Monday, April 13, 2009

Seven Summers: A Memoir, by Mulk Raj Anand

Mulk Raj Anand, considered one of the greats of modern Indian literature, was known for his sympathetic portraits of the poor and marginalized in Indian society, as also his use of Hindi and Punjabi in his English writing. He was also one of the earliest Indian authors to gain an international audience for his work. Seven Summers: A Memoir, is the first of a seven volume autobiography that Anand had planned but never completed.

This book is a charming recollection of the first seven years of the author's life, lived in army barracks in various north Indian cantonment towns, in pre-Independence India. Anand names his protagonist Krishan, but in every other sense the character is modelled on himself, and the characters in the book are frank representations of his own family and friends. The book is structured as a series of vignettes from the author's life, describing incidents and experiences that shaped him as a boy. These are further divided into two sections -The Road and The River. The road represents the journeys and adventures the boy dreams of experiencing. At the very beginning of the book, a young Krishan even ventures across one, an early indication of the curiosity that will characterize him as he grows older.

If 'The Road' is about the yearning for adventure and excitement, a breathless wait for life itself to begin, 'The River' marks Anand's flow through life as he begins these long awaited journeys .This section marks several changes in the young Krishan, his growing awareness of himself and his surroundings, and his gradual disillusionment with several of the people and places he has idolized. He begins school, but his love for learning is dulled by the harsh treatment meted out to him by his teachers and later, as he begins to excel at work, his classmates as well. As the tremors of the Independence movement make their presence felt in the barracks, Krishan's father begins to vent his fears and anger on his children, eroding Krishan's hero worship of him.

At this juncture, Krishan also begins to bond more deeply with his mother whose nationalistic views are at variance with those of her husband's. This relationship is clearly the core of Krishan's childhood - it shapes his opinions, and even his relations with everyone else around him. The portraits the author draws of his family are not always flattering, yet his love for the people most important to him is clearly evident. He does not spare himself either - Krishan is portrayed as jealous, needy for attention and capable of spite and manipulation. He is fearless and impudent, also insatiably curious, academically bright, and eager to show off his knowledge, a fact that wins him adult affection, but also the spite of his friends and brothers. And he is no innocent - at the age of four and five, he is already aware of the sensuous charms of physical contact with his female relatives.

The author skillfully recreates the heat and dust of small town India, the petty squabbles and small pleasures of his childhood in the barracks. The book also deftly reveals the acute notions of caste and prejudices between communities that divided people then, and still do now. Krishan is warned against playing with 'lower caste' boys or eating in his Muslim friend's house, even though his own family is neither vegetarian nor high-born, and his mother is a loyal follower of the Aga Khan! Most poignant are the scenes revealing prevailing sentiment against the so-called untouchables- in particular, one where Bakha, a sweeper boy, assists a seriously injured Krishan, only to be berated for polluting the boy with his touch. Incidentally, Bakha is also the name of the protagonist of Anand’s famous novel, Untouchable, which suggests that this boy from Anand’s childhood may well have influenced that book.

Anand has been credited with being among the first Indian writers to present a child's view of the world. But I felt that this was not a child's view, so much as that of an adult looking back on his childhood. The reader is not always allowed to merely view and understand an incident as seen by Krishan, but rather have it filtered through the writer's own analysis of it., something I found quite dreary at times. In this regard, I think R. K. Narayan's simple yet timeless Swami and Friends stays true to a child's vision, while still conveying larger ideas about the time and place in which it is set. (Here’s an earlier post about some other stories that do a wonderful job of this.)

I also wish that Anand had stuck to using vernacular phrases in their original form in the text, rather than resorting to switching between these, and their rather strange English translations. This is especially alarming in the rather frequent instances when ripe abuse is used in dialogues between characters. Nevertheless, these are still minor details in this engrossing coming of age story

I also liked the striking cover of the book - a boy in silhouette, precariously balanced on a post, with his arms reaching up towards the darkening sky. It wonderfully captures the mood of the book, the joys and struggles -and isolation - of Krishan, his resilience and his unquenchable spirit in the face of the many hurdles he faces in his journey through life.


  1. Hum... maybe I'll fall into an Indian literature binge after reading your post ! Just finished Kiran Desai's extraordinary Inheritance of loss... Let's get some more !