A Revolutionary Criteria for Literature: A review of Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie

By Meghna Chandra.

In the popular Ted Talk “Danger of a Single Story”, feminist icon and author Chimamanda Adichie tells us of the the importance of representation in literature. She speaks of her own story growing up in Nigeria and reading books from the West, thinking all books were about foreigners with blonde hair who drank ginger beer and ate apples. She tells how stories have the power to brand Nigerians savages and Mexican peasants victims, and that “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”.

What Adichie eludes in her banal celebration of representation is that though every individual has her own story, all stories are connected–they are a part of a common fabric of history. No one story is possible without the story of another. As James Baldwin says in a letter to his nephew:

“And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed, one must strive to become tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man… But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime”

The problem with Western art and literature is not that it tells a single story, but that it tells a lie, a lie of Western innocence at the cost of the truth about history. Because of this repulsive innocence, it is unable to see its own rotten foundations. It is unable to come to terms with the basic truth of life–  “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time… It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”

A revolutionary criteria for literature is that the great literature tells the truth about humanity by bringing us closer to submerged humanity, and shows us how we must transform ourselves to restore beauty to the world. Literature that does not tell the truth is complicit with the lie and falls prey to its own rotten innocence and decadence.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Gandhi on Truth, Beauty, and Art

In “Criteria for a Negro Art”, Du Bois asks the question of what is beautiful at an NAACP conference. He thinks of a Cathedral at Cologne, a village in West Africa, the curves of the Venus de Milo, and the sorrow songs of the South beneath the moon. He says that beauty is infinite and endless in possibility, but our world denies the majority of human beings beauty. He asks:

“What has this Beauty to do with the world? What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness — with the facts of the world and the right actions of men? ‘Nothing’, the artists rush to answer. They may be right. I am but a humble disciple of art and cannot presume to say. I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable.”

Though artists may consider beauty transcendent of the world and the province of the individual artist, the world in which we live has warped beauty itself by denying it to the majority of people through a life of poverty and exploitation. Thus, Du Bois says:

“The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice.

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”

All art is propaganda either in service to the truth or against it. The artist is free to write as he pleases, but free only in the sense of his existential relationship to truth; an artist cannot be free if he is grounded in a lie. An artist can only be truthful if he is engaging in counter-propaganda to the lies of white supremacy. Thus, beauty can be found only in the search for truth.

On the other side of the world, Mahatma Gandhi struggled for the freedom of another oppressed people and mirrored Du Bois in his understanding of aesthetics. In a Socratic dialogue with a young man who wanted to understand why Gandhi did not deal with art as a part of a programme of national regeneration, Gandhi explains that there are two aspects of all things– the outward and the inward. The outward is a meaningless facade that is destined to fade unless it helps discover the inner spirit of mankind. He says that people who claim to be artists but who do not show the soul’s turmoil and urge to be free are not true artists. He criticizes Oscar Wilde, whose work received universal literary acclaim, saying that Wilde’s belief that Art was greatest in its outward form only succeeded in “beautifying immorality”.

The young man challenges him by arguing that artists claim to find truth through outward beauty. Gandhi says “I would reverse the order… I see and find beauty in Truth or through Truth. All Truths, not merely true ideas, but truthful faces, truthful pictures, or songs are highly beautiful. People generally fail to see Beauty in Truth, the ordinary man runs away from it and becomes blind to the beauty in it. Whenever men begin to see Beauty in Truth, then true Art will arise”

Gandhi believed that truth preceded beauty, and that truth was beautiful and untruth ugly. Because men in a decadent civilization had abandoned the search for truth in favor of pleasuring their senses, they became incapable of perceiving and pursuing true beauty. He believed that true Art would arise only when men committed themselves to the search for the truth. Gandhi looked at the literature of the colonizer that has been presented as evidence of the supremacy of Western Civilization and saw a profound hollowness. Because the bulk of Western literature lacks the search for inner truth, fetishizes outer forms, and ignores the exploitation of millions that made Western Civilization possible, it is not beautiful. Beauty is that which helps those exploited millions and will lead to their Swaraj.

