Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) had one lament he often voiced to his friends and literary critics that his short stories were not paid enough attention.
This volume brings together some of the best and most memorable stories from Anand’s published collections, each of them illustrating a different moon and tone. In his half- humorous and half-ironic way, Anand draws our attention to the plight of the marginalized, the poor and the illiterate, and penetrates their innermost feelings and emotion. Straightforward, unpretentious and expertly crafted, these unforgettable vignettes of life in twentieth-century India are sure to hunt then reader long after the book has been put down.
Mulk Raj Anand was born in Peshawar in 1905 and educated at the universities of Punjab and London. After earning his PhD in Philosophy in 1929, Anand began writing for T.S. Eliot's magazine Criterion as well as books on cooking and art. Recognition came with the publication of his first two novels, Untouchable and Coolie. These were followed by a succession of novels, including his well-known trilogy The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940) and The Sword and the Sickle (1942). By the time he returned to India in 1946, he was easily the best-known Indian writer abroad.
Making Bombay his home and centre of activity, Anand threw himself headlong into the cultural and social life of India. He founded and edited the fine arts magazine Marg, and has been the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, several honorary doctorates and other distinctions. Anand died in Pune in September 2004.
Mulk Raj Anand has long lamented in letters to friends and literary critics that little or no attention has been paid to his short stories. There is some truth here, except that Mulk himself has contributed to this neglect. Many of his short fiction anthologies, like the novels he wrote after Private Life if an Indian Prince (1951), were handed over to a variety of Indian publi hers and published literally without being edited. His aim was to help promote Indian publishing, but some of the publishers he turned to promoted neither the industry nor the author. The stories now being presented by Penguin arc from the seven collections published during the author's lifetime. A good few of them are from The Barber's Trade Union and Other Stories (London, 1944) and these are being reproduced as they first appeared. But stories from the later volumes called for some editing, and here every care has been taken not to tamper with the author's style and purpose. Should readers find one or more of their favourites missing from this collection, the failure is mine. But I hope such failure will go to demonstrate how rich Anand's stories are, and how difficult it is to select a few and pass them on as the author's best.
Anand's first short story, 'The Lost Child', shared a fate similar to that of his first novel-Untouchable (1935). Like Untouchable, it received several rejections before it saw publication through the intervention of friends; like Untouchable, its popularity remains undiminished to this day. Based on the author's own childhood experience, it is almost perfect in execution. We constantly hear and read of the agony of parents searching for their lost ones. Here we witness the traumatic experience of a child who is separated from his parents at a village fair. With deft strokes Anand portrays the sudden grief that overcomes this once happy and carefree child. A stranger, who has rescued the boy from being trampled underfoot, offers him the very toys and sweets earlier refused to him by his parents. But the inconsolable child wants none of it now. 'I want my mother, I want my father,' is all that he asks for, between sobs. The milieu, with its gay, carefree crowd, adds poignancy to the child's sense of loss.
The story can be read at different levels. At its simplest it is about a child's natural fear of being left alone; at its most profound, it is a metaphor for the human condition. The child in the story epitomizes our individual cravings, desires, fears, but most of all our vulnerability and dependence on one another. Anand has said that a maxim by Guru Nanak- 'We are all children lost in the world fair' -was reverberating in his mind when he wrote 'The Lost Child'. This provides the essence of the story. The nameless child is the proverbial' everyman' , and the village fair is a microcosm of our universe with its beauty, joy and pleasures, but underscored by pain and insecurity.
Many of the stories are modelled on Indian folk tales and fables on which Anand grew up from his early childhood. While accepting the ancient form of the folk tale with its poetic resources and 'fabulous character' ,Anand discards the folk tales' overt moral teaching in favour of European psychological realism. In doing so, he attempts to create a new kind of fable, which combines the verve and vitality of the former with the psychological insights of the contemporary period. In 'The Barber'sTrade Union', * Chandu rightfully refuses to shave the village notables who, with their unkempt beards, soon become objects of public mockery. It is a story promoting trade unionism, but it does so without our being made aware of it. The playful nature of the narration is never sacrificed to its serious intent; in fact, the words 'trade unions' are used only once in the story and that too in the last line!
