Mulk Raj Anand has been one of the important pillars of Indian Writing in English. He has written many novels and one of his prominent works is Coolie. Anand has always voiced the untouchables and less privileged and this novel yet again highlights this theme. Coolie is a picaresque and episodic novel.
It focuses on the story of Munoo, a boy who keeps on moving from place to place, city to city and town to city, North to South and then back to North. Apart from Munoo, there is no causal relationship between events and serious incidents. Everything is a result of chance and accident. Munoo just drifts along with the situation passively.
The entire life of Munoo can be divided into four phases – Doulatpur, Sham Nagar, Shimla and Bombay. In all the phases, he meets many people and with most of them, his contact is very minimal. All of them are visible in a particular chapter and then they fade away in the next chapter to not return. The plot of the novel is not very compact as there are five disconnected and different episodes.
The only relation between all the episodes is Munoo as he is the one who takes part in all of them. All the material present in the novel has been provided with unity and form. The events may not have a logical unity but they do have thematic unity. Some of the major themes of the novel are the suffering and exploitation of the poor, the underdog and millions of others in the sub-continent.
The British reign had dehumanized and deteriorated the exploited and they lose all sense of self-respect and dignity and flatter and caring for their right to life. All the phases of Munoo’s life have been linked thematically and there is a deeper meaning which keeps on digging in the principal theme.
The complicated and vast material which Anand has brought in this panoramic material has been formalized and organized through a wonderful pattern of contrasts and parallelism. Nathoo Ram’s wife founds a competitor in Ganpat and he founds his in Jimmie Thomas. Prabh Doyal and his wife find a parallel in Lakshmi, Ratan and Hari.
All over the novel, we find an abundant amount of suffering and poverty. The poor and rich lives are in utter contrast to each other. The rural life has been carefully and intricately contrasted with the modern one. Munoo’s exploitation through the village landlord’s hands is contrasted by Munoo’s own at all four phases.
Munoo is the consciousness centre of the novel and we get to see all the action through his perspective. Everything around him is depicted the way it would appear to a child and it has the zeal for life, curiosity and spiritedness of a kid. We see that the point of view is of a true child, who brings all the material in focus and formalizes it.
A child surveys the whole Indian sub-continent in the novel. No characters are caricatures and none of the incidents are happening with the flow. It is the true and factual experience of a child. Anand has a Dickens like capacity to enter into a child’s mind and look at the world through his eyes.
The Simla episode, which is the last phase in Munoo’s career is said to be the weakest part of the novel. There is nothing logical and natural in the episode and it has a raw and boring device of a chance car accident. It is an entirely obsolete and unnecessary part of the novel. M.K. Naik calls it to be a completion of Munoo’s social picture as he steps into the world of elites.
After a vivid and realistic Bombay episode, the last part seems to be an anti-climax. Bombay episodes end with the arrival of the Simla episode. C.D. Narasimhaier is of the wish that if the chapter had been cut off the sufferings of Munoo would have lessened. As per his observance, the anti-climax has nothing to contribute to the final assessment of the novel or Munoo.
Saros Couresjee is one of the acceptable characters of the novel. According to him, Munoo is correctly taken out from the horrors of Bombay city and he is allowed to gain some of his identity before his demise. The novel is given an apt finale as the boy who has come from hills to town finally gets the peace and solitude of hills.
There is an objectionable scene when Anand emphasises a lot on an Anglo-Indian woman which makes the hero fade away. However, with his tired lungs who are pulling rickshaw for Mrs Mainwaring, he manages to catch our attention. His death reminds us of him being the hero of the novel.
The chapter is criticized not because of Anand’s ingenuine portrayal of Mrs Mainwaring but because of her space in the novel. Anand allures us when he tries to glorify the Anglo-Indian community, which already faces many abuses in Indian fiction. Anand’s concern is social and human rather than artistic.
