The Indelible Problem: Mulk Raj Anand and the Plight of Untouchability
Andrew M. Stracuzzi, The University of Western Ontario
Mulk Raj Anand, speaking about the real test of the novelist, once said:
It may lie in the transformation of words into prophesy. Because, what is writer if he is not the fiery voice of the people, who, through his own torments, urges and exaltations, by realizing the pains, frustrations and aspirations of others, and by cultivating his incipient powers of expression, transmutes in art all feeling, all thought, all experience - thus becoming the seer of a new vision in any given situation. (qtd. in Dhawn, 14)
There is no question that Mulk Raj Anand has fashioned with Untouchable a novel that articulates the abuses of an exploited class through sheer sympathy in the traditionalist manner of the realist novel. He is, indeed, the "fiery voice" of those people who form the Untouchable caste. Yet if the goal of the writer, as Anand himself states, is to transform "words into prophecy," then the reader's struggle for meaning in the closing scenes of the novel become problematic and contestatory. It is reasonable to assume -- and as I would argue, it is implied -- that Anand has ventured to address a specific question with writingUntouchable; this is, how to alleviate the exploitation of the untouchable class in India? He then proceeds to address this question through the dramatization of Bahka, the novel's central character. Having said this -- and taking into account Anand's notion of the novel as prophesy -- I will argue that the author has failed to fully answer the question he has set before him. In fact, by posing such a question, the possibility of an altruistic solution becomes blurred. Furthermore, the three "prophecies" or solutions posited by the novel -- the rhetoric of the Christian Missionary, Mahatma Gandhi, and the poet Iqbal Nath Sarshar -- fail to present a prescription for freedom accessible to the untouchable community.
In order to articulate the meaning of the last section of Untouchable fully, it is important to analyze the construction of Bahka, the protagonist, since his own distinct and honest, though often confusing, gaze objectifies his society. The last passage in the novel is an appropriate place to begin:
he began to move. His virtues lay in his close-knit sinews and in his long breath sense. He was thinking of everything he had heard though he could not understand it all. He was calm as he walked along, though the conflict in his soul was not over, though he was torn between his enthusiasm for Gandhi and the difficulties in his own awkward naÔve self"(Untouchable, 157; italics mine).
Anand chooses to close the final scene of his novel by appropriating the inner conflict of Bakha and juxtaposing "enthusiasm" with "naiveté." There seems to be an inherent, even subtle, irony in describing Bahka in this manner. On one hand, it carries a strong sense of hope, of self-awareness, of self-appropriation of the individual within the greater scheme of Hindu society There is a strong indication that what Bahka has endured throughout his day's journey has had an enormous effect on the way he appropriates himself within his own culture The novel thus ends on a somewhat positive note, with the image of Bahka going home and telling -- actually vocalizing -- his story in the hopes that some sort of resolution, or at the very least, some emergence of understanding will occur.
