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Posted at: Apr 15, 2018, 1:54 AM; last updated: Apr 15, 2018, 1:54 AM (IST)

Mulk Raj Anand’s angst with ‘isms’

Nationalism is the construct of paradoxes. The noted author highlighted several ironies through his writings and we continue to debate them
Mulk Raj Anand’s angst with ‘isms’
Illustration: sandeep joshi

Rumina Sethi

A few years before he died, I happened to meet Mulk Raj Anand at Hauz Khas, New Delhi. Anand wondered aloud why I should have travelled a good distance to see him and asked me humorously whether Indian researchers would ever give up the three chachas of early Anglophone Indian writing, the other two being Raja Rao and RK Narayan. Yet, despite the new breed of Indian-English authors, critical concern with the elder statesmen could never be abandoned. A recent panel discussion on social inclusion at the American Center, New Delhi, where a book on Mulk Raj Anand was the subject of the conversation, gives evidence that the world of academia continues to engage critically with the author.

I am referring to the book launch event of Professor Kamal Verma’s Understanding Mulk Raj Anand: His Mind and Art, moderated by his son, former US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma. Kamal Verma’s indefatigable efforts in reviving Anand in turn creates an opportunity to raise a toast to Karl Marx, especially when we are so close to his birth bi-centenary, which falls on May 5 this year. What can we say about the ability of Marx and Anand to endure? Has their work gone into oblivion or evolving? Or are both timeless and everlastingly of wide interest? Great writers and philosophers live on, though there are phases when their following begins to wane. I raise a toast to them because they are like inspiring companions for profound thought on the implication of human emancipation and working-class struggles.

Marxism may have been relentlessly deplored as the last decade of the 20th century came to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but protest is by no means a relic of the past. What is particularly relevant is the tenor of protest in Anand’s novels. But this remonstration is no ordinary one. Anand’s earliest book, Untouchable, came out a decade before India’s Independence. Interestingly, Anand’s dissident hero protests not only against social exclusion, but also against the trajectory Indian nationalism was taking in the crucial decades before the Independence. At a moment in history when the definition of ‘Indianness’ in the face of Colonial occupation was primary, writers as the prophets of the age were attempting to consolidate that identity. Where Raja Rao, Anand’s contemporary, was constructing a metaphysical and romantic view of India’s lost heritage in his novel Kanthapura, Anand was expressing his uncertainty in the face of wide differences and caste discrimination. Through his early novels, he was attempting to write his own version of history. Kanthapura was also about village India, but it presented a spiritual Indian civilisation as opposed to a material British ethos. But Anand would have none of it. He did not imagine a nation, he saw it clearly. He was not a traditionalist. He favoured the present rather than the past.

And that is why, perhaps, Anand found mythical nationalism an infantile construct. Nationalism often purports to be a political doctrine but it is a form of culture, which has an ideology, a language, a symbolism and a mythology. It insists on classlessness, yet emphasises a brahmanical Hindu past. It claims men and women are equal, but it presents women as frozen in time and space. It will join multinationals and the global system of capitalism where it exhibits its compliance, but it also seeks to show its cultural independence. And most importantly, it speaks proudly of its rural communities united by ethnic ties when it is an urban movement of intellectuals. Indian nationalism exhibited all these strains when it supported, for example, the homogeneous slogan, ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, which also continues in the present, paradoxically, marginalising many. The truth is that under every nationalism, there exist many sub-nationalisms, those of caste, language, region, sexuality, gender and so on. The freedom of the nation may not translate into freedom for many of its inhabitants.

Anand targeted this kind of regressive nationalism towards the conclusion of his novel, Untouchable (1935), when Bakha, the untouchable hero, looks for a solution to his misery. When Gandhi speaks of non-violence and cow-protection as the ultimate Hindu values, Bakha is agitated. He considers Gandhi to be deviating from the main issue of abolishing manual scavenging. By the time Anand wrote Sword and the Sickle in 1942, he had become more outspoken. He called Gandhi an “inveterate, non-stop talker” who defined his religion quite narrowly. It’s as if the powerless Bakha matured into a more confident Lalu. Anand’s heroes demand Marxist, revolutionary solutions, whereas the nation was being constructed through spiritual doses.

It is in these areas that Verma’s insightful observations make a mark. He speaks of Anand’s “progressive humanism” in the face of the Hindu mind that is “predominantly caste-conscious”, one that cannot “ever free itself from the theodicy of casteism”. That the process of manual scavenging carries on in independent India despite the many deaths of scavengers, widespread safai karamchari demonstrations, and the court rulings announcing bans, is testimony. The marginalisation of the voices of Anand’s heroes and their sheer lack of direction hint at another project that would be established by the end of the 20th century — the project of the Subaltern Studies Group of historians, which offers history from below in order to represent those who have been written out of history through elite interpretation, elite history, elite representation and elite records. Perhaps, it is the prescience of Anand that he also anticipates postcolonial studies. One of the pioneering fathers of postcolonialism, Frantz Fanon, wrote his masterpiece Wretched of the Earth 25 years after Untouchable and Coolie. Anand thus becomes the prophet who interrupts and challenges the master narrative of nationalism by pointing out that what is neglected is the “politics of the people.” In the The Prose of Counter-Insurgency, Ranajit Guha speaks of the peasant not as a “clod of earth” but as the maker of history.

As we approach the election year in 2019, we need to remember that nationalism is as unsettled in our country today as it was in the 1930s. Our sense of nationalism should work on principles of inclusion, advocated by the champions of collective activism and emancipatory reason mandating a balanced enquiry of the world that is underpinned by a commitment to human freedom. Secondly, we need to cultivate once again the historical materialist approach that Mulk Raj Anand learnt from Marx, which brought about an understanding of the present as history, with particular attention to living conditions of ordinary people and to the economic and political ‘materiality of power’. And finally, we must appreciate both of them, one the teacher and the other the faithful pupil, for their dialectical openness and sensitivity to the understanding of inconsistencies, paradoxes and conflicts in social life.


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