Untouchable Novel Themes
Table of Contents
Mulk Raj Anand as a novelist flourished during the thirties when Gandhian struggle for independence touched its highest limit, and he could not segregate himself from Gandhi’s compassion for the social pariahs, the suffering and the poor. Anand loved and appreciated the human concerns and values. His early novels reflect protest. They are window to the life of the oppressed and the oppressors and they emphasize human misery with realistic approach to the problem but he is a big fiasco when he does neither furnish any solution to the most critical problem of untouchability nor does show the possibility of a better future.
Anand with his entity is the creation of these influences. He pleads and believes in ‘art for art’s sake’. His doctrine as a writer focuses on the amelioration of the plight of the have nots and elimination and eradication of social evils must be given top priority. Anand thinks artists can contribute to realize the creation of a world worth living for all without discrimination. Fancy and romanticism never yield any solutions to the burning problem of society. So Anand makes an instrument of his humanism to realize the making of an utopia on earth. Untouchable is no exception in this context.
Theme of Discrimination and Segregation
Anand is touched with pity at the deplorable plight of the untouchables. The untouchables are segregated and discriminated against the rest of society. The colony does have several outcastes including washermen and leather workers but the scavengers hold the lowest rank in the hierarchy of castes. They deserve least human love and sympathy as ordained by the age old Vedic tradition. They have been subjected to sub-human status. In some respects animals are better than untouchables because they are at large to use their surroundings without polluting them.
Anand never harps on theme of romantic love affairs. The very choice of the theme was an intrepid step towards discouraging untouchability. He sailed against the current by making a sweeper the hero of his novel and it earned him the wrath of orthodox and fanatic caste Hindus. Anand portrays this predicament vividly,
“The outcastes were not allowed to mount the platform surrounding the well, because if they were ever to draw water from it, the Hindus of the three upper castes would consider the water polluted. Nor were they allowed access to the nearby brook as their use of it would contaminate the stream. They had no well of their own. They had to collect at the foot of the caste Hindu’s well and depend on the bounty of some of their superior to pour water into their pitchers.”
Theme of Social Realism
Anand is not quixotic about his principles and ideology. He is very pragmatic and realistic in his approach to the problem of untouchability. The theme of the novel is based on his childhood experiences. Anand has firsthand experience of the untouchables and their surroundings. As a child he used to play with the untouchable boys. Bakha, the hero’s life is authentic. As E.M. Forster says,
“Untouchable could only have been written by an Indian, and by an Indian who observed from the outside. No European, however, sympathetic, could have created the character of Bakha, because he would not have known enough about his troubles.”
Theme of Untouchability
The cruelty and tyranny perpetrated on Bakha was peculiar to the untouchables alone although they shared the common hardship and indignity with other outcastes. Everybody detects them and loathes to accept anything from them or to give anything to them. The confectioner picks the coin after washing it when Bakha exchange it for some sweets. They wrap them in paper and throw as a butcher throws a bone to a dog; they are not entitled to relish fresh and good food so they subsist on leavings of food and stale food, considered sumptuous enough for the untouchables. They are denied entrance to temple even though they are Hindus. They believe that the untouchable could defile gods and goddesses and even the premises of the temple. This hypocrisy of Hindu tradition is well portrayed by Anand,
“Get off the steps, scavenger ! Off with you! You have defiled our temple ! Now we will have to pay for the purificatory ceremony. Get down, get away, dog !…”
The Vicious Circle
Thousand years of slavery has left an irrevocable marks upon the life and psyche of the untouchables. Weakness corrupts, and absolute weakness corrupts absolutely. Bakha, a scavenger boy is caught in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. Destined or subjected to clean dung and live in squalor, he has to survive on food left over by the caste Hindus and for water depends on the mercy of so called patrons of Hindu tradition. Health and hygiene are useless words for them. Neat and clean life is still a distant dream for them. The fact that they are untouchables seems to be the only reason to perpetuate the ostracism and their sufferings merge with eternity.
Theme of Servility
Lakha and Rakha are dormant, idle and lethargic. They sit idle and suffer but do not even dream of protesting against social injustice and exploitation. Bakha, who has a sense of self-esteem, has enough potential to protest against untouchability which has left him mortified but centuries of servility has paralyzed him and sucked away the zeal and vigour to retaliate. His senses are paralysed when a caste Hindu says, “Keep to the side of the road, You low-caste vermin” Suddenly he hears some one shouting at him, “Why don’t you call, you swine…”
It is servility of the untouchable which encourage Pundit Kali Nath to molest Sohini. Sohini’s docile and servile temperament prompts her to yield to the libidinous and hypocrite priest. She is too innocent to detect the malicious intention of the priest.
Impartiality and Equilibrium
Since Anand has excellent grasp over the psychology of both the caste Hindus and the untouchables, his portrayal of their intercourse and relationship is impartial and equipoised. He does neither overstate or exaggerate the injustice and cruelty perpetrated on the untouchable nor does deride and censure all caste Hindus for being callous and unscrupulous. His caste Hindu characters are not all tyrant nor all his untouchables praiseworthy and commendable. Pandit Kali Nath, a hypocritical character stands in full contrast of Habildar Charat Singh who is a generous caste Hindu and he has transcended himself beyond the limits of caste prejudices.
The East-West theme has been accomplished through the Bakha-Tommies, Bakha-Hutchinson and Bakha-Iqbal-Bashir relationship. The alien characters specially Tommies cast very deep influence on Bakha. Bakha accepts them as his ideal. He tries to copy them. While copying the Tommies he experiences a state of emancipation and selfdignity. Although Iqbal and Bashir do not cast any significant influence on Bakha but Bakha likes them for their rational and radical thought. The most constructive aspect of western influence is that it facilitated all round change.
Anand has successfully distinguished himself in portraying the motif of untouchability in Untouchable. And eminence has been universally accepted as he introduced the real picture of Hindu tradition with all its merits and demerits to the rest of the world. E.M. Forster presents a glowing tribute to Anand’s greatness in the Preface of Untouchable.