Saturday, October 09, 2004

Assessing Mulk

I had read Mulk's Coolie. It read so Indian. I had the same feeling reading R K Narayan. It all had seemed translated from one of the Indian vernaculars. Mulk's from Punjabi and Urdu, Narayan's from Tamil (I can make that out: a Tamil-literate person concurred with me on this).

By Indian, I don't mean the theme. It is of course Indian. I am talking about the tone and tenor, the voice of the narrative.

Reading one of my stories, a certain (well-known) writer commented that my stories don't read like one written by an Indian. That is to say, I am missing my Indian voice. He added that I might take it as a compliment but he did not mean it that way. Actually, I don't mind. I want a voice that most readers can associate with.

Here's Kushwant's colorful sketch on Mulk Raj Anand who recently passed away:

"Way back in the Forties, a few friends with literary ambitions formed a circle which met once a week to read poems and stories we had written. It was a mutual admiration society where whisky glasses were refilled after each recitation. We heard of Indian writers Mulk Raj Anand and R.K Narayan making good in England. Eagerly we laid our hands on their books and discussed them in our meetings.

We were a conceited lot and generally agreed that if Mulk Raj and Narayan could find publishers abroad, so could we. When Mulk visited Punjab, he agreed to come to our meetings. He expected to be lionised. He was visibly put off by the cool reception he got. ôYou chaps donÆt know what it takes to write a novel,ö he snapped. ôTalk to me after you have had one accepted by a publisher.ö He had every right to snub us.

My view of Mulk and Narayan has not changed over the years. Both were indeed pioneers of Indo-Anglian fiction in their own way, prolific in their output, but were mediocre craftsmen. MulkÆs novels were propaganda stuff with a sheen of fiction: Untouchable, Coolie, Two Leaves and a Bud. They were designed to rouse the conscience of readers to the indignities inflicted by the well-to-do on the poor and make the British feel guilty about colonialism.

He was duly lauded by British Liberals and Leftists. Narayan was content to remain a story-teller, combining simple themes about people living at a leisurely pace in an imaginary small town, Malgudi. He was more widely acclaimed than Mulk. One thing both had in common was being pioneers.

Mulk was born in Peshawar on December 12, 1905, but spent his formative years in Amritsar. He was short, with a mop of curly hair and a pouting lower lip. He was never at a loss for words and could hold forth by the hour, often waffling ôthuth, thuthö when he was worked up. Even when addressing meetings where every speaker was given ten minutes, Mulk would go on rambling for half-an-hour. He often dwelt at length on how his father often beat his mother, and what effect it had on him as a child. He never forgave his father and was diagnosed by no less a psychiatrist than Sigmund Freud as suffering from an acute mother-fixation.

Mulk was proud of being an Indian, of IndiaÆs great legacy of art, sculpture, painting, architecture, ways of living and etiquette. Once in a ghazal concert in London, he sat in the first row and applauded the singer at the end of every couplet and was acknowledged by a polite salaam. No one else knew it was the proper thing to do. An English friend I had taken with me asked me in whisper, ôWho is that little fellow who keeps barking æwow, wowÆ, while the fellow is singing?ö I told him who Mulk was and that he was saying æWah! Wah!Æ.

Although Mulk spent some time with Gandhiji at his ashram, he was much closer to the Communist Party in his politics. He was closely affiliated to the Progressive Writers Association and the PeopleÆs Theatre group. This made him anathema to Right-wingers. Once he was foolish enough to become an easy target for them. He was invited by the Evergreen Review of New York to write a long article on the erotic in Indian art. A week after the article appeared, profusely illustrated with pictures, the magazine received a legal notice from Prof. Campbell of Sarah Lawrence College of New York alleging that the article had been lifted from his translation from German on the same subject. Poor Mulk was asked to elucidate. He took great pains trying to exonerate himself. This was good enough for Communist-baiter Dosu Karaka, editor of Current, to splash the news on the front page of his weekly tabloid with the headline ôCommie writer caught plagiarisingö. It took months for Mulk to be able to appear in public.

I visited Mulk a couple of times in his ground floor flat on Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. He had a specially designed high chair with a slab in front to place his papers to write. Though no Casanova, women of different nationalities were drawn to him like moths to a flame. He was a celebrity and they enjoyed being seen with him. He married more than twice and had several lady friends.

MulkÆs lasting legacy is Marg, a magazine devoted to the arts financed by the Tatas. It had, and has, a limited circulation, but is unique in being the only one on the subject and is of high quality. He received awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award and a Padma Bhushan. His words counted a great deal in official circles, particularly among senior babus who knew no more than the titles of his books, but were awed by his reputation. He was able to persuade them to make grants for writersÆ homes in Delhi and Lonavala. Usually he was the sole occupant of these homes.

What I have written may not sound like a tribute to a celebrated author. For this I crave pardon from MulkÆs admirers. But when I heard of his death in Pune on Sept. 28 at the age of 99, I was overcome with grief. I may not have held him in great esteem as a writer, but I recall him with great affection."


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