimes so long that one suspects it should be read as an annexe to his prolific short stories.

Anand remembers talks with Clive Bell, Nancy Cunard, Bonamy Dobrée, E.M. Forster, Eric Gill, Aldous Huxley, an alphabetical roll-call of the literati of the early 1930s, including W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells. He visited D.H. Lawrence a few weeks before his death, corresponded and met celebrated writers such as André Malraux, Henry Miller and Pablo Neruda, and lived for several weeks in Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram, literally sitting as a disciple at the feet of the Mahatma. Sometimes during the Second World War years in London he could be found working for the BBC, a colleague of George Orwell's.

Anand's first publication was an essay, Persian Painting, published in 1930 to accompany an exhibition at Burlington House. Non-fiction followed: Curries and Other Indian Dishes (1931), The Hindu View of Arts (1933) and The Golden Breath: studies in five poets of the new India (1933). The eager young author was determined to follow in the storytelling tradition of his Punjabi culture, but he had huge problems in getting a publishing house to take him seriously.

Writers about India were supposed to write about princes and Moguls, mysticism and romance. Here, with his first novel, Untouchable, was an aspirant author determined to reveal the India he knew personally. This tale of a sweeper boy takes place in a single day, dramatising the conditions of latrine cleaners and outcastes in a society still without flushing lavatories. Forster wrote a preface to the book, which persuaded Lawrence and Wishart, a small left-wing publisher in London, to take a chance on it when 19 other publishers had turned it down. It appeared in 1935. Today the book is regarded as classic, continuously in print. Fifteen years ago it was staged and broadcast by the Tamasha Theatre Company in London.

Coolie (1936), Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) and The Big Heart (1945) followed, each of them telling the story of exploited workers and a suffering peasantry. In The Village, Across the Black Waters and The Sword and the Sickle, a trilogy which came out during the early years of the war, Anand focused on a lad called Lalu whose circumstances mirrored the painful subjection of millions of poor people in rural India. Today Across the Black Waters is read as one of the most revealing accounts of how Indian soldiers were used as cannon fodder in the Great War, often unsure for whom they were fighting and indifferent to the cause for which they were supposed to be ready to die.

Anand's last novel to be published in Britain was Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953), an unexpected change of direction for a writer thought to be wholly socialist in his cast of mind. Here he showed great sympathy for the princes obliged by independence to give up their authority. Through its main character, Victor, descendant of the gods, we are given a study of nervous dissolution wrought by political collapse. It is possibly Anand's masterpiece.

In 1951 Anand, by now internationally celebrated, published Seven Summers, an autobiographical novel, which today can be read as the prelude to a sequence of increasingly lengthy fictions based on letters, diaries and memoirs he had kept throughout his life. Morning Face (1968), Confession of a Lover (1976), and The Bubble (1984) follow the character of Krishan Chander. Seven volumes were planned, following the seven stages of man, but Anand ran out of time, even in so long a life. Novels became playlets, unstaged and hardly amounting to more than notes on a career. The main work was by now long behind him, but that he had made a unique contribution to the history of Indian literature was never in doubt.

Anand founded the influential journal Marg, which over many decades was one of the main commentators on Indian culture. He was the author of many essays, short stories and speeches, and a correspondent on the scale of Bernard Shaw. Many, however, will recall his great personal generosity, his kindness to students interested in his work, his huge concern for the environment, his campaigns for world peace and his willingness until well into his 10th decade to travel anywhere in the cause of humanity.

Anand married Kathleen van Gelder in 1938 and had one daughter, Susheila, herself a writer of whom he was greatly proud. However, he left both wife and daughter to return to India on his own in 1947, where in 1950 he married the distinguished dancer Shirin Vajibdar. He settled on the ground floor of a magnificently dilapidated mansion in Bombay, but in later years he increasingly enjoyed being in the remote hills behind the city, where he lived a peasant life in Khandala, occasionally giving interviews, writing until old age prevented clear thought, and welcoming friends.

He was a great writer, but even more than that a very great lover of humankind.

Alastair Niven

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