I was gifted this book by Shobhs way back in 1997, a slim volume of 130 pages, priced at Rs. 45. It is a collection of short stories by Mulk Raj Anand whose writing career spanned from the 1930s to the 1980s. I read his 1935 classic 'The Untouchable' last year and became a huge fan of his, so when I found this unread book in my collection I quickly picked it up. I am glad I did not read it earlier - I would not have appreciated its content then.
There are 21 stories in all and they are all short, as short stories should be unlike some which are pretty much like novels. Some of the stories I did not understand (I have the same problem with some poems) but some were more direct and my style. But what hit me was the themes he chose to write his stories - the pratice of Sati in a world of Chitrahaar and Stardust where the young widow of a doctor with aspirations to become a nurse is burnt alive, the stories that revolved around untouchability and the fate of the young characters - often beaten till death, the stoning to death of a blind bard whose only crime was that he was blind and sang well and thereby earned more than the other beggars, of a young mother whose bowl is stolen so she cannot feed her young, of Buddha and of monks, of an insane child sacrifice which is accorded permission by the village, of a young untouchable who turns to Buddhism and who seeks to become the Buddha himself, of pension for prostitutes, of the way war affects us and our children, of the way religion is used by some to promote their interests. In small stories, Mulk Raj Anand lays bare all that the Indian society has been guilty of doing and perpetuating on its weakest and most vulnerable sections - the women, children, handicapped, the untouchables and even animals, as in how Moti the dog is killed and how a buffalo is left to die.
Mulk Raj Anand in a hard hitting style that one expects from him and no less, shows all that and more in his simple method of story telling without dramatising the scenes. They are potent enough as they are even if reported. It is written as it is, whether the father sacrifices his own daughter, or children of dead army soldiers playing war games shoot one of their gang accidentally, or the sati, or the untouchable boys murder because he ate a carrot - the horror sinks into the reader later and I guess, will remain forever, as it might with me. For those who wish to read about where we came from, this book offers a quick review. As always I am left wondering at the wonderful job Mulk Raj Anand has done in penning them down as they were so we could always carry our history with us, and learn from it. The stupidest thing would be to ignore it. Among my big regrets would be not meeting him in his lifetime - he died in Pune in 2004 - a time when was frequenting Pune often. But he has left enough of his legacy and I propose now to get my hands on his other books as well.