Conversely, though, Anand chooses to show him as naive. This is, perhaps, where the inherent problem lies within the text, the construction of Bahka himself. Though Bakha is a young protagonist (or perhaps, anti-protagonist), he is far from being an innocent child. Yet he is constructed with such a damming perception of innocence -- an uneducated victim of his community's frustration -- that he does not fit into the confines of a traditional hero. This is primarily because for him there is no solid gratification or inner resolution gained by the obstacles he is faced with during his day. Furthermore, as E.M. Forester point outs in the novel's preface, the reader has every indication that the next day, and the day after that, will be identical to the first. If anything, then, his only heroism lies in his ability to survive the actual day's events; but that too is circumstantial. His survival does not rely so much on his inner strength as an individual, but rather it is dependent on the action of the others that surround him, namely those individuals of higher caste standing. It is a character like Charat Singh, for example, that determines his survival depending on the degree of pity he is willing to dispense at any particular moment. Anand creates a character in search of his own identity within the very structure that has eliminated the possibility of him having one. The conflict within Bakha is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the text, yet it is in the opening pages of the novel that the reader identifies with Bakha's search for an identity. Bakha clearly has trouble accepting the identity allotted to him at birth. He has a desire to be like the Tommies he sees throughout his village. The narrator tell us that "the Tommies had treated him as a human being and he had learnt to think of himself as superior to his fellow-outcasts" (9). He attempts to adopt the "fashun" of the Tommies, becoming "possessed with an overwhelming desire to live their life" (11). He naively assumes that the mere adoption of the outward sings of a Sahib will garner him respect. He proceeds through his day wearing the trousers of one of the Tommies, but this assertion of identity fails to produce the desired result. Instead, Bakha looks silly - a mere amusement for others to caste their petty jokes and insults. C.D. Narasimhaiah's The Swan and the Eagle maintains that Bakha is desperately trying to escape the connotations the title of the novel asserts over his identity. Bakha's desire to imitate the Tommies is important because "[he] can preserve his identity only to the extent that he can be conscious of his superiority"(112). However, Anand quickly dispels Bakha's consciousness of superiority when Bakha comes to the realization that "except for the English clothing there was nothing English in his life"(12). Narasimhaiah further articulates that "in the numerous episodes which he puts his character through, the novelist tries to give him his identity in the very act of our witnessing the world deny it to him or to those around us"(113).
Therefore, the importance Anand places on Bakha's quest for identity leaves the reader questioning the viability of Bakha as the most appropriate figure to challenge the abuses of untouchability. To further elaborate on this point it should be noted that Anand has taken a great risk, both professionally and socially, in writing about the untouchable class, a minority that has been underrepresented in much of the Indian-English literature produced before Untouchable. Anand has suggested himself that his novels should be read in a political context; as such, it would stand to reason that literature has a fundamental impact on the development of culture, especially in post-colonialism. We have seen the effects of such works by Kipling, Forster and Conrad, to name a few, which have been used by the oppressor in order to reinforce, and often justify their oppressive logic. It is clearly evident from Anand's novel that the untouchables are both an oppressed and exploited class.
I would argue that Anand has an obligation of sorts, in portraying this exploited class as fairly and representatively as possible. Certainly, he has successfully achieved the reader's sympathy for Bakha's exploitation via the horrendous abuses that he is subjected to as an oppressed minority. However, in choosing -- whether consciously or not -- to depict Bahka as a naÔve, uneducated, identity-seeking protagonist, Anand has significantly diminished the reader's ability (or Bakha's) to be seen as initiator of change. It seems that there is, however, evidence to suggest that this portrait of Bakha is somewhat intentional. Anand admits to having run over his manuscript with Mahatma Gandhi and making the suggested changes; he states, "I read my novel to Gandhji and he suggested that I should cut down more than a hundred pages, especially those passages in which Bakha seemed to be thinking and dreaming and brooding like a Bloomsbury intellectual"(Novels, 11). The choice to limit Bakha's intelligence further enforces his inability to fully understanding his situation. In depicting an untouchable in this way, Anand is undermining the possibility of the untouchable class taking a part in destroying their own oppression because he constructs them as incapable of intellectually identifying the systemic sources of their oppression.
If Bahka is to be seen as a representative of his class, his inability even to articulate the words of Gandhi, for example, puts him at an immediate disadvantage. In fairness to Anand, the portrayal of Bakha is complex, and he certainty allows Bakha to be rebellious. This rebellion, however, is always internal and uttered with a silent voice. After the novel's pivotal "touching" scene in the village market Bakha reacts to the event with anger: "the strength, the power of his giant body glistened with he desire for revenge in his eyes, while horror, rage, indignation swept over his frame. In a moment he lost all his humility, and he would have lost his temper too"(50), if it were not for the disappearance of the man who struck him. He is depicted as having a "smoldering rage within his soul," and then resorts to self questioning: "why was I so humble? I could have struck him!"(51). Thus we see that Bahka has the potential for rebellion, yet Anand chooses to silence this rebellion by creating a condition that does not allow for the expression of it. Bakha then comes to a self revelation a few paragraphs later: "I am an Untouchable! he said to himself, an Untouchable!"(52). Yet what good is this recognition if there is no possibility of it being overcome? This self affirmation has damaging consequences because it implies that Bahka is becoming comfortable with its implications.