A revolutionary criteria for art holds that what defines great literature is the writer’s search for truth, and that literature is beautiful when it succeeds in bringing us closer to the truth about humanity. Conversely, a work of art cannot be beautiful if it does not challenge the values, morals, and aesthetics of western civilization, which is built on lies.

Coolie and the Human striving for Self-actualization and freedom

Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie tells a terrifying truth: that the people who are the most dehumanized and crushed by imperialism are human beings full of potential. It is the story of a young orphan boy named Munoo from the hills of Punjab. Because of family circumstances, he is sent to the city to earn his living. He starts his working life as a servant for a well-to-do family. They do their best to socialize him into life as a servant by insulting him constantly as befitting someone with his status in life. His curiosity keeps him striving to know and learn, and keeps getting him into trouble. After running afoul with his mistress, he runs away and finds work in a pickle factory. He learns about injustice after his cruel boss absconds with his kind boss’s savings, relegating him to bankruptcy. Munoo runs away again to Bombay where he finds work in a textile factory run by a cruel British man. He finds a home through the kindness of a factory worker named Hari, and a hero in his fellow worker, a wrestler named Ratan. Ratan, unlike the other coolies, is strong and brave because he has stood up to his exploiters as a member of the All India Trade Union Federation. The factory owners, under economic pressure from social unrest led by the Indian Freedom Struggle, cut down the working hours and pay of the coolies, sparking massive labor unrest. Two communists from a rival union take over the movement and raise militant revolutionary demands, sparking the imagination of Munoo and his fellow coolies. As the revolutionary workers raise their demands, others raise accusations against Muslims, turning the gathering into a communal riot. Munoo runs away and finds his way into the service of a promiscuous but kindly Eurasian woman in Shimla where he contemplates all he has seen.

Anand builds Munoo’s character as a bright young boy with a persistent urge to learn:

“He lost himself in the fairyland of the sitting room, as, squatting on his heels, he swept the carpet with the broom. His eyes caressed the mahogany varnish of the throne-like chairs. They dwelt with admiration on the various photographs. Twice or thrice he could not resist the temptation to get up and look closely at the pictures. He scrutinized everything with wonder and love, tracing the colours, the shapes and sizes of all the things, inquiring into their meanings. ‘What is written in that book, I wonder?’ he asked himself. ‘How does the big clock work?…. The voice in the box: I wonder how it arises” (32)

Before he has been socialized to be a servant who keeps his eyes down and lives only for the service of his masters, Munoo has an irrepressible curiosity about the world. He wants to know how everything works and why things are the way they are. Anand writes Munoo’s humanness as defiance against the smallness, selfishness, hypocrisy, and cruelty of the larger world.

Even when his masters and mistresses scream at him, trying to break his will, Munoo searches for the common humanity between him and the family he serves:

“…though his will was broken, with the gathering of strength his body Munoo again entered the busy round of scrubbing utensils, peeling vegetables, sweeping floors, making beds, serving food, and generally doing everything that the caprice of his mistress imposed on him. And, with the return to activity, his physical body exuded the continual warmth, the living vitality that reached out in a wild frenzy of movement to any and every feeling and object. He laughed, sang, danced, shouted, leaped, somersaulted, with the irrepressible impetuosity of life itself, sweeping aside the barriers that separated him from his superiors by the utter humanness of his impulses, by the sheer wantonness of his unconscious life force.” (56)

Throughout the book, Anand shows the growth in Munoo’s consciousness, from the innocence of a young boy taking in the spectacle of the city, to awareness and disillusionment with lust, greed, and selfishness he sees around him. For all he sees, Munoo never stops searching for human goodness. Anand shows the transformation of Munoo’s consciousness, with all its contradictions. As Munoo wonders:

“These people were superior, superior to all the hill people, he thought, though were they superior to the retired Subedar of the village, and Jay Singh’s father, the landlord, he wondered? What constituted their superiority, he did not know. They all wore nice clothes, had nice things. That was enough to convince him that they were marvellous, wonderful people. He did not search for causes and effects. He did not know that their superciliousness, the complacency, the assurance, the happiness they radiated was built on the strong foundation of money, that easy, privileged and secure life of theirs; that good health was nourished by the food which money bought.” (36)

The world works to tell Munoo that he is a lowly Coolie and that is all he will ever be. He aspires to their “nice clothes and nice things,” believing them to be marvellous people. Yet Anand never lets the reader forget exactly where these people get their privilege. Throughout his story, Munoo stumbles towards this truth.

