Book Review: ‘Untouchable’ by Mulk Raj Anand - A Journey Towards the Tormenting Caste System

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“Kala admi zamin par hagne wala (black man, you who relieve yourself on the ground).”

This line puts a great empathy to what is the main purpose of this book, it was just a very small effort to show the outraged yet very renowned Indian Caste System.

The novel will simply shake your conscience. 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.

Introduction

Book's Title - Untouchable 

Author - Mulk Raj Anand

Genre - Novel, Fiction

Language - English

About the Book

This is a short novel, under one hundred and sixty pages, but it leaves you with profound thoughts. Set in pre-independent India, Untouchable is a dirty story. You’ll know why I said that when you read the delightful Preface by E.M Forster.

This is a story of an ordinary lad, who is conscious of his status in society and yet can’t help but question its unfairness.

The book was inspired by his aunt's experience when she had a meal with a Muslim woman and was treated as an outcast by her family. The plot of this book, Anand's first, revolves around the argument for eradicating the caste system. 

It depicts a day in the life of Bakha, a young "sweeper", who is "untouchable" due to his work of cleaning latrines.

Untouchable is the first novel by Mulk Raj Anand. A classic! A novel which imprints a character sketch in our heart and then spells out some solutions too for the poignant states of affairs. Simply excellent!!!

About the Author

Mulk Raj Anand was an Indian writer in English, notable for his depiction of the lives of the poorer castes in traditional Indian society. One of the pioneers of Indo-Anglian fiction, he, together with R. K. Narayan, Ahmad Ali and Raja Rao, was one of the first India-based writers in English to gain an International readership.

 Anand is admired for his novels and short stories, which have acquired the status of classics of modern Indian English literature; they are noted for their perceptive insight into the lives of the oppressed and for their analysis of impoverishment, exploitation and misfortune. 

He became known for his protest novel “Untouchable” (1935), followed by other works on the Indian poor such as “Coolie” (1936) and “Two Leaves and a Bud” (1937). He is also noted for being among the first writers to incorporate Punjabi and Hindustani idioms into English, and was a recipient of the civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan.

Synopsis - Spoiler Alert!

As the novel begins, Bakha is reporting for another day of latrine cleaning at the behest of his father, an ill-tempered bully named Lakha. While cleaning the latrine of a famous street hockey player named Charat Singh, the man invites Bakha to visit him later in the day. He promises to give Bakha a hockey stick as a gift.

When Bakha comes home, his sister Sohini leaves to get water for them. She travels to the communal well. However, the Untouchables are not able to dip their own water—the upper caste Hindus believe that the touch of an under-caste will pollute the well, which would then have to be subjected to lengthy and expensive purification rituals.

A priest named Kali Nath arrives and, taken with Sohini’s beauty, agrees to pour water for her. He then invites her to the temple courtyard later in the day so that she can clean it.

Bakha moves through the streets, sweeping. He accidentally brushes up against a Brahmin Hindu, who begins to shout that he has been polluted by Bakha. The man shouts at Bakha as a mob gathers, joining in the insults. 

The man slaps Bakha before a Muslim cart driver breaks up the fight and disperses the mob. The Muslim man does not care about the Hindu castes, since he is also treated as an Untouchable.

Bakha goes to the temple and looks inside, which is forbidden to him. But before he is caught, Sohini appears, crying. The priest who invited her to clean the temple is there, accusing her of polluting him with her touch. 

Sohini claimed that he sexually assaulted her by grabbing her breasts while she was cleaning the lavatory. It was only when she rejected him that he began shouting that she had touched him. Bakha tells her to go home and says he will take responsibility for gathering food.

He spends the rest of the afternoon begging for food, all while being subjected to various indignities and cruelties from the upper caste Hindus. He is increasingly disgusted with the mistreatment he suffers, and when he gets home he tells his father the story about the man who hit him. 

His father insists that the upper Hindus are good and kind, and reminds Bakha that when he was an infant, a Hindu doctor came to their home and saved Bakha's life when he had a fever.

Bakha attends the wedding of the sister of one of his friends. After he tells two of his friends the story of the man hitting him, one of them proposes that they take revenge on the man.

Bakha considers it, but he understands that he will only get himself and his family in trouble if he retaliates. The Untouchables have no recourse for justice.

After collecting his hockey stick from Charat Singh, Bakha joins a game of street hockey. During the game, a fight begins and the two teams throw rocks at each other.

One of the rocks hits a little boy in the head. Bakha picks him up and carries him to his mother, who recognizes him as a street sweeper. Even though he is trying to help she screams that he has polluted her son.

At home, Bakha's father is furious that Bakha has been away all afternoon. He kicks Bakha out of the house. Bakha makes his way to a train station where he hears a rumor that Mahatma Gandhi is coming there to give a speech. Bakha stays until Gandhi arrives. 

Gandhi's speech condemns the caste system and urges the people to follow his example of non-violent protest. Bakha is enthused by the speech, but does not know enough to determine whether Gandhi's suggestions are naive.

After the speech, Bakha overhears two educated men, a poet and a lawyer, debating the merits of Gandhi's speech. The lawyer believes that Gandhi's aims are childish and irrational. Long standing traditions are rarely overturned, and he believes that the caste system will endure despite protests for reform.

The poet believes that the barbarism of the caste system will be eliminated, particularly in light of the fact that the flushing toilet is rumored to be coming to their town.

Personal Verdict:

On a larger canvas, the author must have viewed the untouchable living in all of us. Citizens deprived of rights and burdens with obligations. The hurdle we have to overcome and how knowledge, civilization and technology can make a better world. 

However, I wish to believe that the obvious is the intended. 

We don’t have to imagine for the sake of it where the obvious give a handful of duty and responsibility. There is another strong message I felt from the novel. Most of the problems of India were self created.

The British could rule India only because the masses were not seriously disturbed by their presence. In the novel, the protagonist is not fearful of the British. This view only reiterates the conclusion that political freedom alone will not solve human misery.

The Bottom Line 

The author's experience as an Indian, and the fact that Untouchable was written while the caste system was firmly in place, give the novel an authenticity and accuracy that make it easy to empathize with Bakha and his family. 

Untouchable is a unique opportunity for readers to experience the plight of the victims of the caste system. At the same time, the story identifies the complexities of Indian identity after the Great War as India emerges from post colonialism to globalism.

The book definitely proffers an excellent look of an Indian society of pre-Independence era, how life functioned then. It’s something we can’t imagine because our lives and our society are so vastly different from that.

It’s slightly slow paced as it gradually follows the events, thoughts meandering in Bakha through one single day.

Nevertheless, ‘Untouchable’ is hailed as a masterpiece and so it is. It’s a great book and a must read for anyone interested in Indian English Fiction or Literature.

Buy your own copy from Amazon - Untouchable

Written By - Resmita Barai


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