Mulk Raj Anand has been one of the prominent faces in Indian Writing in English. Untouchable was published in 1935 and is the major novel of the author. Though, the format of the novel is very simple as it talks about a day in the life of an untouchable who is belongs to the lowest social caste of India.
Though the novel is very simple, however, it exposes contradictions and oppressions in the classified society of the country. The protagonist of the novel Bakha is an intelligent and handsome boy but he is an outcast and untouchable as his presence and touch is considered impure and corruptive. Anand in this novel challenges the rules and barriers made for untouchables and argues for their education.
The novel was very well received both domestically and abroad as it highlights the social evils of society and fights for the rights of the untouchables. In India, many educated Indians were forced to think about how the internal caste system of India is preventing its progress and in abroad, authors like E.M. Forster saw a literary and historical significance in the novel.
Although today untouchability has been abolished to a great level, books like this raised awareness about inequalities and injustice done to untouchables. Many of the laws, rules and regulations were made after the publication of this book. The book stands out because it has a reference of one Mahatma Gandhi and Punjabi and Hindi idioms are used in this book abundantly after translating them into English.
The book is divided into different sections and the first sections starts with an imaginary town of Bulashah. The town is based on actual towns and city which existed within the country at that time. There are references to many Indian habits, the Hindu caste system and the British occupation of India which signify the time and place in the novel.
The book starts with an outcaste’s colony located in the outer of Bulashah. The protagonist and his family live in that colony. There is a presence of the third person who describes the colony through five senses and focuses on smell. He says that there is a choking smell in the place which makes it unsuitable to reside. The conclusion of the place is described by the protagonist of the novel, Bakha.
Lakha who is the leader of all Bulashah’s sweepers has an eldest son Bakha who is 18 years old who is very intelligent and vain. He is obsessed with British dress and habits. This obsession makes him reject the customs of his own country and he favours the Tommies because of their dress and customs.
There is a stained relationship between Bakha and his father as he rejects Indian culture and his father is very lazy when it comes to their jobs as sweepers. After Bakha’s mother demise, his father becomes even lazier. Bakha has now become the head of the family who takes up the responsibility of sweeping work.
There are many incidents in Bakha’s life like his relationship with his father and his low-class life which he leads as a sweeper which makes us sympathetic towards him but it is very difficult for the readers to relate with him. His immature and biased adoration of Britishers in India seems offensive and contradictory to modern-day readers. The motive behind him doing so is to escape the harsh realities of his life.
Sohini, Bakha’s younger sister is a much more sympathetic character than Bakha. She is a peaceful, calm and composed woman and tries her best to share Bakha’s burden as the head of the family. Sohini tries her best to accept the hatred of people towards her and accepts her reality as untouchable. Though Gulabo’s behaviour towards Sohini is a caricature of the actual treatment received by untouchables, however, there is no evidence to deny the behaviour.
All the themes and symbols make an appearance in the introductory part of the novel. Bakha uses clothing as a medium to differentiate between Hindu and Muslim. There is also rejection of Indian roots when we see Bakha dressed up as an Englishman as he wants to create a link between himself and his cloth representation.
Cyclical oppression can also be seen in the novel as Bakha’s father was born as untouchable so he and his siblings become untouchables for the rest of their lives. Class struggle can be witnessed in the novel from the beginning in the conversation between Sohini and Gulabo and Bakha and Charat Singh. Charat Singh promises to give a hockey stick to Bakha out of charity.
There are instances of flashbacks, hyperboles and other devices in the novel. Bakha goes into flashback while lying awake and waiting for his day to begin as to how his mother cared for him when she was alive.
When Gulabo’s hurls insults at Sohini she uses many hyperbolic attacks calling her a slut who shows her teeth unnecessarily in the male presence. After Sohini’s confrontation with Gulabo Sohini feels that something in her heart asks for mercy. Here we see that her heart is given the ability to speak.
We can very well say that the novel reaches its climax in its early phases. The novel sees its climax when a high-class man accidentally touches and then slaps Bakha in the town centre of Bulashah. This scene impacts the upcoming interactions and events in the novel. This moment stays in Bakha’s mind for the whole book and impacts his choices and behaviour to a great extent.
The climax also highlights some of the major themes of the novel. The first theme we see here is the untouchable’s responsibility theme. Although it is the man who touches Bakha accidentally, he places the whole blame on Bakha’s shoulders. He accuses Bakha of not maintaining the distance with him and not announcing his presence.
Bakha then has an additional responsibility of maintaining the distance between him and high-class people and also between him and the angry group which gathers around him after he gets scolded, even though he wants to run away. Yet again we see that keeping the high class pure is the responsibility of the untouchable.
The verbal abuses hurled at Bakha when he touches the man is used without any censors by the public as well as the man. The Punjabi idioms are translated into English for easy understanding and the phase gets a very decorative language. Some of the language and anger of the high caste can prove to be amusing for readers as the grievances of the high class is overrated.
However, the use of verbal abuses against Sohini and Bakha is highly unacceptable. Both of them experience this behaviour for the first time and do not realize that this can soon turn into physical abuse. We can also find inter and intra caste conflict in the novel. Though all the friends of Bakha including Chota and Ram Charan are also untouchables but Bakha is a sweeper and ranks lowest in the caste among his friends.
The difference comes into the picture when all the friends discuss the marriage of Ram Charan’s sister. Bakha has feelings for his sister but he cannot think of achieving them even in his dreams. Besides the caste, the girls’ mother Gulabo might become a staunch opposer in their marriage. The struggle between different castes comes to light when Bakha thinks about lack of education.
Bakha cannot go to school because his presence will pollute the environment and due to this none of the teachers and principals want to admit him to the school. He has been forbidden to read, write, and calculate as he is an untouchable which puts him at a disadvantage of the higher castes. The educational barrier to untouchables highlights the cyclical oppression theme.
As they cannot learn anything significant at school or get a good job the untouchables cannot rise in society just by changing the professions. The lack of educational opportunities makes a vicious circle for untouchables of suffering, poverty and oppression. Another example of cyclical oppression is when Bakha asks a shopkeeper to give him candy the shopkeeper gives him less candy than the actual money and tries to cheat him.
This implies that the candy is much more expensive for Bakha than it would be for a non-untouchable individual. The higher prices for untouchables push them towards the dead-end of poverty. It feels very nonsensical to raise money for any product for those who cannot afford it even at the base price.
The religious theme is also embedded in the novel to the core. For instance, when Bakha asks a Muslim man for some coal to light his cigarette he does so without any grudges and also uses the same coal which has been used by Bakha which a Hindu would not have done. This shows how religion divides the people to a great extent.
When Bakha is slapped by a high-class person, the Muslim merchant is shocked and concerned about him, unlike the Hindu man who is ignorant of these petty but major things. The compassion Muslim man shows to Bakha gives the novel a relieving factor. There are different similes and metaphors which have been used in the novel freely.
When Bakha stops for fresh air after escaping the smoky world of refuse he feels liberated but his liberation is short-lived as he is untouchable and will always be treated like one. At the end of the novel, we see some hope when there is a shadow of Bakha going to share his stories of the machine with his father.