The Quilt and Other Stories
Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man
River of Fire
Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997
Sometime in the late 1920s, in what seems now a significant moment in the history of modern Indian literature, the novelist Mulk Raj Anand showed a first draft of his novel Untouchable to Mahatma Gandhi. Anand was one of the many Indian writers inspired by Gandhi. While he was in England as a student at Cambridge and University College, London, he had begun to rewrite Untouchable after reading Gandhi’s essay on a sweeper boy published in the magazine Young India. He had been struck by the simplicity and austerity of Gandhi’s writing, and had come to see his own novel as artificially concocted.
Gandhi wasn’t a reader of novels, and he had plenty of other things to do. But he dutifully made his way through Anand’s manuscript and gave his verdict. The book was, he said, written in the language of Bloomsbury, not the language of an untouchable. He advised Anand to cut more than a hundred pages. He also told Anand that he would find his subject once he found his language.
In retrospect, Gandhi appears to have been more severe with Anand than he may have wished to be. The reference to Bloomsbury was certainly deliberate: before he came to live with Gandhi at the latter’s ash-ram in Central India, Anand had been one of the many groupies hanging around Bloomsbury (E.M. Forster later wrote an enthusiastic preface to Untouchable). Even after Anand stopped fancying himself a Bloomsbury aesthete, there was no tradition or model to support his attempts to write a novel in English about India. For one thing, the European idea of prose fiction as a means of social and political inquiry, the awareness that the novel in particular could be a truthful portrait of society, was new even to writers in Indian languages who had just begun to move away from their apprenticeship to Walter Scott, the Romantic poets, and such minor Victorian novelists as Marie Corelli, Wilkie Collins, G.W.M. Reynolds, and Benjamin Disraeli.
More discouragingly, few Indian writers before the 1930s had ever attempted prose fiction in English. The fledgling efforts of Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao—the three major writers in English of the time—could not bear comparison with writers in Indian languages, such as Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote in Bengali, and the North Indian writer Premchand, who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu.
Anand was especially vulnerable to the awkwardness attached to writing in English, the colonizers’ language, about Indian untouchables and coolies. The pragmatism of Gandhi, who had told him to say his say in any language that comes to hand, couldn’t have overcome the other problems—problems summed up by Raja Rao, who was also inspired by Gandhi and by the anticolonial passions of the freedom struggle, in the foreword to his novel Kanthapura (1938): “One has to convey,” Rao wrote, “in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own …