As Munoo takes on various backbreaking jobs, his vitality gets sapped out of him by the crushing nature of work:

“For the most part men realize themselves through the force of external necessity, in the varied succession of irrelevant and unconnected circumstances.

Munoo soon got used to life in this primitive factory.

It was a dark, evil life. He rose early at dawn before he had his full sleep out, having gone to bed long after midnight. He descended to work in the factory, tired, heavy-lidded, hot and limp, as if all the strength had gone out of his body and left him a spineless ghost of his former self” (89)

Anand shows the arbitrary and heartless forces that shape human beings and discipline them into becoming ghosts of their former selves. Munoo becomes molded by this work, but the people he meets along the way show him a different way of life.

Through the character of Ratan, the brave Pehelwan (wrestler), Munoo learns to stop living in fear. Ratan stands up to the foreman and spreads generosity to his fellow workers. Even after he is fired, he refuses to give up his job without a fight, attracting the attention of a militant communist labor union. Through Sauda, the firebrand communist organizer, Munoo gets a glimpse of the truth:

“There are only two kinds of people in the world, the rich and the poor… and between the two there is no connection. The rich and the powerful, the magnificent and the glorious, whose opulence is built on robbery and theft and open warfare, are honoured and admired by the whole world, and by themselves. You, the poor and the humble, you, the meek and the gentle, wretches that you are, swindled out of your rights, and broken in body and soul, you are respected by no one, and you do not respect yourselves.

Munoo felt that long ago, at Sham Nagar, he too had had similar thoughts about the rich and the poor. But he could not say them like the Sauda Sahib

“Stand up, then, stand up for your rights, you roofless wretches, stand up for justice! Stand up, you frightened fools! Stand up and be the men you were meant to be and crawl back to the factories like the worms that you are! Stand up for life, or they will crush you and destroy you altogether! Stand up and follow me! From tomorrow you go on strike and we will pay you to fight your battle with the employers! Now stand up and recite with me the charter of your demands” (233)

Through Sauda, Munoo hears the truth: that the world is built on denying the vast majority of human beings their humanity. Munoo had always known this instinctively, but had never heard expressed. After hearing this truth, he finds a purpose for living. He understands how his story converges with the story of those around him and how he must live his life.

Coolie ends abruptly, in an unimaginable way. Fifteen year old Munoo battles consumption, likely contracted from his days working in the factory, while he is serving his mistress in the hills of Shimla. He has only his friend Mohan by his side. He hopes with his characteristic optimism that he can get better, that he can continue to discover the world and himself. Though he is weak and dispirited, the blood in his veins surges towards life, towards the unknown.

“A downpour, and he began to doubt if he would ever get well. He felt exhausted and lay weary and apathetic, looking at Mohan frank-eyed and helpless, clinging to him as if the mere touch of his friend’s body would give him life.

‘All right, Munoo brother, you are a brave lad,’ Mohan assured him.

Munoo clutched at Mohan’s hand and felt the warm blood in his veins like a tide reach out to distances to which it had never gone before.

But in the early hours of one unreal, white night he passed away– the tide of his life having reached back to the deeps.” (282)

After we have travelled with Munoo on his journey for self-discovery, the abruptness of this ending hits the reader like a powerful wave. Literature teaches us that life is a series of arcs of questioning, turmoil, discovery, fulfillment, and questioning anew. Yet how many are denied this search for self-fulfillment through premature and preventable death from poverty? Coolie makes tangible the fate of millions in our world today. After reading Coolie, it becomes clear that the task of the thinking and feeling human is to free the Munoo’s of the world. 

