Custom Search

Revisiting the Big three of Indo-English literature

Ramlal Agarwal, Jalna, India 

The recognition and discussion of Indo-English novels starts with Raja Rao (1908–2006), Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), and R.K. Narayan (1906–2000). William Walsh, the famous English critic, called them the Big Three of Indo-English literature. They burst onto the Indian literary scene in the thirties with hardly a difference of a few years. Raja Rao's Kanthapura was published in 1938; Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable was published five years earlier, in 1933; and R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends was published in 1935.

Their literary careers were launched when Mahatma Gandhi was fighting tooth and nail for Indian independence and eliminating the atrocious practice of untouchability. Gandhi was a charismatic man, and such was his charisma that he could rouse Indians from their inertness and take to the streets to drive away the British from India and rid society of its age-old, atrocious practice of untouchability.

Raja Rao was so taken up with Gandhi that he recreated his prototype in his first novel. His Gandhian prototype, Moorthy, a brahmin youth expected to be a saheb, lives in a typical South Indian village called Kanthapura. Though a small village, it is, like all villages in India, divided along caste lines; it has a Brahmin quarter, a Potters quarter, a Weavers quarter, a Pariah quarter, etc. During his studies, Moorthy came to know Gandhi's views on untouchability and his ways to abolish it, and he became a Gandhian. He was genuinely inspired to improve the lot of the Pariah community. He started visiting their quarter and mixing with them. He decided to educate them, and he started holding classes for them. This irritated the brahmin community in Kanthapura, and it plotted ways and means to excommunicate him from its caste.

But Moorthy remained undeterred. Like Gandhi, he also started challenging the British authority by organizing satyagrahas and non-cooperation movements. His anti-government activities invited arrests, and he became a jailbird. But such was his honesty and enthusiasm that even in his absence, people carried on satyagrahas. Like Gandhi, he succeeds in transforming people into heroes fighting against oppression.

In Kanthapura, Raja Rao recreates all the colors of village life. He does not allow English to be a stumbling block. He takes it in stride and keeps the tempo of his story going. He is not squeamish about using English the way the English use it. He accepts it because it suits him. He does not mind that English idioms and expressions are given in Indian versions. He is easy if “nip it in the bud is nip it in the seed" or "why do you bother me" is "why are you eating? My mind". He is happy with his rolling prose.

It is his way of fighting colonialism. 

Mulk Raj Anand, too, writes about the problem of untouchability in his first novel, Untouchable. He writes about a day in the life of an untouchable youth called Bakha, attached to British barracks.

Bakha's day starts with abuses hurled at him by his father for getting late for his duties. Bakha is used to them. However, he cleans toilets with great alacrity, and when he has finished with toilet cleaning, he heads towards the main road of the town. He meets with a series of shocking experiences.

A nondescript man in the crowd starts shouting that Bakha has polluted him, slaps him, and disappears. At a temple, the priest shouts that the temple has been polluted. A lot of people gather there and beat Bakha mercilessly. His sister, Suhana, tells him that the same priest molested him. When Bakha returns home and tells his father what happened to him in the street, his father scolds him for being careless and drives him away from his home. Out in the open, Bakha meets a priest who wants to convert him to Christianity. Later, he attends a lecture by Mahatma Gandhi, who calls untouchables Harijans, the children of God. Gandhi says, “I regard untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism, and if I should be born again, I should be so, not as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisha, Shudra, but as an outcast, as an untouchable.” He further says, “I love scavenging." While getting out of the crowd, Bakha comes across an anglicized Indian Muslim and a well-dressed Indian poet. He finds them locked in a debate. While the Muslim was debunking Gandhi, the poet was defending Gandhi and saying that if India is backward, it is because it has neglected the machine. He says the flush system can solve the issue of untouchability. Bakha is impressed by what Gandhi said and what the poet said, but the conflict in his soul is not over, and he walks on with nowhere to go. 

Anand's Untouchable is a moving account of the insults and humiliations of untouchables told with sagacity and confidence. 

The article continued here