Mulk Raj Anand: on the Language Debate and his Aunt's Caste-related Suicide

For a long time I resisted reading much of Mulk Raj Anand's work -- there simply seemed to be too much, and much of what I had looked at seemed overblown and under-edited. Also, I was impatient.

Re-approaching him as a more mature reader leads to somewhat of a mixed bag. Novels like The Road and Coolie are highly readable and focused. Meanwhile my view on Untouchable remains essentially unchanged, and I did not much enjoy Two Leaves and a Bud -- a novel that seems a little too inspired by the "Quit India" fervor of its time to be of much interest to us today.

As often happens, I've come to understand the novelist a little better by delving into his personal biography, with two particular questions in mind: what made him want to be a writer, and what made him want to be a writer in English? Along those lines, I've been reading sections of Anand's autobiographical novels, Seven Summers, Morning Face, Confessions of a Lover, and The Bubble. While there are a fair amount of material in these books to be skimmed or skipped (often the now-dated discussions of politics and ideology), there are also some more personal sections that seem intensely interesting. Below, I'll quote a little from a section of Anand's Confessions of a Lover that deals with the death of the protagonist's aunt, Devaki.

Finally, I've also started reading, generally for the first time, Anand's various essays, anthologies, and what letters are available (as far as I know, no authoritative biography of the writer has ever been written -- seems like a remarkable absence). One that seems to be of particular interest is Anand's essay on language, The King-Emperor's English, or The Role of the English Language in the Free India (published in India, 1948).

On English

A statement from Anand on the status of the English language in India seems especially necessary, since he was at once a fierce nationalist and an author who wrote -- though he arguably did not have to -- in the "Emperor's" language. How did he address that apparent contradiction?

Anand's The King-Emperor's English begins with a section giving some historical background on history of language policy in British India -- which should be pretty familiar to most readers (think: Charles Grant, Macaulay, Bentinck, etc.). The second section of the essay is a kind of extended portrait of the much-loathed "Babu" figure:

Now it is true that the 'Babu', the supreme product of the British Indian educational system, the bombastic child of that great bombast, Macaulay, and the favorite fool of Mr Kipling's lucubrations, is a highly amusing figure for the caricaturist. But I want to plead that, after the first laugh, we should try to understand his tragedy and speak of him a little more indulgently. For, despite his absurdities, he has always been rather a pathetic person, the victim of an unfortunate set of circumstances.

In Anand's account, becoming a Babu entailed a kind of dual marginality -- a subordinate status within the British system, as well as alienation from Indian traditions:

The 'Babu' thought he was learned and was very proud of his learning. But the people, the peasants and artisans, though they respected the learned Brahmin, custodian of the indigenous culture and of the ancient traditions, refused to pay homage to the 'Babu'. For, in spite of the breakdown of Indian society after the medieval ages, our ancient culture continued to exist in an astonishing state of preservation in the villages. The 'Babu', however, had never read the Ramayana of Tulsi Das at school or college; he could not understand the hereditary musicians of his town or village when they rendered classical Indian music, but he listened eagerly to the tinny ghazals of the gramophone; he despised the dhoti with its beautiful folds, so cool in the Indian summer, and wore a pair of trousers with a sports jacket, a necktie and a national cap or turban on his head.

The examples continue for another page (I'll spare you). Tellingly, Anand has a long list of Babu faux pas, with a clear picture emerging: the Babu is pretty straightforwardly a kind of 'bad' hybrid -- rejected by both sides as alternately uncanny or fatally unripe. (Cue Bhabha: almost, but not...) Interestingly, here Anand doesn't mention that his father was a figure who fit many of the basic criteria of the Babu, as he worked throughout his career as a clerk in British military cantonments (I do not know whether any of the above is meant to specifically refer to Anand's father).

It's in the following section that Anand finally begins to talk directly about himself. The passage is worth quoting at length:

As I am one of the few who have contributed to some extent to this new Indo-Anglian style of writing, it may be permissible for me to be a little personal about it.