The Artist and the Search for Love

Mulk Raj Anand saw his role as a writer to be an artist who cultivates the power of expression to show the pain of others and bring about a new vision for the world. Throughout his extraordinary life, he met Iqbal, Gandhi, Sajjad Zaheer, and others. He went to London, hobnobbed with the British literati, rejected their snobbery, and returned to India. There, he showed Gandhi his novel Untouchable, rewrote it on Gandhi’s suggestion to reflect the voice of the people, returned to London, met other progressive writers and organized the Progressive Writers Conference in 1938. He writes:

“The main point I want to make is that the Progressive Movement was an important departure in both fiction and poetry from the feudal heritage and modernity. The writers who criticise the progressives don’t understand that there is a search for the other in all writing. The young man seeks the beloved and writes about her when he cannot find her. The same is the longing of the writers who speak about the need for solidarity with other human beings from empathy. The departure brought about in poetry by Faiz is relevant. He addresses his beloved and tells her not to ask him for the old love. The personal love of the old ghazal writers has given way to love of the people” 

The poets of South Asia who spoke of the torture of love and yearning for reunion with the beloved were expressing an inner search for the truth about the nature of life, death, the Creator. The Progressive Writers movement saw itself as part of this ancient tradition of truth-telling. From Buddha to Kabir, truth-tellers have sought reunion with humanity from whom they are separated through illusory differences of caste, class, race, and gender. In the times of the anti-colonial struggle, the Progressive Writers Movement sought to expose the tragic human condition that is the heritage of colonialism, and agitated for a world-wide redistribution of resources and co-discovery of buried cultures and ways of thinking.

Pablo Picasso, Minnette de Silva, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace in 1948

Anand’s understanding of the artist resembles that of James Baldwin who wrote “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

Authors like Mulk Raj Anand are no longer in fashion today. Postmodern critics deconstruct these revolutionary writers for emphasizing content over form and subordinating characters to history at the cost of their individual narratives. Young readers of Indian English encounter the likes of Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Arundathi Roy whose books do not really have a point beyond self-important and cynical wordplay. Novels like God of Small Things and The Lowland poke at the failures of revolutionary movements that sought to transform relationships between human beings. Literary theory celebrates the “interstices”, “hybridity”, and “otherness”. The ruling class consensus on what is great literature, shown by the authors celebrated by the New York Times and the Financial Times, is that great literature shows “many truths” by deconstructing one truth. In many ways, this is the argument of Chimamanda Adichie, when she says that the point of literature is simply to tell a variety of stories.

What these bourgeois critics ignore is the relationship between truth and beauty. In a world in which the overwhelming truth is that millions of Munoo’s die while bestsellers sell, these novels are decadent and irresponsible. They do not even truly explore the human experience because these novelists cannot see outside of their own unitary perception, as shown by their lack of commitment to anything but their own careers and Western-approved causes. Though these novels have achieved acclaim in our times, they fail utterly when measured against a revolutionary criteria for art. The seamlessness of the connection of the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Gandhi, and Mulk Raj Anand shows that there is a human truth that underlies all stories, and the artist may reach for it out of an ancient sense of love and responsibility. The writers of our times choose to ignore this truth, since they are grounded not in history but in ahistorical Western civilization.

As Baldwin writes of the significance of literature: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Literature shapes and creates human beings by showing them the universal meaning behind the cycles of human life. Romesh Chandra, the leader of the World Peace Council, said that reading Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie and Two Leaves and a Bud inspired him to become a revolutionary. The literature of his times created revolutionaries, the literature of our times creates confusion and pessimism. Until revolutionary literature can emerge anew, the youth of today must turn to the giants of the past to teach them how to love.

Further Reading

One thought on “A Revolutionary Criteria for Literature: A review of Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie

  1. Interesting. I just quoted from Adichie’s Ted talk in a recent essay on race and ethnicity and what writers do, which is a very similar subject to the one you are writing about here. I think all writers are attempting to write towards truth or to illuminate truths and untruths….you may enjoy something I wrote today entitled ‘Black and White’. Thanks for sharing.


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