'Lullaby' and 'A Village Idyll' again go to show how Anand has taken the fable mode a step further to bring it closer to our own times. In the former, a mother sings a lullaby to her dying one-year- old child as she feeds jute to the machine. Her song (reminiscent of Blake's 'A cradle song') 'Sleep/Oh sleep/My baby sleep . . .' is juxtaposed with the only other sounds in the factory: 'The engine chuck-chucked; the leather belt khupp-khupped; the bolts jig-jugged; the plugs tik-tikked; .. .'The child dies, and with it the human song; only the jazz of the machine goes on unbroken. The story presents us the harsh reality of life as we witness it, while in 'A Village Idyll', the very opposite of what we see is in fact true. By fantasizing the love- making of the two youthful rustic lovers in idyllic surrounding, MuIk reminds the Indian reader of what he has known all along-the stifling puritanism of Indian village life.
To his tales of East-West encounter, Anand brings his long experience of England and the English. Failure to communicate is the main reason he offers for discord between the two peoples, and he goes on to point out that no meaningful communication is possible if one side is arrogant and race-and-colour conscious, whilst the other side is given to suspicion and fear. 'Professor Cheeta' is a moving portrayal of an old and sensitive Indian academic whose life revolves round the British Museum (now called the British Library) in London. The difficulties he encounters in his daily pursuits result as much from his own eccentric behaviour as they do from the unspoken racial prejudices against him. His death causes no distress to his British wife or his English acquaintances; the reader is the only mourner he has. 'The Gold Watch' is about a dispatch clerk in a British firm in India who is informed by his English master that he has got him a watch for a present. Though no words are exchanged between the two, the clerk surmises that the gift betokens early retirement-something he can ill-afford. The panic, the fear, and the confusion that overwhelm the clerk at the possible loss of his livelihood shows Anand's capacity to get beneath the skin of his characters as few writers can.
Anand's leftest leanings and his immense sympathy with the underdog have led some readers to surmise that he is less successful when dealing with the affluent-specifically the landed gentry. This is far from being the case where his short stories are concerned. But his mode of treatment differs, since the lapses of the rich, unlike the poverty of the poor, make good subject for satire. Through ridicule, exaggeration and laughter, very much in the manner of Swift, Anand satirizes, to put it in one word, the foibles of the feudal lords. And he does so without any malice or condescension, but often with telling effect. In 'The Signature', the author pokes fun at the Indian nobility's outdated and extravagent ways of welcoming a guest, which often leaves the guest-in this case a banker in search of the Nawab's signature distraught.The Nawab emerges at the end as irresponsible, though as affable as ever. But not all feudal lords are irresponsible or retrogressive, the author tells us. In 'The Tractor and the Corn Goddess', a forward-looking zamindar imports a tractor to make life easier for his tenants. But his tenants will have none of it. They are aghast at this 'new monstrosity', which, as they see it, has 'desecrated' and 'raped' the Corn Goddess, namely, mother earth. Not till it is dismantled completely, to ensure that no evil spirit is lurking within it, do the villagers accept it. The story, like 'The Power of Darkness' *, is essentially one of conflict between modern technology and the old way of life with its religious sanctions.
The two most amusing stories in this group are' A Pair of Mustachios' and 'The Maharaja and the Tortoise , . The former satirizes fatuous pride through the altercation between a crafty moneylender and a proud nobleman, Khan Azam Khan, now fallen on evil times. The Khan comes to pawn his wife's nose ring and turns furious on seeing the moneylender wearing a moustache in a style resembling his own-s-rather than one with the tips down, as befits his lowly status. An argument follows between the indignant Khan and the cunning moneylender who, with imperturbable calmness, soothes his adversary's ruffled pride. He promises to keep the tips of his moustache for ever down if the latter will, in return for the favour, pawn the rest of his worldly possessions. The Khan agrees and, twisting his upturned 'tiger moustache' , walks away, thus disproving the old adage that pride goes before a fall.
'The Maharaja and the Tortoise' is equally hilarious, though it lacks the simplicity and directness of the previous story. Here, a wily Prime l,1inister persuades the opium-addicted Maharaja to get a tank constructed and filled with water from the holy Ganges so that oblations and prayers can be offered to facilitate his journey from this world to the next. While performing the religious ceremony with his leet in the water, a tortoise bites off the big toe of the Maharaja. Regal rage is at its height, and a royal decree is issued to fetch the culprit who will be tried by the Ruler himself-the Ruler assuming the roles of both plaintiff and prosecutor. The story reminds one of Flora Annie Steel's' At the Great Durbar'. In this story, a Sikh farmer, whose crops have been destroyed by rats, sets out to seek the Viceroy to tell him why he cannot afford to pay the taxes. To make his case foolproof, he takes along a captured rat, for the law requires the presence of both plaintiff and defendant!
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