December marks the hundreth year of the birth of Mulk Raj Anand who lived to a ripe age of nearly 99 years. And who in his life time strode the Indian arts stage, literally like a colossus!
I had the good fortune to come into contact with this multi-faceted great Indian who inspired countless fellow Indians to so many good and great acts. It seems destiny plays its part in our lives! I first met Mulk face to face on the Marina sands in 1953/54 when Mulk Raj Anand was already a familiar name for me and I went to hear him speak on some occasion. As he was rushing through the sands after finished speaking I went and asked him for autograph or other. He embraced me in his arms and said some things I forgot. In my SSLC class we had a short story of his, The Lost Child, and that might be the beginning of my love for Mulk. I bought his first book, Untouchable, in its hardcover edition at the Midland theatre’s book stall! Can we imagine such bookstalls today?
Then ,of course I might have bought many of his books, to his last days.
If not for anything else, Mulk would be remembered for this one side of the human character alone. In this he was like Mahatma Gandhi whom he admired all his life and he was a tireless narrator of the Gandhi anecdotes when he went to live with the Mahatama in the Wardha ashram. So, the one who was willing to be converted was asked to do this or that work and when Mulk submitted his manuscrip on the “Untouchable” novel, Gandhi promised to read it. When the time came for it, Mulk was curious to know the advice on the subject, the irrepressible old man told blandly Mulk:”Cut down the bulky volume to hlaf the size and remove all bombastic words!”
So was born the classic that made Mulk’s name immortal. It is now in the world classics series and must have went through innumerable reprints. But the very first novel went through a mind-breaking rejection of 17 times! Before it found a small publisher.
So, I recall the day when I went to Mulk to tell him that I was going to England and I intend to get my book published in London! I knew him by that time many years for I was a regular visitor to his 25,Cuffe Parade residence whenever I was in Mumbai and that was often in the early 80s.By the time I was about to go to England he had become very close to me, to our family in fact for I invited him to Chennai once for a visit and he stayed with us for three days. So, those were the days when we became so close to the great man, a great soul whose dynamic energy almost transformed us into worthy human beings. He had that rare inner power to transform people.
Whenever we were at the Cuffe Parade, he would ask us to do this or that small little helps, he would dictate or write himself tirelessly so many letters, big and small, big and small letters and I remember whenever I took leave of him he would thrust at least a bundle of letters to be posted at the nearest post box!
In this tireless energy and work and talk he was always assisted with love and attention by so many friends and companions. In particular I recall Dolly Sahiar who also helped him in publishing the Marg magazine, the bulky and expensive arts magazine he brought out with the help of the Tatas and also his devoted wife, Ms. Vajifdar and I am particularly grateful to them for their hospitality and so much of help and friendship.
So, back to my London visit and my intention to publish in London! Once he heard I was to approach British publishers, he flared up! He said instantly: “The British publishers? They wont publish you! They would publish material on India only if it is anti-India or slanted to serve their prejudices” He went on and on in this fashion! So, it proved to be. The British publishers of course want to make money and it is their intention to select what would sell. That wisdom dawned on me late and I have no regrets about the outcome of my publishing forays in London publishing district. It was after all a good education for me to know the London publishing ways, their literary agents who themselves are an interesting lot.
It was on this visit to Chennai where I took Mulk to visit the Mahabalipuram monuments which he must have visited several times. This time too he took the delight of a school boy and walked briskly, we almost ran behind him to catch up with his enthusiasm and interest. Here was a living encyclopaedia of Indian arts and wisdom! He of course didn’t have an academic knowledge or academic, brooding and contemplating wisdom of sorts. Here was a wisdom that was very awake and alert and very contemporary, young and full of energy and a living Indian arts tradition. Here I was witnessing another Ananda Kumarasamy, his great hero and here was a walking lecture of what it meant to eb an Indian artistic tradition that was quite universal and quite earthy too. He was both Gandhi and Marx and much else, an Iqbal or a Premchand walking acroiss as it were!
In the three days we spent with him, we felt quite breathless as we were trying to catch up with his boundless energy, here was a human dynamo and we were constantly kept alive and awake with his multifased genius of a ceaseless outflow of currents of diverse colours. I never heard more about what the Tamil country possessed in its artistic treasures and much else except when I spent the days with Mulk. In Chennai he had had so many admirers and when we called a literary meeting where he was very gracious enough to release a book on a senior Santiniketan artist (C.N.Vasudeavan) who was a contemporary of Rabindranath Tagore and Tagore’s own uncle and the first great artist of the Bengal school, the very Abanindranth Tagore. This particular artist on whom I wrote was a native of the Coimbatore district and hence my interest. The in fact helped to invest the typical Santiniketan style of dacning in which Tagore took so much interest. Also in painting(he also studied at the J.J.School of Art,Mumbai)and bronze casting.
The point is that Mulk agreed to come to Chennai because of my convincing him about my own Santiniketan connections and also my interests in arts and literature. So, I in fact invited two persons. The other was K.A.Abbas who was also becoming my fried at that point of time and finally it was Mulk who made it. In comparison to Mulk, Abbas was the other extreme, very soft and unassuming to the very exuberant Mulk!
