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  Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), by Howard Coster, 1930s Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), by Howard Coster, 1930s
Anand, Mulk Raj (1905–2004), author, was born in the city of Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, India, on 12 December 1905, a kshatriya (warrior) by caste. His immediate ancestors were coppersmiths and silversmiths, though his father, Lal Chand, had broken away to become a clerk in the (British) Indian army. His mother, Ishwar Kaur, came from a traditional peasant background, so that on both sides Anand was of humble stock, brought up imbibing folklore and customary beliefs. Though his parents both professed the Ismaili faith, they were not ardent in their practice and in 1913 Lal Chand severed his links with Ismailism. Anand grew up in an atmosphere of religious questioning, which was to lead to his own lifelong attitude to faith as an evasion of social action.

Anand was initially educated at cantonment schools, before moving to Khalsa College, Amritsar, part of the University of Punjab, when he was sixteen. He described his early education as ‘a spurious, imitative, fruitless grounding, mainly through a foreign language’ (‘Prolegomena to a new humanism’, in Lines Written to an Indian Air, 1949, 3), but this knowledge of English was to stand him in good stead when in 1925 he was admitted to University College, London, embarking on a PhD on the thought of Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and Russell. These years of transition from his orthodox Punjabi upbringing to a metropolitan student life at the heart of the British empire were to feed Anand's work. He was still writing about them towards the end of his long life, in his uncompleted sequence of bildungsroman novels, The Seven Ages of Man. Nor were his new horizons only British. In 1926, for example, he made an exploratory trip to Moscow to acquaint himself with communism first-hand. Though he was never formally a member of the Communist Party, his left-wing sympathies, combined with his popularity in Russia once he was established as a writer, led many people to conclude that he was.

Anand's first stay in London lasted four years. He was persuaded by his father to come back to India in 1929, though he never intended to remain there. He used the period of his return well, spending three weeks at Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram in Ahmadabad cleaning latrines (and being gently chided by Gandhi for his Anglicized appearance), attending a session of the Indian National Congress at Lahore, visiting tea plantations in Assam, and seeing as many ancient monuments as he could. These experiences either wove themselves directly into his fiction or were to have a profound influence on his political and aesthetic development. Anand could not imagine, however, that his now well-formed desire to be a published writer could be realized in India. Though Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Toru Dutt, and Sarojini Naidu, among others, had written in English, and Rabindranath Tagore's works had been widely translated from Bengali after the award to him in 1913 of the Nobel prize for literature, Anand felt that there was no serious engagement with contemporary realities in the intellectual ambiance of his own country. If, as he put in a subsequent essay, Apology for Heroism (1945), he was ever to ‘link himself with the disinherited, the weak and the dispossessed, as a human being and as an artist with special talents, to transform society’, it would have to be from London, centre of the world's publishing industry and a forum for endless political and social discourse.

Back in Britain within a few months, Anand was befriended by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, who found him work at their Hogarth Press. He undertook research for the critic Bonamy Dobrée. He was invited to lunch by T. S. Eliot and given an opportunity to contribute to his magazine The Criterion. He became friendly with the sculptor Eric Gill and met D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, and E. M. Forster. It was the last of these who was to prove most useful in securing him his first opportunity to publish a novel. Without Forster's advocacy, in the form of a preface to the book that has always been published with it, Anand's Untouchable (1935) would never have seen the light of day. The novel had been turned down by nineteen other publishers before Lawrence and Wishart accepted it, partly because of Forster's recommendation. Forster wrote of it,
Untouchable could only have been written by an Indian and by an Indian who observed from the outside. No European, however sympathetic, could have created the character of Bakha, because he would not have known enough about his troubles. And no Untouchable could have written the book, because he would have been involved in indignation and self-pity. Mr. Anand stands in the ideal position. (Untouchable, 1935, 9)
Untouchable depicts twenty-four hours in the life of an eighteen-year-old sweeper boy in an Indian city. Anand had remembered his own experiences clearing out the latrines while staying at Gandhi's ashram, as a result modifying the book, a first draft of which already existed when he was there. His simple tale, though evoking the stenches and confusion of urban humanity, breathed fresh air into Indian fiction in English. Before Untouchable no Indian writer in the English language had taken the outcasts of his society and made them quietly heroic. The book eschewed sentimentality, but it was compassionate and wise, recognizing, for example, that the face of modern India could be changed by the coming of flushing lavatories. The book was never out of print during Anand's lifetime, and at his death had been translated into over forty languages. It is almost certainly the best-known of all Anand's novels, and the one most often cited as a modern classic.

The success of Untouchable encouraged Anand to pursue a writing career. After completing his doctorate in 1929 he had been determined to dedicate his life to two objectives, the alleviation of India's poverty and the attainment of her independence. He saw the first as dependent upon the second. In 1934 he was elected president of the newly founded All-India Progressive Writers' Association. Whenever he could find the means to do so he participated in political conferences, including the Anti-Fascist Writers' Conference in London in 1936, and another similarly motivated in Spain in 1937, where he witnessed enough of the fall-out of the civil war to haunt him as he set to work on his great war novel, Across the Black Waters (1940). His subject in this was the treatment of Indian sepoys in the trenches of Flanders in the First World War, but he undoubtedly portrayed the horrors of war so graphically partly because of what he had so recently seen in Spain.