Choosing the path of least resistance, Anand dismisses the possibility of social rebellion altogether. The ending of the novel stops short of adequately answering -- or justifying the reason for not answering -- the basic question the novel forces the reader to ask, how to alleviate the oppression of the untouchables? Instead, Anand chooses to address this question vis-à-vis the three choices presented to the untouchable class. In essence, Bakha's choices are conversion to Christianity, the rhetoric of Gandhi, and the flush system suggested by the poet. However, all three of these solutions prove to be inadequate primarily because they remove the option for untouchables to take action against their own oppression. R.T. Robertson pinpoints in his article "Untouchable as Archetypal Novel," the central paradox of the novel that "Bakha is both isolated from and bound to his culture; it will not allow him fully to participate in the society and cannot release him from it because of the essential service he performs for it."(101). This paradox creates an environment of stasis for Bakha and for all untouchables; the resolutions suggested within the text only perpetuate this stasis because, according to the novel, the only way to alleviate untouchability must come from the hands of either the oppressors or from something beyond the untouchables' control and understanding.
Like postcolonial novels set in other parts of the Britsh Empire, including Africa, the main character's encounter with missionary Christianity produces comedy and satire. Here Christian missionary, Colonel Hutchinson, can neither articulate Christian belief nor persuade Bakha of the benefits of conversion. Instead, the Colonel breaks into biblical song, only further confusing Bahka. He is unable to grasp the concept of original sin and so responds by reflecting, "he didn't like the idea of being called a sinner. He had committed no sin that he could remember. How could he confess his sins? Odd. He did not want to go to heaven"(130). The only point that peaks his interest is the fact that God regards all people as equal, but this is only a response to comfort him from the inequality he has encountered throughout the day. R.S. Singh in Indian Novels in English points out that while the Christian missionary persuades Bakha to change his religion, "Bakha's eyes are keen enough to see the dichotomy of the missionary's existence who is himself living a miserable life with his sensation-loving, hot-tempered wife. He comes to believe that the religion of his father is in no way inferior to Christianity"(40). Thus replacing one faith with another will not solve the problem of untouchablity but will only further complicates the matter.
The representations of both Gandhi and the poet proves also confusing alternatives for Bakha. On the one hand, Gandhi articulates that the plight of untouchability is both a "moral and religious" issue. He "regards untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism"(146) and asserts that it is "satanic" to assume anyone in Hinduism is born polluted. Gandhi then recounts the story of a Brahmin boy and a sweeper in his ashram and attempts to show understanding for the sweeper; he feels that if the Brahmin "wanted the ashram sweeper to do his work well he must do it himself and set an example"(148). Yet this action, while appearing to be sympathetic and understanding, only undermines the very existence of an untouchable because it assumes that the untouchable is incapable of doing such menial work well. Further, it implies and confirms an existing hierarchy of power between the untouchable and other high-caste Hindus because it suggests that they must be taught to be untouchables, which only perpetuates the cycle of oppression. Gandhi then proceeds to criticize the Untouchables by saying that they have to "cultivate habits of cleanliness," that they must get rid of their "evil habits" such as "drinking liquor, gambling and eating carrion." They must, as Gandhi says, " cease to accept leavings form the plates of high-caste Hindus, however clean they may be represented to be"(148). In essence, he advocates emancipation by purification. Yet there is an inherent dichotomy in Gandhi's rhetoric because the existing system does not allow for the untouchables to become purified primarily because their fundamental existence is rooted in the profession of filth. It is as Bakha says to his father, "they think we are mere dirt because we clean their dirt"(79). Anand, although an avid follower of Gandhi, has Bakha question the Mahatma's speech: "but now, now the Mahatma is blaming us. That is not fair! He wanted to forget the last passages