Mulk Raj Anand: Humanism & His Art of Fiction

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Mulk Raj Anand: Humanism and his Art of Fiction

                                 by Dr. Shrikant Singh, Vol. III, Issue. XXXII, September 2017                                                                                                                                       


Abstract:   Mulk Raj Anand was one of the founding fathers of Indian English novel writing. For him, message of a work of art was no less important than the art itself. In other words, humanism as governing principle of his writings finds clear reflection in his short stories and novels. But what was his philosophy of Humanism?  Anand’s humanism may be defined as a system of thought in which human interest, values, and dignity are held dominant. It implies devotion to concerns of mankind and makes him use his arts for the service of humanity. This paper allempts to examine how far Anand’s humanism becomes an ally of or a hindrance to his art of fiction. The objective of creative art, according to Anand, is one of integrations. It should effect ‘connection’ between man to man, group to group and individual and the world. The creative artist is in a pre-eminent position to do this by virtue of his special gift of awareness into the hearts of men and woman. He is capable of moulding the value by which men must live. In this sense, Anand is a committed writer. Anand’s writings are not shallow concoctions fabricated just with the purpose of providing some sort of sophisticated entertainment to the lazy leisure-loving rich but they reflect the contemporary life, comment on it and also imply in them a message—broadly speaking, the message of love and tenderness. But Anand is too cautious an artist to mistake art for the pulpit. He believes that the message in creative writing should not be so overt that it distorts art itself.

Key words; Humanism, Propaganda, Pulpit, sentimentalism, Cheap Journalism.


         Anand believed that writers should not only express the creative needs of the race but should also help in establishing a reasonable society. In this sense, Maxim Gorky invites comparison with Anand. Considering his literary career, it can be safely said that Anand has done in India what Gorky did in Russia. Gorky emphasized the idea that man alone is the master of his destiny. He is credited for introducing a new kind of humanity, the outcasts, into literature. Anand has done this probably for the first time in India. He has courageously written about the underdog; he has made the down-trodden and the lowly the central characters that deserve sympathy and love of the entire community. In a speech delivered on the occasion of the Maxim Gorky’s Centenary celebrations, Anand writes about Gorky:

I owe a great deal of my writing to Maxim Gorky..he was the first writer to bring into Russian Literature, and thus into world literature, the heroes of the unknown, unseen, unheard, obscure people of Russia, the outcasts, the people rejected by the superior people, who were not respectable enough to appear in   literature before then.”1

              Like Lawrence, Eric, Gill, and Gorky, Anand belongs to that clan of writers whose writings are inspired by a mission. Like them he writes to reveal man to himself so that he can discover his potentialities as well as limitations, and in this awareness, make life a dedicated struggle aimed at the realisation of happiness and prosperity for mankind as a whole.

     Anand’s achievement in balancing art with propaganda in fictions is striking. Viewed from this angle, Anand can easily be credited with total success for his very first novel ‘Untouchable’. The evil of caste and its disastrous effects on human dignity is the central theme of this novel. Through a couple of deft strokes Anand brings out the terror and cruelty that are inflicted as the wrath and injustice of the caste-Hindus. The problem is posed, the horrors of untouchability are vividly painted, and then, some solutions are suggested, not forced. Thus, Anand has cleverly succeeded in effecting a perfect fusion of his point of view-his concern for the lowly and the weak and the artistic values demanded by the novel which ought not to become a pulpit. In short, the message in his novel becomes the world. This is, in fact impression that the novel made on Eric Gill, the renowned British artist. His reaction is to be found in a letter he wrote to Anand on reading this little great masterpiece.

