As a contemporary of writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh and Kamala Markandya, it is a fact that Manohar Malgonkar’s contribution to the genre we refer to today as Indian Writing in English (IWE) remains largely unacknowledged. Yet, this prolific writer of novels, short stories and essays, who passed his last days in a bucolic village near the Goa-Karnataka border, was one of the last of a generation that has living memories of events that changed our nation’s history and society in the most profound ways.
As the author of the novels A Bend in the Ganges, which traces the lives of three characters in the violent aftermath of Partition, or Distant Drum (his first novel, published in 1960), an eye-opening account of life in the Indian Army during the days of the Raj, Malgonkar’s contribution to the IWE canon is seminal and salutary. As someone who also wrote unselfconsciously thrilling novels such as Open Season, a film script later converted into a novel, A Spy in Amber, later made into the Hindi film Shalimar, and Bandicoot Run, a detective story, Malgonkar perhaps deserved to have been read more widely.
History obsessed Malgonkar. Author Ravi Belagare, who was one of the last people to have interviewed him and who has translated his books The Devil’s Wind and The Men Who Killed Gandhi into Kannada, says “Malgonkar was one of the Indian authors who based their novels on the British rule in India. His best books, according to me, are The Princes about an Indian royal family and A Bend in the Ganges.” Malgonkar often drew from his own experiences, using his stint in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, for instance, as a base for the book Distant Drum.
Apart from the historical novels that he made his forte, Malgonkar also wrote books of historical non-fiction such as Kanhoji Angrey (1959), Puars of Dewas Senior (1962) and Chhatrapatis of Kolhapur (1971). Related to a royal family from Maharashtra, Malgonkar retained an abiding fascination for Indian royals. A keen shikari in his day, Malgonkar later became an environmentalist, extending his support to environmental groups striving for the conservation of the Western Ghats in the Karwar and Belgaum regions since the 1990s.
The writer, whom RK Narayan once referred to as his “favourite Indian novelist in English”, was also translated into several European languages. A Padmanabhan, author of the book The Fictional World Of Manohar Malgonkar, refers to him as “a writer who has not yet received full critical attention as a significant Indo-English novelist. His major novels and short stories taken together reveal him as a writer keenly interested in Indian social life.”