Revisiting Malgaonkar


Revisiting Malgaonkar. In the cold war years, the American media norm was to prepare an obituary of the Soviet President if he were to fail to show up ...

In the cold war years, the American media norm was to prepare an obituary of the Soviet President if he were to fail to show up in public or on the TV screen for a couple of days. But eminent writers are never out of public gaze because the power of their fiction entices critics to revisit his/her works for re-evaluation, thus reawakening public interest in them. Dr DS Rao, formerly of the Sahitya Akademi, portrays, through his new book ‘Manohar Malgaonkar: A Study Of His Complete Fiction’ fresh and compelling aspects of the writer’s unputdownable literary inventory.

Rao’s book rekindles the raging debate that started at the Jaipur festival about the decline of Indianness in the Indian English fiction as a result of globalisation and increase in the Indian Anglophile population. Western publishers whose certificates we still value insist on content addressed to the Indian diaspora. The resource-poor Indian publisher is loath to take risks.

Fortunately for us, Malgaonkar belonged to a period when English publishers preferred Indian writers to introduce the extremely diverse and complex Indian social scene to readers abroad. Malgaonkar was a happy accident that occurred to Indian fiction since, as Dr Rao says, writing was not his first choice. Indian fiction in English had come of age when Malgaonkar started writing. He wrote at a time when Indo-Anglian writing came to be accepted as part of the mainstream. His impressive portfolio of 60 short stories and nine novels makes parsing his works a challenge. Rao has done well to prefer brevity to volume in reviewing Malgaonkar’s short stories. Yet a few stories like ‘Old Gold’ and ‘Four Graves’ wrench the focus.

The sound and smell of history in Malgaonkar’s novels guide Rao through the maze of conspiracies and intrigues, characteristic of army and palace life, that dominate his works. The task of critiquing the world Malgaonkar has created is no small feat of which Rao is no mean performer. We, for reasons of space, pick up three novels to decipher Dr Rao’s approach to judge their merits: ‘Distant Drum,’ ‘Combat of Shadows’ and ‘A Bend In The Ganges.’

‘Distant Drum’ is Malgaonkar’s first novel. He was 47 when he wrote it. In a magazine article, he refers to an unwritten norm that expected army officers to be gentlemen too. Wondering if that convention held good even after the partition creating two separate armies, Indian and Pakistani, Malgaonkar says that this dilemma became the theme of his novel ‘Distant Drum’. “But we’re gentlemen still — at least some of us are,” he said.

Kiran Garud, the protagonist, and Abdul Jamal were pals and part of the British Indian Army. After partition, they happen to command rival battalions on the Kashmir border. Both of them snatch free time to summon memories of the past over drinks. Kiran faces a high-level inquiry into his indiscretion. He tells himself that officers are gentlemen too. Rao cites an instance of Kiran’s loyalty to the army. He rejects a plum job to be free to serve the army, though he knows that the job would boost, in the eyes of his lover Bina’s father, his eligibility for her hand.

‘Distant Drum’ is a nonlinear narrative told in two points of view. There are fault lines in the novel that could not dodge Dr Rao’s microscopic scrutiny. The confusion about dates in the novel, for example. At the dinner hosted by commanding officers in August 1949 a toast was proposed to the President of India when the country had not yet become a republic headed by a President. So also Jana Gana Mana. It became the national anthem only on January 24, 1950.

‘Combat of Shadows’, unlike ‘Distant Drum’, is a straightforward documentation of marital aspirations and relationships marred by extramarital loyalties, both complicated by racial considerations manifest in the scramble of Anglo-Indian women to get a white man to marry them and thus to become pucca memsahibs and not their mistresses. The story is about Henry Winton, manager of a tea plantation, who appoints an Anglo-Indian woman Ruby Miranda as a teacher. By warming his bed, she dreams of becoming his lawful wife. Winton says no. She seeks revenge. Winton marries a white woman. This white woman has an affair with an Anglo-Indian male Eddie Trevor. Winton’s boss Sudden’s, impregnation of his native maidservant is another episode in this sleazy drama. He gets rid of her by marrying her off to his watchman. “Shadows” has a labyrinthine plot punctuated with naïveté, deviance, defection and a mockery of moral values, the usual ingredients that make a Bollywood film.

The third novel ‘A Bend In The Ganges’ talks of the environment of elemental violence that preceded and followed the 1947 partition and the effete nature of nonviolence. Malgaonkar was witness to the tragedy but refuses to be a judge, a role he passes on to the reader. A reviewer of the novel called it an excellent example of Indian English.

Writing for, Madan G Singh says: In ‘Bend in the Ganges’, Malgaonkar is in full flow and one cannot but appreciate that not only was he a master storyteller, but also had an exceptional command over the English language. No less than a writer of the caliber of RK Narayan referred to Malgaonkar as his favorite Indian English novelist.

Born into a royal family in 1913, Malgaonkar was educated at the University of Bombay. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Indian army. A new generation of readers will go back in time and snatch a glimpse of Malgaonkar’s India. A VPA Books publication, this book is a timely tribute to Malgaonkar on his birth centenary.

Tailpiece: Rajeev Duggirala’s cover design stokes images of Syed Raza’s oil abstracts.

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