Gill writes:

“Dear Anand, I have read your book Untouchable and was very much moved by it. It was particularly struck by the way you save up your three remedies almost to the last page, and then, as it were, throw them at the readers-take it or leave it. Also from the point of view of propaganda, I was much struck by your moderation and equanimity. You have not over-loaded the case against the corruption which Westernization has brought to the Indians…Also; I think the whole ‘story’ is touching tender.”2

          Further, Untouchable is significant for its simple and unaffected style which is reflection of the novelist’s deep sincerity and complete absence of sentimentalism. Bakha, the central character, is at once an individual in flesh and blood, true to life, as well as, a type representing hundreds and thousands of his like. His life is a tragedy which invites our sympathy. At the same time, the novel ends in an optimistic note in the sense that a change in the life of untouchables is, after all, possible. Untouchable is, perhaps Anand’s greatest novel, a work whose excellence Anand himself has not been able to improve upon till now. Anand’s intention in taking up the same theme of untouchability for his novel, Road, was clearly to show that the evil of casteism was not totally dead even after nearly three decades. Road fails to reach the same height of excellence as Untouchable does. One of the reasons for its failure is Anand’s inability to make the hero really the central figure.

Anand’s denunciation of capitalism and imperialism is the theme of Two leaves And A Bud, a novel which also illustrates the theme of cruelty to coolies. Anand paints here in glaring colours the untold miseries of hundreds of coolies harassed and ill-treated by the British imperialists who are actually the owners of the tea estate in Assam. Though it is impossible to underrate the significance of Two Leaves And A Bud as a crusade against imperialism, capitalism and exploitation, it must be admitted that it is not entirely flawless artistically. As Anand himself would perhaps admit, the characters here tend to become black and white rather than grey, and this has naturally resulted in falsification of life to an extent. The case seems to be overloaded against the British that is why the Englishmen like Reggie and Croft-Cooke are painted completely black and made caricatures rather than characters. The character of the English doctor with his persistent attack on his compatriots is more a tool in Anand’s hands to prove his thesis of compassion for the native coolies than a normal, life-like human being. Anand is so violently prejudiced against the British imperialists that his indignation proves dangerous to his art of fiction which markedly degenerates into over propaganda.

Anand’s condemnation of superstitions and orthodoxy, and his denunciation of war, form the basis of the Village trilogy. The village gives an imaginatively vivid picture of an Indian village in transition. The poverty and ignorance of the villagers, their expoitation by money lenders and land owners, their rigid and obsolete customs masquerading as religion, and the hero’s bitter struggle against them all, and his eventual flight from his much –beloved village are vividly depicted by the novelist.. Anand’s main purpose here is to show how the Indian villagers are waking up to see the possibilities of their eventual liberation from the age-old beliefs and obsolete customs. Anand shows all this through the reaction of the propagandist to the society. Thus Anand succeeds in blending his point of view and the art of fiction. The Sword and the Sickle the concluding volume of the trilogy gives the picture of the badly shattered Indian peasantry owing to the European war, and also the central character’s futile attempts at awakening peasants against British rule. Anand fails to retain for his hero his central position in the novel. It is the Count who dominates the scene. The Count himself is an incredibly enigmatic character who is at regal and ridiculous, serious and silly, lovable and fantastic. The whole novel is a confusing muddle, and therefore, an obvious fiasco. The author’s tendency to indulge in giving long speeches in order to put forth his thesis further adds to the failure of the novel.

Though it is the impact of the Machine on rural economy that forms the central theme of Big Heart, it has nearly all the tenets of Anand’s humanism imbedded in it- a plea for the avoidance of cruelty in human relations, need for faith in man rather than God, dignity of man, reproval of the caste system about the problems of his own community to which he had an intimate knowledge, and the result is that his characters are not mere automatons voicing their creator’s views or ideas on the problem, but they represent living men taken direct from life. The very fact that the hero is no ideal man with only perfectness to his credit, but one who his own weakness and limitations in addition to his giant strength and infinite love, points to the fact that the novelist has not falsified life by idealisng it. Anand has seized on dramatic essentials and re-created the gripping story of the conflict between the Machine and Man. The tragic and unexpected death of the hero goes to prove that Anand is careful to give any facile solution to the problem. The very drama of the novel has a solution implied in it: it is possible that all, including the machine-haters, would realize Anand’s mission through his sacrifice of the life for the cause. Thus, Anand is able to maintain balance between art and propaganda, precisely as in Untouchable.

