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.