Untouchable as a Social Novel
Table of Contents
Untouchable is a social novel with great social concerns which focuses on the social consciousness and some of the worst customs and traditions which authorize the caste Hindus to exploit the outcastes for their selfish interests. Hindu society in the 1930s practiced untouchability and treated the untouchables as pigs. They forced the lower creatures (the outcastes) to live sub-human lives like beasts. The novel vehemently denounces the caste system and exposes the callousness and hypocrisy of the caste Hindus who consider themselves the custodians of Hindu cultural heritage.
Deplorable Plight of the Untouchables
The opening of the novel reveals the ignominious, impoverished and deplorable plight of the untouchables. Anand depicts the plane where the children of lesser God are compelled to live. Anand write “The outcastes” colony was a group of mud-walled houses that clustered together in two rows. A brook ran near the lane, once with crystal clear water, now sailed by the dirt and filth of the public latrines situated about it, the odour of the hides and skins of dead carcasses left to dry on its banks, the dungs of donkeys, sheep, horses, cows and buffaloes heaped up to made into fuel cakes.
The absence of a drainage system had, through the rains of the various seasons, made of the quarter a marsh which gave out the most offensive smell. The ugliness, the squalor and the misery which lay within it, made it an uncongenial’ place to live in.” The untouchables are not only poor, under-fed, malnourished but their self-respect is lacerated. They are diseased. But they have no access to doctors and medicines.
Apathy of the Caste Hindus
The untouchables are compelled to live like pigs. They are subjected to misery and adversity by the indifferent and apathetic caste-Hindus. They cannot use water from the well, for this would contaminate the water and the entire periphery of the well. They have to wait for hours for a pitcher of water. They can get water only if a caste-Hindu condescends. They cannot fulfill even the basic needs of their lives unless the caste-Hindu benefactor throws alms on them. They depend totally on the mercy of caste Hindu Lord. Bakha wanders in search of bread. A caste Hindu throws a loaf of bread at him. Bakha feels extremely offended and mortified.
The Rigidity, Religious Bigotry & Hypocrisy
A touch of an outcaste Hindu can pollute the holiness of the caste Hindus. Bakha is slapped in public when he touches a caste Hindu. He is not guilty at all. Bakha is embarrassed when he thinks that he has been punished for the sin he never committed. Tears welling up in his eyes blur his vision. He walks through the bazar crying, “Posh, posh, sweeper ‘coming”. He can retaliate but traditions and culture have chained him everywhere and rendered him helpless. He has no spiritual certitude to enable him to ward off temptation. His rigid respectability fight against waves of amorousness and he cowers to molest Sohini appears all the more offensive because of his accusing her and her brother of defiling him at the temple when the attempt is foiled. This brings into sharp focus the hypocrisy, the double standards and the perfidy underlying the façade of purity and spirituality. It is ironic that the Brahmin, the custodian of culture in India’, as Trinayya calls him, makes an unashamed attempt to violate one of the fundamental codes of culture. The innocent Bakha and Sohini become victims of the conventional moral code. Christian and Muslim do not practise untouchability. It is rigidity, religious bigotry and hypocrisy of Hinduism which has segregated the untouchable and exploited them ruthlessly.
Moral and Ethical Bankruptcy Caused by Servitude
Bakha can retaliate and take his revenge on Pandit Kalinath, but thousand years of servility and captivity paralyses him even when he vaguely thinks of retaliation. Bakha is surrounded by barriers, not a physical barrier because he is physically strong enough to deal the tyrants. Anand writes, “He felt he could kill them all.” But the next moment he realizes his limitations. The idea of revenge ceased. He realized the he is an outcaste. He cannot change his fate.
- Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand Summary
- Humanism in Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable
- Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand | Themes
Irony, the Instrument of Social Satire
Untouchable is a scathing indictment of Hindu society and irony is the weapon of this indictment. Saros Cowasjee remarks, “Since the social impulse is at the heart of Anand’s writing, he finds irony which works largely through contrasting appearance with reality a particularly useful tool to destroy the myth about “contentment”, “mystical silence”, and “spiritual attainments” built round the Indian character by the 19th century novelists. Untouchability which can have no moral, religious or even aesthetic sanction, is singularly vulnerable to an ironic treatment. E.M. Forster writes,
“Really it take the human mind to evolve anything so devilish. No animal could have hit on it.”
Ironic Treatment of Caste Hindus and the English
Irony is an expression in which the intended meaning of the words is the opposite of their usual sense. Although it is implicit in the theme but one finds it everywhere. Anand’s novels are known for irony. The novel opens with a child of modern and developing India chained by age old traditions. The Hindus who are proud of their immaculate cleanliness, they themselves pollute the river by performing rituals and indict the outcaste for polluting them. The Hindu culture and tradition which boast of tolerance, liberalism, treat the sweepers like animals.
The Missionary persuades Bakha to convert to Christianity. But he himself fails to transform his luxurious and voluptuous wife. His wife who has got a weakness for modern fashion, love and enjoyment. But the missionary does not share anything with his wife except monotonous preaching.
Untouchable is a novel of 1930s when India was a British colony. Hindu society was infamous for practicing untouchability, Mahatma launched a campaign to eradicate untouchability and he continued his jihad against untouchability. Bakha, who opposed social discrimination and oppression and injustice, had his own limitations.
Appeal of the Novel in Modern Era
Anand’s protest against the miserable life of the untouchables acquires a new significance in the context of numerous recent incidents of atrocities, committed by Hindus on the Harijans. How they are burnt alive or killed in cold blood, deprived of their land and, houses is a sordid story with no parallel in history to match it. It is a matter of great irony that most of the political parties in India have professed at one stage or the other to be true Gandhians but little substantial has been done for the emancipation of the untouchables. Political promises to alleviate their sufferings are just a lip service, as nothing very concrete has been done to introduce flush system in all the cities and villages of the country.
So, Anand’s vision and insight into the plight of the untouchables are relevant even today. Although Anand was inspired by missionary zeal, the novel is not simply a piece of propaganda rather an artistic expression to the sufferings of those people who are subjected to live their lives like swines. But the marvel of the novel has its aesthetic appeal too.