Anand’s reproval of feudal values is the theme of Private Life of an India Prince, a novel which typically illustrates the limitations of a writer with a purpose. The very title smacks of cheap journalism since it betrays the novelist’s desire to cater to the tastes of foreigners. Many of the episodes in the novel are so blatantly sexy that they reveal a desire on the author’s part to shock the reader and indulge in sensationalism. This again seems to be a device meant for creating an appeal to a foreign- audience. Another cause for the novel’s failure seems to be the ambivalent attitude of the novelist towards the hero. Anand both sympathise with Victor and at the same time condemns him. Anand’s inveterate hostility to the lust-intoxicated and pleasure craving princes becomes so overwhelmed that the picture of Victor’s life presented in the novel suffers from distortion and exaggeration, and thus falsification. The story, The Maharaja and the Tortoise (Barbar’s Trade Union) in spite of its popularity suffers from the same kind of exaggeration. Anand has little or no sympathy for the Maharaja who is portrayed as a caricature. The same is true of the feudal lords appearing in The Man who Loved Monkeys more than Men (Reflections of the Golden Bed) and A Kashmir Idyll (Barbar’s Trade Union), A Pair of Mustachios (Barbar’s Trade Union) and The Signature (Reflections of the Golden Bed) are more stories with same theme.

Woman appears as but a secondary or contributory character in Anand’s fictional world except in Old Woman And the Cow, the only novel wherein Anand is found to be mainly concerned with her destiny. The character of Janki in Big Heart and the  Victor’s legitimate wife in  Private Life of an Indian Prince  are, in a way, the heroine of   Old Woman and the Cow in the making, since they, like her, show signs of the awakened woman. Gauri, the central character of Old Woman And the Cow is the complete picture of modern woman. In this novel we find the whole process of the change of woman from a puppet in man’s hands to the position of an independent woman who asserts her equal rights with man and demands recognition as such. Anand makes a clever use of the old myths of the Ramayana and indicates how it is no longer possible for man either to keep woman suppressed or to deny her rightful liberty.

In the light of the foregoing discussions, it needs to be admitted that Anand’s commitment to certain values of life or philosophy has had its advantages as well as disadvantages. It has proved to be a blessing in so far as it has given his fiction a depth of vision and ring of sincerity, qualities which are found normally wanting in writings prompted only with a purpose of mere entertainment. Then, it has imbued his writing with verve and warmth which assure the best of them of their immortality. There is also a sense of immediacy to life which makes for our sustained interest in his works. Anand’s successful works clearly illustrates all these points. Novels like Untouchables, Coolie and TheVillage are short stories like Barbar’s Trade Union, A confession, Lullaby and such others, reveal not only their authors’ quick awareness of the several pressing problems of man, but also of woman from a puppet in man’s hands to the position of an independent woman asserts her equal right with man and demands recognition as such. Anand makes a clever use of the old myths of the Ramayana and indicates how it is no longer possible for man either to keep woman suppressed or to deny her rightful liberty.

       In the light of the foregoing discussion, it needs to be admitted that Anand’s commitment to certain values of life or philosophy has had its advantages as well as disadvantage. It has proved to be a blessing in so far as it has given his fiction a depth of vision and a ring of sincerity, qualities which are found normally wanting in writings which are prompted by the purpose of mere entertainment.  On the other hand his writings prompted by the purpose of mere entertainment have imbued them with warmth which assures the best of them of their immortality. There is also a sense of immediacy to life which makes for our sustained interest in his works. Anand’s successful works clearly illustrate all these point. Like his novels Untouchable , Coolie  and The Village , his short stories like Barbar’s Trade Union, A confession, Lullaby and such others, reveal not only the author’s quick awareness of the several pressing problems of man, but also his unquestionable sincerity in dealing with them.  This gives an ever-lasting appeal to his works. But, it must also be conceded that Anands’s writings are not uniformly or consistently blessed with these advantages. Two Leaves And a Bud and Private Life of an Indian Prince are the obvious examples of this. Anand’s dislike of princes and the imperialist and capitalistic British proves to be an overpowering sympathy and as a result, these two novels-failed, in the ultimate analysis. The Man who loved Monkeys more than Men (Reflections on the Golden Bed) Torrents of wrath (Lajwanti) and   Old Babu (Power of Darkeness) are the obvious examples of stories which fail due to the author’s tendency to exaggerate or indulge in sentimentalism.