that he had heard"(148). This suggests, perhaps, that Anand's view of Gandhi and his political rhetoric cannot be idealized because it too contains elements of oppression. Anand then proceeds to offer his last possible solution to the alleviation of untouchability. Through the poet Iqbal Nath Sarshar, Anand takes the chance to expressing his own Marxist inclinations: "well, we must destroy caste, we must destroy the inequalities of birth and unalterable vocations. We must recognize an inequality of rights, privileges and opportunities for everyone" (155). He advocates that a change in profession will free the Untouchables and the way to achieve this change is through the implementation of a flush system. William Walsh believes that this last option is most favored by Anand, but admits the obvious complexities in describing the change in this way:
He (Anand) is a committed artist, and what he is committed to is indicated by Bakha's mockery in Untouchable: 'greater efficiency, dictatorship of the sweepers, Marxian materialism and all that.' 'Yes, yes,' is the reply, 'all that, but no catch-words and cheap phrases, the change will be organic and not mechanicalHow clearly this kind of thing confirms Anand's deficiencies as a thinker and the capacity of his Marxist enthusiasms to glide gaily across the most deeply entrenched differences. This, together with his furious indignation, unself-critical ideology and habit of undue explicitness, make him a writer whose work has to be severely sieved [Indian Literature in English, 61].
Walsh, here, pinpoints effectively the inherent dangers of relying solely on a Marxist approach to the resolution of untouchabilty. Clearly social rebellion is a viable option, but the closest Anand comes to articulating a traditional Marxist revolution in India is masked, even distorted, in the figure of the poet. Here, Anand only skims the surface of its possibilities; introducing the concept in the very last pages of his novel only weakens the poet's arguments because neither the main protagonist nor the reader has enough time to fully conceptualize its implications.
Perhaps I have shown an undue harshness in criticizing Anand? However, my purpose here is not to diminish his talent as a writer, for he is, in fact, an amazingly articulate, though-provoking novelist with considerable power. The difficulties of alleviating the stigma of untouchabilty are far too complex for one man alone to tackle, and his novel does serve as a catalyst for change. Nevertheless, as a critical response to the novel's implications, I must argue that Anand has failed to convincingly advocate the ending of untouchablity through the choices presented to the protagonist -- Bakha. His failure in achieving this goal lies not so much in any form of ineptness of his three solutions - they are clearly alternatives - however, the fault lies in the implied assumption of these choices. All three choices remove the ability of an oppressed and exploited minority to free himself from his own oppression. Clearly Bakha is a rebellious individual within, yet the stifling of this rebellious nature only further asserts the inability of untouchables to free themselves; this is in effect the classical post-colonial conundrum. This challenge is brilliantly captured -- as previously noted by E.H. McCormick in response to what he believes is the post-colonial condition, and which I have adopted here to epitomize the dilemma of the untouchables -- by Matthew Arnold in "Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse":
Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere to rest my head,Like these, on earth I wait forlorn (85-90).
What else is Bakha but this wandering figure amongst the flowing flux of oppression? He is clearly disenchanted by the confines that the class-system has imposed on him and attempts to appropriate himself amongst the ruling English-class. This produces, in effect, a state of double alienation. As a result, he is both rejected from his own culture, and repelled by the other. Bakha, therefore, exists on the periphery of both worlds. But as Forster suggests -- and what I believe Anand seems to conclude -- is that "on the surface of the earth if not in the depths of the sky, a change is at hand"(Untouchable, viii.).
Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London: Penguin, 1940.
Dhawan, R.K., ed. The Novels of Mulk Raj Anand. New York: Prestige, 1992.
---. Saros Cowasjee. "Anand's Literary Creed." 13-18.
---. R.T. Roberston. "Untouchable as an Archetypal Novel." 98-104.
Narasimhaiah, C.D. The Swan and the Eagle. Delhi: Motilal, 1987.
Walsh, William. Indian Literature in English. London: Longman, 1990.