From 1930 onwards Anand accepted whatever writing commissions came his way, eager not only to be more financially solvent but also to win a reputation. There was, however, a third objective, aesthetic rather than strictly literary. He wanted both his fellow countrymen and the Westerners among whom he was living to appreciate the glories of ancient Indian architecture, painting, and sculpture. This was a passion that stayed with him all his life. His first publications were Persian Painting, which accompanied an exhibition at Burlington House in London in 1930, and The Hindu View of Art (1933). Back in India in 1945 he helped form a group called the Modern Architects' and Artists' Research Group, and from that year until 1981 he edited its magazine, MARG, which grew into one of the most influential standard bearers for Indian art.

Though living in London or in nearby Buckinghamshire throughout the 1930s and in the first half of the 1940s, Anand returned to India in 1935 and again in 1938, determined not to become deracinated. Had the Second World War not intervened it is probable that he would have gone back for good earlier than 1945, despite his marriage on 21 June 1939 to a British citizen, Kathleen Gelder (a 39-year-old actress known as Kathleen van Gelder, and daughter of William Bagnall Gelder, artist), and the birth three years later of his only child, Rajani, known from childhood as Sushila (1942–2007). He was by now a well-established novelist, following Untouchable with its companion piece Coolie (1936), Two Leaves and a Bud (1937), which exposed the exploitation of workers on tea plantations, and his trilogy, The Village, Across the Black Waters, and The Sword and the Sickle (1939–42), which have the same central character, Lalu, a young peasant caught up in the changing circumstances of early twentieth-century India. The last of this trilogy was Anand's most overtly political fiction. The sickle is the vast mass of India's labour force and the sword is that capitalist and imperial power which seeks perpetually to subjugate their free individuality.

Detained in London by the war, Anand, who had been a pacifist when it began, changed his view of the conflict when Hitler invaded Russia. In 1942 he agreed to George Orwell's suggestion that he should join the Indian Section of the BBC. With Orwell, Eliot, and other prominent writers he regularly broadcast a ‘voice magazine’, often composing his piece in a nearby pub. His intention, however, was still to return permanently to India, and this he did almost the moment the war was ended. He abandoned his wife and daughter, in circumstances that made them permanently bitter about him, and set up a new home, initially in Lahore but then for the rest of his life in Bombay. Though he had been in England for twenty years he immediately threw himself into Indian cultural politics and in the years following India's independence was frequently consulted by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors. His first marriage having ended in divorce, in 1950 he married Shirin Vajifdar, a classical dancer.

In 1951 Seven Summers appeared. This was planned to be the first part of a seven-volume sequence of autobiographical novels which would lightly fictionalize Anand's own life, and which he intended to call The Seven Ages of Man. It was the most disciplined part of the project, a tender evocation of childhood. Later volumes, Morning Face (1968), Confession of a Lover (1976), and The Bubble (1984), were increasingly unwieldy and some would say inchoate, but they made use of Anand's actual correspondence, which was prolific, and they re-visited relationships and crises of his earlier life. Eventually the sequence petered out, though fragments would appear from time to time, sometimes in the form of short plays that read like the dialogue of novels stripped of their context.

Anand did, however, write one great book after his return to India, Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953). It was the last of his books to be published outside India. It marked a new departure, for the main characters were no longer the villagers and untouchables of his other fiction but a maharaja and his court. Anand's subject matter here was partly the fate of the princely states following independence, but he was also interested in the borderlines between sanity and breakdown. In Victor, the prince presiding over a diminishing state and a collapsing personal life, he created his most profound character study.

Short stories, essays, speeches, editorials, letters, and campaign polemics continued to pour from Anand's pen. In his later decades he espoused many causes and campaigned vigorously for peace initiatives, but there was a feeling that his great contribution to Indian literature had lain in his being the first voice in fiction to agitate on behalf of the poor. He continued to travel widely, visiting London for the last time when he was over ninety. For most of his life after he returned to India he lived quietly in the ground-floor apartment of a massive ornamented house in Cuffe Parade, central Bombay (or Mumbai, as it became in 1995), attended by his wife, Shirin, and his friend Dolly Sahiar, the former art director of MARG. He made frequent trips to his home at Khandala in the hills behind Bombay and he had a property in New Delhi which became an arts centre. He was from 1965 to 1970 fine art chairman at Lalit Kala Akademi, the National Academy of Arts. He died at Pune on 28 September 2004, and was survived by his wife, Shirin, and daughter Sushila, a historian. He died intestate and his estate became the subject of a protracted court case.

Alastair Niven


M. R. Anand, Apology for heroism (1945) · M. R. Anand, Seven summers (1951) · M. R. Anand, Morning face (1968) · M. R. Anand, Confession of a lover (1976) · M. R. Anand, The bubble (1984) · Daily Telegraph (29 Sept 2004) · The Guardian (29 Sept 2004) · The Independent (29 Sept 2004) · The Times (30 Sept 2004); (7 Oct 2004) · m. cert.





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H. Coster, half-plate film negative, 1930–39, NPG [see illus.] · obituary photographs