Swami and others

Any collection of first editions of successful Indian writers would be incomplete without RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand

All collecting is sort of madness – a pleasurable madness, but madness nevertheless. One such madness is collecting modern first editions of books one loves or authors one holds in esteem. A first edition I have long sought and searched for but never come across in all these years of book collecting is that of RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends, published by Hamish Hamilton, London, in 1935. This was an Indian writer’s first successful work of fiction in modern times and was the first volume of Narayan’s great Malgudi trilogy that eventually made its author famous.

The year 1935 saw the publication of yet another much discussed work – Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, which tells the story of an eventful day in the life of a sweeper boy, Bakha. Swami attracted notice because it had been recommended for publication by the English novelist Graham Greene, while the Untouchable drew critics’ attention especially because of EM Forster’s laudatory preface. Both these works were their authors’ first full length novels and marked the beginning of their successful literary careers. Anand had published a collection of short stories under the title the Lost Child and Other Stories in London in 1934, that is, a year before the publication of the Untouchable, but Swami was Narayan’s real first. Then, in 1938 came Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, a story woven around the Gandhian non-cooperation movement. Ten years later in 1948 came out GV Desani’s All About Mr. Hatterr, an amazingly refreshing work of fantasy.

Although these four novels are little read or remembered now except at academic seminars or in courses on Indian fiction in the American universities, they will always remain the four pioneering works of modern Indian fiction in English language. They were followed by other novels like Khushwant Singh’s 1956 gory Partition story titled Train to Pakistan in Britain, where it was published by Chatto & Windus, and Mano Majra, published by the Grove Press in the US but none attracted the attention that was destined for Salman Rushdie’s allegorical Midnight’s Children, published in the US in 1980, a year before its first publication in the UK. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children owes much to Desani’s Hatterr which he himself has acknowledged. Rushdie took Indian fiction in English to the centre stage. It is he and, particularly, this work of his that created an entirely new audience and readership for Indian novels. Until he came on the scene, even the best of Indian writing in English was at best treated as fringe contribution and never as great literature despite the accolades offered to such works as Nehru and Nirad C Chaudhuri’s autobiographies.

I am not addicted to collecting modern firsts, as they are called, and have never made much effort to acquire these, but I have at the same time never let a good copy of a first edition slip out of my hands whenever one has come my way. I love to feel the physicality of the book as a product, though there is nothing by way of beauty or charm in the dust jackets or bindings of the books I have mentioned above to recommend them. I still find the looks and feel of these firsts enchanting. Most of these firsts I came across at bookshops and pavement stalls while roaming the streets in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi. Of course, there are a few like Kanthapura and different revised editions of Desani that I have made a special effort to acquire from booksellers as far away from each other as Norway and California.

The only first I have searched for a long time but never ever seen is Narayan’s Swami because of all the books I have listed, this one held me in a thrall when I first read it many, many years ago. I think everyone who has read this book in their young years must feel the same way about it. In those years Enid Blyton’s Fours, Fives and Sevens felt extremely exciting, as today’s young must feel about Harry Potter, but it was Narayan’s Swaminathan with whom we really identified with, as a pal and a buddy. I have grown much in years by now but the fascination for Swaminathan is still strong in me.

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