Anand’s simple and direct style, generally in harmony with his vision of life, sometimes deteriorates into affected rhetoric or vague wordiness. For instance, in Sword and the Sickly he writes a passage like this.

The  spark of recognition that had lit a fire in their senses years ago now raged with the pent up fury of their own bodies, overrunning  the  barriers  that  stood between  them, destroying  the in this illicit connection and uprooting all the misgivings, till awareness of the night and of the landlord’s watchman emerged with   the   dawn and extinguished the flame…”3

When he is at his worst, Anand also, becomes a victim of sentimentalism, and this is clearly mirrored in his style too; for instance, when he indulges in a morbid description of Nur’s breakdown:

       “He  breathed hard and turned on his side and twisting his body, moaned as if to summon all the fragile cells of his body to come and look at the new wound that his  father’s cruelty had inflicted on him, a raw  black festering wound which he himself wanted to stroke in an ecstasy of self-flagellation. But even as the rays of self-pitywere creeping into look at his heart he felt an increasing weakness in his leg’s and thought he was fainting. His limbs seemed like loose streamers falling away from his leaden trunk. The drowsy shade of the room in which he lay, seemed to exaggerate his contours, and he felt as if he were breaking.”4

            But on the whole, such passages are exceptions; All Anand’s style is usually an instrument which is useful in projecting his creative vision. Thus, we find that, Anand, as a humanist writer is, on the whole, a success, though he has his own lapses into inartistic preaching which violates the integrity of his creative vision.

An alert look at the contemporary Indian literary scene reveals Anand’s position there, With his deep social conscience and sense of commitment, Anand is down to the earth and there is a range and depth in his writings unparalleled by others. R.K. Narayan is essentially an ironic spectator of life with hardly any sense of commitment. Raja Rao is growing too metaphysical in his recent writings, and he often loses touch with life as revealed by his Cat And Shakespeare in which there seems to be no clear dimension of realism. But Anand avoids the limitations of both Narayan and Raja Rao; thanks to his philosophy of humanism which animates all that he writes. Anand invites comparison with Charles Dickens, comic artist, gifted with a greater dramatic sense, greater power of invention, and also a wider range of characterization. But, like Anand, Dickens was a humanist who championed the cause of the poor, the down -trodden and the underprivileged.

It is, by and large, the destiny of man that forms Anand’s central concern in all his fiction. This explains the universal appeal of his novels and stories. They indeed, are like so many flames unquenchable: that is precisely why almost all his works have been translated into several world languages.

           He belongs to that class of artists who are inspired by a mission – a tireless crusade against falsity and hypocrisy, cruelty and insensitivity, and a defense of love and compassion, and all that goes to make man’s life happier   and nobler. Also, viewed in the light of the above statement of faith, the best in Anand’s fiction easily belongs to the category of the important book of the world. The artist as humanist is one who stands at the centre of the human experience and derives his strength from it, though he occasionally strays away from it, Anand, at his best, stands firmly at this ‘still centre’.  Humanism really becomes an ally of and not a hindrance to his art of fiction.


About the Author: 

Dr. Shrikant Singh is the Head, Dept. of English & Dean Academics, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda (Deemed University), Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. He has authored several academic books and has successfully mentored many students with their academic research. 


  1. Anand, Mulk Raj. “Speech”, Soviet Review, March 26, 1968, P. 92
  2.  Gill Eric, in his letter dated 10th August, 1935 (An unpublished letter in Anands’s files)
  3. Anand, Mulk Raj. The Sword and the Sickle .Bombay, 1995. P. 722
  4. Anand, Mulk, Raj. Lament on the Death of a Master of Arts. Lucknow, 1939, PP. 117-118
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