Apart from excessive stress on the lady, the episode rounds off the complete fate circle of Munoo who represents the oppressed class and completes the novelist’s vision of life. It brings out the richness and the life of the lower class which has been an untouched area so far.
Homi K Bhabha’s theory of hybrid identity is brought out through the character of Mrs May Mainwaring who has come from an Anglo-Indian origin. She tries her best to fit in the society where she is living and wants to go to England to learn the high class’s manners. However, even there she is neglected by white men at Viceroy’s ball.
Munoo suffers from identity loss as he is always transferred from one place to another during his journey. However, when he is ill-treated for becoming a coolie, he understands that he belongs to a warrior clan. He is happy to see people hailing from hills just like him. Like every other Indian, he is averse to the behaviour of Englishmen but he desires to see what goes on in a Viceroy’s ball.
Apart from Babu Nathoo Ram and Sir Todar Mal who are servants of the British Empire, Major Merchant’s character just like that of mimic men of Homi K Bhabha. He studies in a Christian School, goes to England for higher studies, marries a white girl, cuts off his roots from the cobbler caste and adopts the name Merchant. He is very close to Mrs Mainwaring.
Anand brings out the harmful effects of colonialism on the mentality of people. He talks about the inferiority complex which has been fed in the minds of Indians and talks about Munno’s submissive soul. When the head announces that the company is going to shut down, the coolies beg him as they consider him to have some kind of divine power.
The racial discrimination of coolies is shown when Munoo goes to a shop in Bombay and asks for soda water. He is made to sit on the ground as he is a coolie and when is chased away he feels guilty of interfering in a rich man’s world. The behaviour of Englishmen highlights their superiority complex as they consider natives to be worthless.
When the coolies of cotton mills pay respect to their foreman Jimmie Thomas they are greeted with a kick or an abuse. Anand points out sharp contrast here saying that Thomas and Mr England have been poor in the past and led a miserable life which they have forgotten now. He also brings forth the tendency of people to imitate their rulers which is called national bourgeoise as per Frantz Fanon’s theory.
The characters like Ganpat, Nathoo Ram and Sir Todar Mal ill-treat the poor and are proud to be associated with the British. We also get to see that Munoo thinks himself to be better than other coolies because he can write and read and looks at all the beggars and lepers on the streets with hatred.
This makes us realize that even the lower caste do not preach equality as well. The idea is confirmed when communal riots break out during trade union meeting. Indians had a strong community sense with which they associated a lot and the same virtue was misused by the British for divide and rule.
Although the story deals with oppressions faced by the working population, few parts of colonial resistance are brought out through Ratan, Trade Union personnel and Mohan, another coolie who had worked with Munoo in Simla. Ratan is a wrestler who does not bear any harassment from the foreman and the foreman is also influenced by him and pays him full wages.
Ratan aspires Munoo to stand up for himself and enjoy life as well. Ratan enrols Hari and Munoo in the Trade Union. Sauda is another activist of the Trade Union who makes all the coolies realize that they are the victims of extortions and abuses and they need to get respect in the society.
The theory of Frantz Fanon comes into the picture which emphasizes gaining one’s nativism as the coolies start looking beyond their boundaries of inferiority complexes. The totality of the range of exploitation can be understood when he says that people like them are deprived of their rights and nobody except themselves respect each other.
This idea is further supported throughout the novel when we see that Munoo wants to become a Babu or a high-class gentleman but then he realizes that he is just a coolie or a low-class servant who cannot aspire to dream big. Munoo is however inspired when Sauda tells him that human beings are not soulless and they have the right to live a happy life. This particular scene brings out Frantz Fanon’s idea of lumpen-proletariat as the flagbearers of revolution.
The novel is unique in the sense that it voices the exploited and underprivileged section of society who do not have any voice for themselves. It portrays the ugly truth that happiness only belongs to the rich and the poor have to suffer everywhere whether it is Bombay, Simla, or Kangra Hills.