Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anad - A Review

In Mulk Raj Anand's finest and most controversial novel he conveys precisely, with urgency and barely disguised fury, what it might feel like to be one of India's Untouchables.

"Bakha is a young man, proud and even attractive, yet none the less he is an outcast in India's caste system: an Untouchable."

I can not imagine that period of India but I am pretty sure that situation is not exaggerated. There are plenty of literature on caste system by many great authors which are equally or even more touching e.g. Premchand, & Sharat chand. This novel describes a single day in the life of Bakha, the untouchable belonging to the scavenger caste, commonly known as bhangi in many Indian languages. The work of this caste was to clean toilets and streets and keep them clean for the upper castes. The scavenger had to carry the human refuse from the toilets and burn that in a chimney near his house. This caste was considered to be lowermost in the hierarchy of castes in India and were treated worse than humans.

Author beautifully describes the typical day in a small British town neighbouring the soldiers' barracks. The behaviour of the upper caste Hindus even the so-called sanyasis are not free from the mentality of the caste-system. The opportunism displayed by the Christian priest who has no aim of improving the untouchable's life except converting him to Christianity, the division amongst caste-lines even in the untouchables' colony is depicted realistically. Naturally, Bakha is attracted towards the soldiers who do not treat him as badly as the civilians. He dreams of being like one of those, because for him it is a ticket out of his terrible world.

Be prepared to be shocked by the behaviour of the Hindu society of those times.

The story goes on to show even more examples of the harsh treatment of untouchables. Reading this book has given me an even better idea of the realities of the untouchables. Nothing in their lives is made easy, and it reminds me of all that we take for granted. At the end of Bakhas day he finds himself following a crowd of people who are going to hear Gandhi speak in town. Bakha listens attentively to Gandhi’s speech and much of it strikes a chord in Bakhas heart. Towards the end of the novel, the poet, when discussing a speech by Gandhi explains how caste has undergone structural changes because of "the legal and sociological basis of caste having been broken down by the British-Indian penal code, which recognises the rights of every man before a court, caste is now mainly governed by profession. When the sweepers change their profession, they will no longer remain Untouchables".   However, this is a challenge that cannot easily be met because of the political reasons.

But, it is Gandhiji's talk that reforms Bakha's thoughts to some extent. In the assembly, he overhears someone telling the people about modern toilets, where the human excreta will be flushed out automatically, thereby putting an end to this sub-human activity. He realises that the salvation of his community is not in any religious conversion or running away from there, but in modern technology. The story ends with Bakha pondering over this feature of technology, which is hailed as the saviour of his kind.

This book is highly recommended. It engages the reader from beginning to end. Being short the book appealed to me because it contained the harrowing subject matter. 


  1. I did not find the behavior of the Hindu society as depicted in the novel as shocking. Even today we look at the beggars with contempt and many amongst privileged even mistreat them. The reality of the untouchables during those times was similar to those of the beggars today and I was aware of this reality even before reading this novel; I also believe that many of my classmates are also aware of it, even if they have not read this novel.
    I think that you have missed what the novel does when viewed as a whole. Firstly, it shows us that the outcastes regarded themselves as inferior to others and that they fancied the ways of these whom they considered as superior. It shows us the hard work that they had to do in order to make the ends meet. Inspite of the hard work they were abused by the upper castes and ill treated even when they were trying to help. Later, after a jagged course of ups and downs, the novel presents us with three solutions:
    The first solution is that of Hutchinson, the Salvationist missionary: Jesus Chirst. But though Bakha is touched at hearing that Christ receives all men, irrespective of caste, he is bored because the missionary cannot explain him who Christ is. Then follows the second solution: the one offered by Gandhi. Gandhi too says that all the Indians are equal and the account of the Brahmin doing the sweepers job goes straight to the heart of Bakha. Hard upon this comes the third solution, put through the mouth of a modernist poet. According to him, untouchability is very much due to the work the untouchables do. The solution is the use of modern machines to do the work the untouchables do.
    You are also unaware of the favorable status that Mulk Raj Anand held in the Indian society to have written such a novel about the Untouchables during those times (the novel was published in 1935.). The Untouchable could have been written only by an Indian who observed from the outside. No European, whoever sympathetic could have created the character of Bakha, because he would not have known enough of his troubles. And no Untouchable could have written about the novel because he would be involved in self-pity. Mulk raj’s position seems to the ideal one for such novels. Inspite of being from the uppercaste (to be precise he was Kshatriya –source internet), he did not inherit the pollution-complex. “Anand's literary career was launched by family tragedy, instigated by the rigidity of the caste system. His first prose essay was a response to the suicide of an aunt, who had been excommunicated by his family for sharing a meal with a Muslim”. (Source is again internet.)

    Apurva Manvar

  2. Adding to your analysis I feel, through his writings Mulk Raj Anand has revealed that in addition to the foreign colonialism of Britain there existed layers of colonialism within Indian society. Most of the problems of India were self created. This internal colonialism stood in the way of India's transition to a modern civil society. This view only reiterates the conclusion that political freedom alone will not solve human misery.
    The society in the pre-independence time was divided on the basis of occupation. Infact people had accepted the prevalent system considering it as their fate to be born in a Brahmin family or in any inferior caste. But the protagonist Bakha clearly had trouble accepting the identity allotted to him at birth. His desperate attempt to erase the stigma of untouchability from life represents the changing mindset amongst the lower caste people who were willing to bring some dignity to their life.
    The author criticizes the social injustice with his powerful words. He rips apart the hypocrisy of the powerful. Meaninglessness of worship and its uselessness when it is not practiced is stressed. The book is also a small reminder of ignorance of strength by the lower caste and the need for moral rejuvenation. Above all, ‘any social revolution should be practical’ is another message the book manages to convey.
    Though written in pre-independence era the book still holds its importance as the stigma of casteism still has its grip in the society. ‘Untouchable’ is a reminder for us to be aware of the unsolved questions.