First of all, I want to record my joy in it. From my childhood I felt a fascination for the English language through hearing the git-mit, git-mit, as the sepoys called the speech of English Army officers and 'Tommies' in the Indian Cantonments. And it was that early interest, part curiosity and part snobbery, that made me learn it quickly. I remember the thrill I had when I could collar some 'tommy' and practice my vocabulary on him. Usually, he could not understand my sing-song, even as I could not catch a word of his jerky staccato, except the familiar, unprintable swear words. But later, at school, I excelled at recitation of both English prose and verse. The fact that I was often chosen to recite before the class tickled my vanity and I took to reading Thackeray and Dickens at twelve. And, already, I had begun to write in English. This habit was encouraged by the translation of a page of Hindustani which my father set me to do every day, a practice that was to have a powerful influence on me, because it made my later writing in English what it has always been, mainly a translation from my mother tongue, Punjabi, or Hindustani, into English. Of course, I received all kinds of influences (some wholesome, the greater part harmful) from the prescribed school and college text-books [...] But I believe what saved me from being completely vulgarized was my daily exercise in translation. Also, I did not regard the dictionary as my God, and that made me write simply and to convey Indian sentiment, as far as possible, in my own kind of Indo-English.

The most important revelation here is Anand's acknowledgment that his English prose is in effect self-translation -- it's an admission that no contemporary South Asian writer working in English would likely feel comfortable making. But this humility regarding English is a sign of strength, as is along with Anand's continuing emphasis on remaining tied to the Punjabi- and Hindi-speaking life of northern India (which is especially evident in the novels he wrote after he returned to India in 1945).

As he continues, Anand moves from a personal account of how he came to write in English, to a discussion of the Language policy debates that were raging at the time of the Consituent Assembly immediately after independence. He enters into the debate in a measured way, accepting that English has to be decentered in an independent India, but suggesting that the move away from English be made gradually.

Of course, framing the issue as he does, as a debate between fervent nationalists who want to reject all things foreign, including the English language, and reasonable compromisers like himself, he overlooks what was historically the important group advocating for the continued use of English -- South Indian politicians. (Some of the anti-Hindi agitation occurring at the time is described at Wikipedia).

* * *

I mentioned the titles of Anand's four autobiographical novels above: Seven Summers, Morning Face, Confessions of a Lover, and The Bubble. These novels are written in the first-person, with a protagonist named Krishan Chander Azad, rather than Mulk Raj Anand. However, in other respects the novels seem to be closely drawn on Anand's own life experiences.

Which of course raises an obvious question: have any critics gone in and verified the details of the life-experiences in Anand's account? As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Here and there, bits of implausible dialogue or slight historical glitches give me pause. (The most glaring such glitch from one of Anand's autobiographical writings appears in his account of meeting E.M. Forster in 1934 to discuss the Untouchable manuscript. At that meeting, Anand claims he mentioned Premchand's Godaan as an example of a great Indian novel unknown in the west. But Godaan was not published until 1936! Hm.)

It is worth noting, however, that in addition to the four autobiographical novels published between 1951 and 1988, Anand later published a volume of 'proper' autobiography, called Pilpali Sahib (1985). It was intended to be the first of several volumes, though as far as I know Anand didn't follow up. One way to get a sense of how accurate Seven Summers might be would be to read it in parallel with Pilpali Sahib.

During the 1920s, Anand moved from Lahore, where his father was stationed, and where he largely grew up, to Amritsar. There he attended Khalsa College, roughly between 1922 and 1925. He left India in 1925, and returned occasionally -- most famously, for a period in 1928, when he stayed at Gandhi's ashram. However, as I understand it, Anand largely lived in England until 1945. He also joined a number of progressive British writers in Spain during the Civil War; he drafted much of his novel, Across the Black Waters while in Barcelona.

In Amritsar, Anand's protagonist, Krishan Chander, is described moving in with his widowed Chachi (his father's brother's wife), Devaki. One of the immediate surprises is how much anger Krishan Chander feels towards his father regarding Devaki's condition. Of particular concern is the fact that Anand's family have been economically exploiting Devaki, using money she was to have inherited from her husband upon his death for their own purposes. Here is an example of the anger Krishan feels towards his father and a group of other male elders who have decreed that Devaki should stop dealing with a cousin named Ananta, who also lived in Amritsar:

I wanted to denounce father before the elders. I knew how he had arranged for my aunt to adopt Ganesh, over my head, and get Devaki to spend her money on my elder brother's wedding. And he had resented the expenditure on the well at Kanovan, and sent me there as a spy. And how jealous he was of Ananta's comings and goings. But if I said anything I would be just dismissed as a young rascal who had come under the influence of the 'rogue' Ananta and my 'spendthrift', 'foolish', 'depraved' aunt Devaki.


