In a sultry evening in Delhi, here I am, reread-ing Mulk Raj Anand—from time to time kicking in the air to ward off aedes aegypti. For most of us Indians, the history of reading is in two parts. If you are not educated in a public school, you have to wait until you have learnt enough English to begin reading books in English, while you read—or you are read to—in your mother tongue at a very early age. This was the case in point for me. At a time when there were very few public schools, children of my generation from rural India spoke, read and dreamt in our mother tongues. That is why Mulk Raj Anand could enter my history of reading only belatedly – when I had picked up enough knowledge of the language he wrote in. Under review are two books by Mulk Raj Anand, Seven Summers: A Memoir and Selected Short Stories. If the memoir was first published in 1951, some stories included in the collection date back to 1930s. Both are reprinted now to mark the birth centenary of the departed writer. The fact that these works were written half a century ago may alarm the readers. For, for the present-day readers whose literary sensibilities have drastically changed during this period, fifty years seem to be a long period, long enough to render even a good fictional work a mere antiquity.
But we know that great writers transcend time and geography, and from what one gathers from this autobiographical oeuvre confirms—to our joy—the fact that Mulk Raj Anand belongs to this rare category of litterateurs whose work, by virtue of universality, humanity and sheer artistry, delete temporal and geographical demarcations.
This reviewer’s first choice was the memoir because here Mulk Raj Anand talks about the first seven years of his childhood. Since undoubtedly the biggest loss we adults inherit is our childhood; all books about it—be it Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood or Marjane Satrapi’s The Story of a Childhood—have a wide readership and induce publishers like Simon and Schuster to bring out an entire series of childhood biographies of great achievers. Our writers hardly bring themselves to write autobiographies, let alone autobiographies of childhood. Arguably, one reason is the fact that writers of our times think more in terms of their future than their past.
Seven Summers is divided in two parts—The Road and The River. The first part evokes the small things that make up the author’s childhood —his little brothers, kikar trees, birds, flowers, and, invariably, sing-song fairytales and djinns. Nevertheless, what attracts the child Mulk Raj Anad is the road in front of his house, lined with casuarina trees, which stretches from end to end of the horizon. This road, on which caravans of camels and donkeys and horses and men are always passing, is the first hurdle that must be crossed, thinks the little boy. For he is no ordinary child: He is going to be one of the finest Indian writers in English. He has very often an urge to cross the road, which is nothing but a metaphor for what lies in the future which he as a writer and as a social activist of some sort should sooner or later cross. Among the many incidents of childhood—as simple as tales—he narrates, there is one in what imagination and memory are inseparable: He and his elder brother Ganesh take their kittens to a well to show them their reflections. Standing by the low terrace of the well, bending over the projection and holding the kittens out over the water, we saw their moving images. We could hear the echoes of voices from the depths of the well. Ganesh tricks his younger brother to drop the kitten into the well. This is a disturbingly crafted beautiful passage.
The second part, The River, opens with a question Mulk Raj Anand asks his mother—Where did you find me ? Where did I come from? Such a question may appear to be banal today. It was put a century ago, though. At that time, no one would have dared ask that sort of a question. Mulk Raj Anand did. Logically, more queries follow: What are the stars, mother ? How can the sun move all day without feet?
In this part of the memoir, we find the protagonist as a curious and alert child growing up asking questions. That he was already a writer in the making is evident. What we read here is the childhood story of a writer who was a child almost hundred years ago. That should have given the reader a sense of remoteness, but it doesn’t. Inversely, it makes us read the life-like tales as if they were taking place right now. Yes, good writers of the past live in the present as well with equal intensity.
The second book under review is Selected Stories which can be considered as a fictional extension of the memoir. There is not much to say about it as what has been said about the child-hood memoir is relevant to this work as well. Reading Selected Stories immediately after Memoir, and as they blend perfectly, the reader often won-ders which one is fiction and which one is not.
It is fortified with an in-depth introduction by Saros Cowasjee of University of Regina. Included in the collection are such classic stories as ‘Liar’—Salman Rushdie is fond of it—and ‘The Man Who Loved Monkeys More Than Human Beings’. A reviewer’s first prerogative is to find fault, at any cost, with the work he is reviewing. This reviewer is no different. True to the spirit of a genuine critic, in my attempt to criticize severely at least some of the stories, I am however disarmed right from the very first pages by Saros Cowasjee who considers these stories delightful. The fact that classics are immune to critical scrutiny adds to this reviewer’s discomfiture. But are works of great literary merits supposed to delight the readers? Does for that matter J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace or Elizabeth Costello delight us ? They are great works because they hurt us and humiliate us.
Although the present-day Indian fiction writers set in general their stories in cities, most of Mulk Raj Anand’s stories are set in the countryside and so they have a rural flavour about them. Mulk Raj Anand is at his narrative best when he describes rural life. In spite of the fact that the author lived for a long time in Delhi, the Bombay and the Delhi of his writings lack the surging energy and unsettling chaos that were hallmarks of our big cities even half a century ago. Like Bernard Malamud’s stories, Mulk Raj Anand’s tales are deftly crafted with a clearly demarcated beginning and denouement.
Although the narratives and the landscapes of his stories have something in common with no exception, Mulk Raj Anand deals with a variety of themes in his stories. For instance, look at ‘Lullaby’. The engine chuk-chuked; the leather belt khupp-khupped; the bolts jig-jigged; the plugs tik-tikked … A delightful story, indeed, that puts not only babies but even grown-ups to sleep. Do we writers write keeping in mind our readers ? Do we write the way they—the readers—would want us to write ? Most do not. But I am afraid Mulk Raj Anand had in his mind what sort of readers he was writing for. What else does the following passage from ‘The Maharaja and the Tortoise’ imply ? There is a sacred belief in India in a system of government called the Ram Raj.
While going through this collection we wonder how the art of writing has evolved over the years. If, for Mulk Raj Anand, the road and the river are two separate entities, for Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road, the river flows just beneath the road. Imagination is central to the fictional writings of our time, to the point that it attempts, at times, to dislodge even heroes and heroines in order to take their place in the story. An Arundhati Roy or an Anita Nair have taken our fiction to a bewildering world of imagination and creative power. And yet, amidst the global celebration of our fictional pursuits, even today we find Mulk Raj Anand’s muted stories written more than half a century ago delightful.
- Mukundan, a well known writer, writes in Malayalam and English.