Mulk’s chief patrons were socialists and communists. There were many Englishmen and women who suffered from a sense of guilt over what the British Raj had done to India. He was well aware of what India’s rich and powerful had done to the poor and powerless and the humiliations lower castes had suffered at the hands of the privileged higher castes. They became the themes of many of his novels and short stories. He became the chief spokesman of progressive writers who wrote to serve social purposes and not bother so much about style and turn of phrase. Mulk’s writing became progressively propagandist.
Mulk returned to India after the publication of his first two novels—Untouchable and Coolie. He was accorded a warm welcome by literary groups across the country. The reception he got at Lahore was tepid. A literary circle comprising some judges of the high court, a couple of ICS officers, professors of English literature and lawyers invited him for tea. They had read his novels and felt they could write as well as he. Mulk sensed the condescending attitude but kept his cool till someone blurted out: "We can write as well as you, but who will publish us?" Then, Mulk exploded: "First write, then talk," and walked away in a huff.
He was right. Many of the circle wrote. Not one was able to break the apartheid of publishing houses. There were hardly any Indian commercial publishers worth going to. Most of their books were published at their own cost.
Though born in Peshawar (in 1905), there was nothing Pathan-like about Mulk. He was short, with fuzzy hair and, like the son of a Punjabi bania, dressed in khadi kurta-pajama. He had a strange way of speaking: a lot of thuth, thuth and sentences ending in a squeak. But he loved holding forth, was warm and friendly. He liked living well and enjoyed the company of women. After his marriage to his English wife broke up, he had a Sri Lankan mistress, followed by a Parsi one. He lived in a ground-floor flat on Cuffe Parade, Bombay, facing the sea. I called on him one morning and saw him at work. He was perched on a high chair specially designed for him with his feet resting on the rung below. He was bending over a writing pad.
Mulk wrote quite a few novels and short stories. His characters were caricatures of stereotypes: Rajas were rich and stupid, Brahmins wily, Banias mean, women wanton, Mussalmans bullies, Sikhs dim-witted. You get samples of these characters in the stories chosen by Saros Cowasjee. He was the first to break taboos against the use of dirty language. In England, no one quite knew what they meant; in India they were, and are, common currency of abuse (if you were to take the frequency of use rather factually, this would have to be one hotbed of incest). He was right in doing so, otherwise spicy dialogue would lose its pungent flavour.
Mulk had a setback in his later years. He was commissioned by Evergreen Review of New York to do an article on the erotic in Indian art. It was very well received till the magazine received a legal notice alleging that it was a copy of an article translated from German into English.
Mulk’s explanation was naive beyond belief. Dosu Karaka, editor of the weekly Current who hated the Communists’ guts, had the news splashed in big headlines—‘Commie author caught plagiarising’. It took some months of retirement to his villa in Lonavala for Mulk to bounce back.
But bounce back the man did, and resumed pontificating to audiences across the country. He never took notice of the topic under discussion nor time set for speakers. He would go on and on about how his father used to beat his mother. He ignored the chairperson’s bell and taps on the back. He had his say and never ever repented.
All the same, he was a very lovable man.