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Saturday, 31 March 2007

Mulk Raj Anand's Short Stories

A teller of tales
Punam Khaira Sidhu

A Pair of Mustachios
by Mulk Raj Anand, Orient Paperbacks. Pages 110, Rs 95.

A Pair of MustachiosTHINK Indian writers writing in English and the two enduring names from the 1930s whose books are still in print are Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan. Their works have been translated into several languages.

Born in Peshawar in 1905, Mulk Raj Anand's was educated in Lahore, London and Cambridge. He lived in England for several years. What could also be of interest to readers is that Mulk Raj Anand held the prestigious Tagore Chair at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

At the age of 30, he began his most prolific period. He wrote the Untouchable (1935), followed by Coolie (1936), Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) and then the adventures of Lalu Singh, a young Sikh during World War I, in the trilogy: The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940), and The Sword and the Sickle (1942). It was a richly productive literary period for him. A book a year was no mean feat. The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953), Confessions of a Lover (1972) and The Bubble (1988) were his other well-known works.

A Pair of Mustachios
is a collection of cameos, each dedicated to Anand's friends and acquaintances. The stories are drenched in the sun and soil of the Indian landscape of the 1930s and 1940s. The tale from which this collection derives its name is the story of Azam Khan, a descendant of Afghan nobility, and Seth Ramanand "a lentil-eating bania". It's a vivid pen picture of the class system under siege. Khan, who lives off pawning his wife's jewellery, prefers to defend his tiger mustache even at the cost of losing his fortune to the wily merchant. Babu Bulaki Ram is the tale of the quintessential clerk, dreading his English Karnel Sahib. On the Border, Babu Bulaki Ram and The Informer have as their backdrop the winds of the freedom struggle sweeping across the Indian countryside.

Every village still has a loveable liar like Labhu, the shikari, or a cobbler like Saudagar, whose desire to own the machine he worked on drove him to his death or even a confectioner like Lala Nanakchand, who thrived by "promoting quarrels" among the simple uneducated women selling milk like Basanto and Hiro. A Rumour is the story of every simple youth like Dhandu who makes his way from the village to the town in search of a livelihood and meets with tragedy. The Maharajah and the Tortoise is a tale where the Birbalesque Prime Minister stars in a parable which could have stepped out of the pages of the Panchtantra.

In sum, it's a wonderful cocktail of the writing skills that characterise Mulk Raj Anand's work and craft. It should arouse in the reader a taste for the other works that comprise the literary legacy of this talented teller of tales.

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