Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Untouchable - Mulk Raj Anand

I had never read a book by Mulk Raj Anand before and was pretty excited when I saw this aged, dog eared copy lying along with many other books of the same vintage in a cupboard at home. Untouchable' is a slim 173 page novel published first in India in 1970 by Orient Paperbacks and I detected a price of Rs. 6 for which it was sold. This book was translated into twenty eight languages and was then the biggest selling work of Indian fiction by an Indian author. The title got me instantly and I was looking forward to how Mulk Raj Anand dealt with the subject in this novel.

'Untouchable' is a day in the life of Bakha, a sweeper who is generally relegated to cleaning latrines in the town of Bulandshahr. He is a young boy, perhaps sixteen or so, strong and good looking in his own way,  relegated to this work because of his birth in the caste of sweepers. His father Lakha held the position of being the jemadar of sweepers and he did the sweeping work of the barracks and Bakha was given the job of cleaning latrines. Even that job must be done with utter servility lest they lose their jobs. Bakha lives with his younger brother Rakha and sister Sohini, who is now growing up and is being eyed by the upper caste men. Their mother has passed away.

The day begins in the biting cold of North India, as the fashun obsessed Bakha goes and attends to his duties. He wonders why he must behave in this servile fashion, why he pollutes everyone by his touch, why he must announce his arrival so others can avoid him. He has seen how the angrez soldiers live and aspires for a life like that, of equality and to achieve that, he asks one of the babu's sons to teach him English for a price of an anna.

Anand describes tellingly how the boy has to bow his head, seek the attention of others if he wants to buy anything, leave his money on a special place so they can sprinkle water to purify it, and catch the merchandise that is thrown at him. The days turns worse when he buys jalebis in a rare celebration and in his excitement forgets to announce himself (sweeper coming, sweeper coming) and touches a high caste accidentally. The entire street stops and the touched man slaps him, causing the spirited Bakha to wonder at the unfairness of it all. At the well where the low castes cannot draw water, but wait for the high castes to do them a favour by drawing the water, his sister is harangued by the other low castes and becomes the subject of a high caste priest's attentions. The priest gives her water and tells her to come to his house for work where he promptly molests her and when she resists, shouts out to the world how she has polluted him. Bakha who is nearby rescues his sister, takes her home, burning with anger. Angry and frustrated, he still has to go out to beg for food as is the custom of all low castes and live on the leftovers of the high castes who throw the food at them. Bakha however he is treated well by the sepoy and hockey player who gifts him a new hockey stick for the hockey match the boys are to play that afternoon. Bakha thinks his luck is changing but unfortunately one of the higher caste boys gets injured in the match and Bakha once again becomes the subject of abuse.

Sickened by his plight and angered at his birth and the caste system, Bakha runs away wishing he were dead. He meets an English padre who tries to convert him, until his wife draws him away, angered at the presence of an untouchable. He is drawn to the speech by Mahatma Gandhi who comes to the city that day and is impressed as the Mahatma speaks of how untouchability is a crime and how he would like to be born again as an untouchable in his next birth, how untouchables should emancipate themselves, and how the wells and temples should be thrown open for everyone. Bakha is highly impressed because this is what he had been thinking too. And then the novel concludes as Bakha, while leaving the meeting of Gandhiji listens to an educated debate between two Indian scholars on the bane of untouchability. Bakha hurries home to tell his father that there is hope yet.

I am deeply impressed with the writing of the early Indian English fiction writers. Mulk Raj Anand tackles the tough subject head on, describing the deeds and the dirt without any hesitation, handles Bakha and his low caste friends well without any excessive drama or sympathy. Every single aspect of untouchability is brought out as it would happen in a day. Of course the deeper atrocities that were and are still being perpetrated in the name of caste are not dealt with - the murders, rapes, kidnappings, customs - that still prevail on a daily basis in rural India, maybe because that would take the focus off Bakha's story that is told with such simplicity. Bakha might not have withstood more atrocity, he would have killed someone with his spirit. Mulk Raj Anand brings a fine debate, the thoughts of the giant leaders in those days beautifully, to get across the message that casteism and untouchability are mere perversions of Hinduism brought in by insecure classes.

Apparently Mulk Raj Anand wrote this novel, a fictionalised account drawn from his 'confessions' to a girl he loved, a girl who told him to publish a novel if he desired her hand. He wrote it in three days. He also had a tough time convincing publishers in England and only after E.M.Forster liked the novel and agreed to write a foreword did a publisher come forward. Both Anand and Forster came under fire for the squalor in the book (actually the modern reader will wonder why they made such a hue and a cry, we are used to much much more these days) until it took off to become a huge hit.

There is much depth and layer in India that can be fictionalised and I am constantly surprised at the superficial subjects that our new writers choose. 'Untouchable' gives just a glimpse into what can be done if our writers decide to scratch below the surface and just show India as it is. Without apology or shame, without pandering to western audiences. Just as it is. In fact I saw a list by Orient Paperbacks at the end of the novel and it is a wonderful list of Indian writers and their books - R.K. Narayan, Amrita Pritam, Raja Rao, Manohar Malgaonkar and so many more. If you can get your hands on this book do read it. It is a fantastic piece of writing by one of our Masters.          

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