Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Two Leaves And A Bud


by Prabhat kumar

We find dominance of English characters in ‘Two Leaves and a Bud’, dealing with the exploitation of native coolies by the colonial masters in a tea plantation in Assam. It seems that Anand’s literary campaign against the British achieves thrust in ‘Coolie’ and attains its acme in the present novel. In this novel, we have the nastiest sample of a beastly, cruel and sex-maniac like Reggie Hunt and other sadist like Mrs. And Mr. Croft-Cooke. However, in order to attain the poise the author has put together the best of an Englishman in the portrayal of the estate doctor John de la Havre.

The characters composing ‘Two Leaves and a Bud’ fall into three classes: the exploited ones who are the protagonists of the piece; the exploiters who enjoy life at the cost of the underdogs and oppose change and progress; and the good souls who stand for liberty, equality and fraternity. The exploited ones comprise the Indian coolies like Gangu and Narain as well as their wives and children. They are the victims of an inhuman capitalist system that compels them to endanger their life and liberty for earning a living and thus makes them too powerless to resist oppression. The exploiters include not only the hard-headed and snobbish British managers like Croft-Crooke, Major Macara, Ralph and Reggie Hunt but also their Indian subordinates like Sardar Buta, Sardar Neogi, Babu Shashi Bhushan Bhattacharya, the mistris and the warders. All of them exploit the Indian coolies for their profit and pleasure but leave them in the lurch in times of need. In fact they do not look upon the Indian coolies as human beings but as beasts of burden and treat them accordingly. If a man like Dr. de la Havre tries to be good to the Indian coolies, they are opposed and eliminated by the capitalists and imperialists. He belongs to the third category of good-natured characters that treat all human beings as equals and try to make them happy by attending to their social, economic and medical needs. They hate capitalists and imperialists but support Marxists and humanists.

Though the title of the novel reflects that the work plucking tea leaves in an Arcadian landscape is very pleasant, it stands in the sharp contrast to the tragic clash of interests and destinies between the Indian coolies and the British managers of a tea state which it dramatizes in a realistic manner. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar observes, “But the logic, the intellectual framework of the novel triumphs over the human content. It is obvious that there is something of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ in Anand’s book: the atmosphere of suspicion and strife, the racial intolerance and antagonism, the small talk in the Club, the reign of prejudice and unreason. It is clear, too, that in portraying Reggie and the other unpleasant characters, Anand’s writing is infiltrated with disgust and hate. The artist is for the moment held down by the Angry Young Man.”  “I realize’, Anand said some fifteen years after writing the novel, “that the catharsis of a book lies ultimately in the pity, the compassion and understanding of an artist and not in his partiality.”1 Yet Anand had to tell this unvarnished tale of plantation life in the thirties, even as Dickens had to tell the truth about certain unsavoury aspects of Victorian life.1
However, Anand substantiates, “and yet I feel that this book had to be written, because what I had to say in it was deep in me from the days when I lived for a while near a plantation in Assam and visited Ceylon, and saw the inhumanity and barbarism prevalent there, with the consequent dehumanization of the colonials involved in the process.” So the novel is remarkable for its realism too. He further says, ”As I got into the book, I was biased in favour of my Indian characters and tended to caricature the English men and English women who play such a vital part in this bloom.”2

“If ‘Untouchable’, since it explores the impact of caste cruelty on the adolescent mind of Bakha, has a sort of piercing quality that is akin to the lyrical; if Coolie, with its enormous range and multiplicity in action and character, has an almost epic quality; then ‘Two Leaves and a Bud’ may be said to be essentially a ‘dramatic’ novel, and certainly it culminates in a tragic clash of interests and destinies, and what is fine is put out, and what is dark is triumphant. Again we start from a village in North Western India. Munoo’s peregrinations cover vast spaces of Northern and Western India; but Gangu crosses India horizontally from a village near Hoshiyarpur in Punjab to the McPherson Tea Estate in distant Assam. Whereas Bakha and Munoo are mere boys, Gangu is past middle age, and he takes with him his wife, Sajani, and his children, Leila and Budhu. The Tea Plantation is a world within a world (or a prison) apart…3

‘Two Leaves and a Bud’ describes the pathetic plight of the labourers in Assam tea-plantations. It deals with the problem of indentured labourers who had to lead a life of inhuman suppression. It describes the ruthlessness and injustice of India’s white rulers. The essential Reggie Hunt is a bundle of racial arrogance and colonial highhandedness. His basic theory about Indian coolies is that ‘they were congenitally lazy and needed constant goading. You had to be strong with them, for they respected you if you showed them that you were not a weakling!’ (p.48). Under this impression he has built for himself the image of a terrible tyrant with the plantation coolies. Narain says to Gangu about Reggie Hunt, “He is a very budmash sahib. He is always drunk. And he has no consideration for anyone’s mother or sister. He is openly living with three coolie women!” (p.42). Reggie’s insatiable cupidity is comparable to the sex-mania of Sahib in Raja Rao’s ‘Kanthapura’. Gangu, a Punjabi farmer, goes as a labourer to the tea plantations of Assam. His wife, Sajani, and his daughter, Leila also joined him. Reggie Hunt is fascinated by Leila’s blooming Punjabi beauty. One day he follows her. Leila runs to her hut and when Gangu comes to rescue her, he is shot dead by Reggie with bullets. Gangu’s wife also dies of a disease. The white jury tries the case and acquits Reggie Hunt.