In Chennai came the very best of Chennai’s own conservative and also very hypocritical and social and society personalities, orthodox dancers and artists and literary figures. In the audience I spotted Gopal Reddy, the former AP leader and Governor! He came, despite his age, for he told me he was a contemporary of Vasudevan in Santiniketan! Very nice of him! There was Tara Cherian, a personality in her own right, the wife of Dr.P.V.Cherian, one-time Governor of Maharashtra. There was another personal reason readers might not know. Her daughter, Sheila Cherian was my contemporary and friend at Oxford! There were a number of Theosophists in the crowd, for Vasudevan family was closely associated with the Theosophical society and J.Krishnamurthy, why even with the great Maria Montessori!
There was the late literary critic, prof.K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar,an authority on Indian writing in English. So, the professor and Mulk were friends for long and this occasion gave the two veterans to spend time together and exchange notes. As for the younger and older Bharata Natyam dancers Mulk was a guru for he, more than any other, had given the much-needed publicity and exposure through his high caliber and costly Tata-sponsored Marg volumes on all schools of Indian classical dances. I possess some volumes, some gifted by Marg, others by my Oxford friend, Xerxes Deasai,who besides rising up to head Titan watches, was at one time head of the Tata Press which brought out Marg in such splendour!
There are so many small and not so small incidents and anecdotes that stand out in my memory. Mulk was a great connoisseur of finer things of life. He loved his cuisine, his evening drinks in the close company of friends.
I mentioned his own autobiography, An Apology for Heroism. I thought that very title suited to my own life! Now that chance remark works inside me. On another day at Cuffe Parade as I was entering Mulk’s residence, I was met by Mrs. Anand (former Ms. Vajifdar of the famous Vajifdar sisters, once famous dancers)who said suddenly: “Congratulations…!”I was taken aback at this welcome remark and asked “Madam,congratulations for what?”. “Oh, you are going to be a Padmasri!” “What?” I shot back! “No, no. It is coming. Mulk had been asked by the education ministry for names. He had put your name.. “After a while when Mulk came out and took his seat at the customary outer verandah(where he had an artistically designed seating arrangement)he greeted me with some introductory remarks and said: “Oh, do you know I had sent your name for the award when the education ministry asked for names”. I said: “No, no I know the government(when RV was the President)and it is all a bureaucratic network that operates and I have no chance whatever. And more than that I really never care. Your thinking of me for the honour is honour enough. Thanks”. And it turned out so. What a nice person, I said to myself when I finally came out of his residence.
One more anecdote was regarding the manner he was divested from the editorship of Marg. Mulk had some choice abuses for the bigwigs at the Bombay House(the corporate headquarters of the Tatas) where sat the great JRD and Palkhivala and others including J.J.Bhaba (the brother of Homi Bhaba) and publisher of the Marg magazine. I was at that point of time a frequent visitor to the Tata headquarters where I had friends and where I learnt to appreciate the Tata culture very much. I am grateful to the Tatas for some of the help I had got.
I got a beautiful letter from JRD Tata himself, a reply to my earlier letter. I also spoke to Palkhivala and there was this welcome feeling one got whether you went for help or some informal meets. Ratan Tata Trust once gave me a small donation with just my one letter! There were so many other such gestures. In fact, Mumbai atmosphere was so energising. I met and became a friend of so many bigwigs, starting with the great Rajni Patel, Vasantdada Patil, A.R.Antulay, I also met S.B.Chavan, then incumbent Chief Minister, Shard Pawar, then Opposition Leader, besides people and artists, writers and even olden days acquaintances of my AICC days like K.K.Shah (who had retired as Governor of TN and the then incumbent Governor, Sadiq Ali! Readers might be surprised to know I was asked to function under Sadiq Ali when he was the General Secretary of the AICC and when Kamaraj and Atulya Ghosh were the bosses! Said Ali, a true Gandhian, was a gem of an indidual. When I telephoned the Raj Bhavan and when I asked ” to whom I am speaking ” the reply at the other end was: “I am Sadiq Ali here!” I was taken aback! That was the measure of the man!
Now, back to Mulk’s leaving Marg,when I learnt about the circumstances of his leaving, I got wild! I instantly returned to my room at the MLAS’ “Hostel” at the prestigious Nariman Point and wrote a letter to J.J.Bhaba and said how Marg had fallen in stature without Mulk!
I learnt later through other (Tata) sources they made enquiries of me and my reasons for writing such a letter!
The point is that even great men can commit mistakes. I thought I should stand up for Mulk and I did!
The last time when I saw Mulk was sometime in the late 80s and every now and then I used to make enquiries of his health through friends. Once when I was in Pune I learnt that he was staying in his usual seaside village of Kandla. I thought of taking a train and visiting him. At the last minute I couldn’t do so. So, when I learnt that he passed away in Pune, near his beloved Kandla, I thought the man lived life fully.
It was when we were in Mahabalipuram, in fact when Mulk was sitting on a pavement just facing the Arjun’s penance, he turned to me as said: “You must your autobiography, it could prove to be valuable piece of writing…”.