The end of an era

Updated: Oct 3 2004, 05:30am hrs
The youngest of the first generation of Indian writers in English, Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond were both beyond the reach of telephone wires, when the ticker services began to flash that Mulk Raj Anand had passed away on Tuesday morning. Ruskin Bond was travelling and Khushwant Singh was in Kasauli, and could not be reached.

An easy guess is that they would agree, that Mulk Raj Anand took away with him, the sepia memories of a whole generation of Indian authors, who found expression in a borrowed language. I did not learn English from Englishmen, Nirad C Chaudhuri had said once, nor hear it spoken by native speakers till late in life. The flavour of Indian languages in English was far more apparent in the novels of Mulk Raj Anand and his contemporary, R K Narayan, though. (Acha, Kaka, you can have my silver watch... Srijut Sharma tells his son in Anands The Gold Watch.)

What was even more apparent in Indian literature in English of the early part of the last century was the flavour of India. Look at Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh told this writer once, he could be writing from anywhere. The Glass Palace is about Egypt...We were not doing that. We were only writing about India, said the author of A Train To Pakistan.

Yet, neither Khushwant Singh, nor Ruskin Bond quite fit into the generation of Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan or even Nirad C Chaudhury, who joined the league a little later in life. Chaudhury published his first English novel, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in 1951, when he was 57 years old. R K Narayan was 27, when Swami And Friends got into print in 1935. That was also the year Mulk Raj Anands first novel, Untouchable was published. Coolie followed in 1936. In 1937 came Two Leaves And A Bud.

Anands obsession with the socially oppressed, the latrine cleaner of Untouchable, the porter in Coolie and the exploited tea garden worker of Two Leaves And A Bud, were as much an outcome of his Gandhian leanings as his involvement with the Left in England. His statements on an unjust society, which continued in the trilogy,

The Village, Across the Black Waters and The Sword and the Sickle were in rhythm with the proletarian novels in Britain and the United States in the 1930s, except that they were essentially Indian in their themes.

R K Narayan wrote of the underbelly of Indian society too, but not in anger. The Guide (1970), The Vendor of Sweets (1967) or The Painter of Signs (1976) were all on the fringe of society, but swimming with the stream, rather than against it. Chaudhury addressed the world as an Indian (Passage to England, Clive of India), but more as a pedagogue than an ideologue.

So, when Mulk Raj Anand, who leaves behind all his property to the Sarvodaya Trust, breathed his last on September 28, he really carried away an era of the Indian novel, born out of a wedge in time. He was really among the last of the icons at the crossroads in time, when a generation of Indians used a residual relic of a colonial past to reach out to the world.