Against such credentials, there could be no further talk. Only secret thoughts of revolt. I sensed that because Devaki was a beauty, she was supposed to breed emotions in lovers and therefore she was a disease--never mind if she, too, may have wanted salvation in her own way through the longing for happiness. But even my romantic hypotheses were petering out because I was alone in the face of the much respected holy elders. 'I fall at your feet,' I said in a mock serious tone to all the big ones as I made to withdraw. (Confession of a Lover, 51-52)

Krishan and his aunt Devaki get involved in what is described as a "seance" for the Chishti Sufi Saint Mian Mir. The event is organized by a school friend of Krishan's, Noor, whose mother Nargis is a devotee of Mian Mir. Controversially, Krishan and Devaki spend the night at Noor's house, and the fact is rapidly publicized amongst the Hindu community in Amritsar, including members of Krishan's own Thathiyar (Khatri/Kshatriya) caste group. The caste brotherhood is horrified, suggesting that by eating with Muslims Krishan and Devaki have allowed themselves to be polluted.

Ironically, a significant number of the members of the same caste group, included Krishan's own father, had earlier been followers of the Aga Khan, as the head of the Panchayat reminds Krishan:

'Your father left the Aga Khan, son, some years ago, almost at the same time as did most of us. And, except when your sister-in-law once visited her Aga Khani patients in Gujranwalla, your family has remained faithful to the Hindu dharma... Now, your aunt, you see, the coming and going of these Muhammadans will begin to cause doubts whether your family has given up the Aga Khan as your family Guru or not.'

'Han, son, we are talking to you as to our own son,' Uncle Motilal underlined his father's words.

'But Noor is my college fellow,' I said. 'And--'

'Then how could you, literate persons allow this Pakhand of the seance of Pir Mian Mir by a Mussalman woman prostitute, in your aunt's house!' asked Lalla Acharja mal, red in the face. His authority as a patriarch seemed to have filled him with hate. (Confession of a Lover, 81)

Unfortunately for Krishan and Devaki, the fact that so many members of their extended family and clan had earlier been devotees of the Muslim Ismaili sect means that the men who in their youth had strayed are now hyper-vigilant about maintaining caste boundaries.

As a result, Devaki and Krishan are declared to be 'excommunicated.' In practice, this does not mean much for Krishan, whose family continues to support him. But Devaki is effectively cut out from the family at this point. A few days later, she kills herself by swallowing cyanide in Krishan's family's house.

One of the ambiguities of this account derives from the strong eroticization of Devaki -- nearly all of the men in the narrative, including Krishan's own father have at one point clearly been enamored by her. And there are passages that suggest that the relationship between Krishan and Devaki may be somewhat more physical than one would expect:

Even the habitual abandon in the embrace of Devaki, of until a few days ago, when she had suddenly said, 'You are no longer a baby,' had been given up, because of her reminder and because of the adolescent pride in questioning everything, which the presumption of acquiring possible knowledge had brought to me. Perhaps also the would-be grown-up student in me, the eyewitness of the seance, needed to grow, to be self-sufficient in my increasing intellectual isolation. If Devaki had not come to lie down with me, I felt I would certainly not have gone to her. And yet, if I was not hypocritical, I was still rooted in the desire for the comfort of her flesh, especially because of Lalla Acharja Mal's strictures against her. And I was soothed by the physical touch of her, healed from angers.


The smell of my own sweat was now mixed with the perfume of Devaki's body, the milk and honey. I listened to the beating of my tempestuous heart against the ache in my temples. My doubts began to yield to the need for assurance which her flesh could give, I turned and put my head between her breasts, and buried myself like an ostrich in her warmth.

She held me close, even as she slowly stroked my head whispering, 'Sleep, my son, sleep!' (Confession of a Lover, 83-84)

Reading this, it's hard not to read against the grain a little, and suspect that part of the force of the family's rejection of Devaki may have derived from a transgression not primarily associated with crossing communal boundaries. Indeed, it may well be that the men in the family, including Krishan's own father, may have been at once intimidated by Devaki and unsettled by their own desire for her.

Assuming this account in Anand's Confession of a Lover is based on the story of a real aunt, one wonders how close the account here of her excommunication and subsequent suicide was to what actually happened. Is it possible Anand's relationship with her was a little different from how he is here describing it? did the real aunt actually swallow cyanide, or was she physically harmed by members of the clan? Unfortunately, from what I can tell right now, there's no definite way of knowing.

At any rate, it's hard to measure how deep of an impact this event had on Anand's subsequent life choices. He did occasionally mention the suicide of his aunt in later personal statements, though as far as I can tell this is the only detailed account (and one should note that it's in a work described as autobiographical fiction). It does seem to me that the alienation Anand felt from his father and his family may have been a factor in his decision to leave India to study at Cambridge in 1925, which was of course the key event that started him down the path that would lead to him becoming India's most accomplished early English-language novelist.