Apart from his immoral sexual pursuits, Reggie Hunt subjects the coolies to brutal tortures and uncalled for beatings coupled with vulgar abuses. His flogging a coolie, striking him on the shins with his whip is a common episode. Undoubtedly, Reggie Hunt’s behaviour is outright immoral, inhuman and sadistic. He can go to any extreme to satisfy his sex hunger… from tempting a coolie woman with the promise of a gift to lashing her husband and even killing her father.

The theme of “Two Leaves and Bud” is the brutal but irremediable exploitation of labour by capital in human society. It is illustrated through the tragic clash of interests and destinies between the Indian coolies and the British managers of tea estates in Assam during the 1930s when India was a British colony. As Dr. John de la Havre points out, “the contents of a cup of tea are the hunger, the sweat and the despair of a million Indians!” He goes on to note in his diary, “On the tea plantations of Assam a man gets 8 d., for eight hours a day, a woman 6 d., and a child 3 d.; in the tea factories the worker earns 9 d. for an eight-hour working. The coolie suffers not only this low level of wages but frequently from indebtedness to his employers in outlandish districts where he is dependent upon the shops provided by the employers for his food stuffs, fuel, etc. This indebtedness, together with the isolation of the plantation, renders it difficult for him to seek employment elsewhere, and this practically reduces him to a life of economic slavery. His treatment often borders on the inhuman and chances of justice and redressal are chimerical.” He indignantly asks, “But why didn’t it occur to anyone- the simple, obvious thing that people don’t need to read Marx to realize here? The black coolies clear the forests, plant the fields, toil and garner the harvest, while the money grabbing, slave driving, soulless managers and directors draw their salaries and dividends and create monopolies.” He wryly comments that the British pretend to be champions of liberty and yet do not hesitate to enslave the Indians, “But the poor, bloody coolies sweat their guts out, working for four farthings a day, to the tune of Reggie Hunt guffaws. Hurrah for the Britons who never, never shall be slaves. Three cheers for the man who imprisons old Gangu on the plantation by false pretences, keeps him well guarded and refuses to give him a strip of land which he promised by contract. But what’s a contract with a slave? Less than a scrap of paper! And that’s your Empire!” (p.136)

The novel is poetic, brutal and realistic. It is full of satire against British capitalism. There is also a play of irony in the novel. The novel presents the theme of the exploitation of the under-privileged with far greater concentration than ‘Coolie’. Gangu is a victim of capitalism. Gangu comes to the plantation to start a new life; he ends up by losing his life. “Unlike Munoo, Gangu is presented in depth. He is one of the most complete and memorable portraits of Indian peasants in Anand’s fiction. He is the authentic figure, since he presents all those baffling contrasts which marked the pre-independence Indian peasant character… Thus, Gangu is at once gullible and shrewd. He laps up all the stories told by Buta about the plantation utopia to which he has been lured by the barber; and yet, at the same time, he is well aware that Buta is laying it on thick. Years of misery have made him a meek, passive and abject fatalist; yet, he is also capable of a sudden assertion of his will to live, as when he is digging his field…” 4

Dr. John de la Havre also observes that the British capitalists exploit not only the Indian coolies in the tea plantations of Assam but also the British workers in the manufacturing industries of Bradford and Manchester, in which they invest the large dividends drawn from the Assam Tea Company’s shares and the spoils of war. In those industries a British worker has to work sixty five hours a week for a shilling, and children under nine have to do two shifts a day for a pittance. The workers starve in barns while the industrialists live luxuriously in Gothic homes. Thus, the exploitation of labour by capital is a universal phenomenon.

This novel has a unified and well developed structure. It opens with Gangu’s arrival at the tea-estate, with the thought “Life is like a journey” in his mind; at the end, Gangu’s is finally over. In between is an exciting narrative, rich in incident and dramatic values. In spite of its wealth of character and episode, the novel maintains its unity, as every detail is woven round the central theme of Gangu’s exploitation. Another outstanding feature is the combination of poetry and irony which runs through the whole novel. In this novel too the artist is ultimately seen to have been overborne by the reformer.

However, William Walsh says, “The defect which constricts his real creative capacity is the habit of allowing his moral and social purposes to become separate from the particular actuality of the fiction, so that they frequently lead a collateral rather than a unified existence. This is accompanied by a certain passivity on the part of the characters, apt no doubt when they are the victims of circumstances, which they so frequently are, but out of place in those parts of his work where the individual should be more energetically active in the working out of his own nature.” 5 

 1. ‘Mulk Raj anand’, Indian Writing in English, op. cit., pp. 271-72
2. Introduction to “Two Leaves and a Bud”
3. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian writing in English (Sterling, Delhi, 1985), p.344
4. M. K. Naik, Mulk Raj Anand op. cit., p.43.
5. ‘India and the Novel’, The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, op. cit., p. 248. 

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