Characterisation in The Novel Untouchable

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      M.H. Abrams writes, “The character is a literary genre: a short, and usually witty sketch in prose of a distinctive type of person. The genre was inaugurated by Theophratus, a Greek author of the second century B.C. who wrote a lively book called Characters. Characters are the persons, in a dramatic or narrative work, endowed with moral and dispositional qualities that are expressed in what they say—the dialogue—and what they do—the action. The grounds in a character’s temperament and moral nature for his speech and actions constitute his motivation. A character may remain essentially "stable” and unchanged in his outlook and dispositions, from beginning to end of a work, or may undergo a radical change, either through a gradual development or as a result of an extreme crisis. Whether he remains stable or changes, we require ‘consistency’ in a character - he should not suddenly break off and act in a way not plausibly grounded in his temperament as we already have come to know it.” E.M. Forster introduced popular new terms for an old distinction in discriminating between flat and round characters. A flat character (also called a ‘type’, or ‘two dimensional’), Forster says, is built around “a single idea or quality” and is presented in outline and without much individualizing detail, and so can be fairly adequately described in a single phrase or sentence. A round character is complex in temperament and motivation and is represented with subtle particularity; thus he is as difficult to describe with any adequacy as a person in real life, and like most people, he is capable of surprising us. Almost all dramas and narratives, properly enough, have some characters who serve as mere functionaries and are not characterized at all as well as other characters who are quite flat: there is no need, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, for Mistress Quickly to be as globular as Falstaff. The degree to which a character needs to be three dimensional depends on his function in the plot and any type of plot, such as in the detective novel or adventure novel or farce comedy even the protagonist casually possesses only two dimension.”

      A broad distinction as Abrams remarks, is frequently made between alternative methods available to an author in “characterising” the persons in a narrative, showing and telling. In showing (also called “the dramatic method”), the author merely presents his characters talking and acting and leaves the reader to infer what motives and dispositions he behind what they say and do. In telling, the author himself intervenes authoritatively in order to describe, and often to evaluate, the motives and dispositional qualities of his characters. For example in the fine opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen first shows us Mr. and Mrs. Bennet as they talk to one another about the young man who has just rented Netherfield Park, then tells us about them, and so confirms and expands the inferences and judgements that the reader has begun to make from what he has already been shown, “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”


      Several factors are responsible to limit the range of Anand’s characterisation in Untouchable. Since Bakha is the central character, the hero of the novel, the story revolves round him who represents the entire community of the people who has been ostracised. There are other characters with whom Bakha interacts although they are negative and hostile. Since Bakha has low profile as a scavenger, he has least chances to have clients in the sense his sister Sohini has. To compensate this deficiently the author entrusts Bakha with his father’s work for that morning to sanitize the latrines. This brings Bakha out of the confines of home and lets him interact with other character who belong to caste Hindu community. Thus he interacts with town and temple characters and they become relevant to Bakha. Bakha directly interacts with the members of his family, his friends and his benefactor and patron Havildar Charat Singh. Sohini, Bakha’s sister is also able to carve a niche in the story and she encounters and interacts with Pundit Kali Nath and Gulabo. The theme of untouchability tends to explore solutions to this grave predicament and this is the reason the author introduces Colonel Hutchinson, Mahatma Gandhi, Sarshar and his rival Bashir. The entire growth of characterization is limited because the story has been confined to a small area of Bulandshahr and its periphery and events last a day only. Bakha, with limited time and space, is not able to meet too many people. Obviously, the number of people Bakha comes across is limited too.

Anglophile Bakha and His Family

      Bakha himself is the title character of the novel as denoted by the very title of the novel Untouchable and so does his profession denote. He is not a typical untouchable character. He is dynamic, dextrous, well-built and handsome. He has got a sense of self-respect and he is very punctilious regarding cleanliness. By temperament he is an Anglophile because he has a penchant to look distinguished and to be noticed by onlookers. The other crucial reason for his being an anglophile is that he detests the caste Hindus for their callousness and cruel demeanour. He has got a soft corner for the English because they are kind and generous. Bakha is different because he wears an army coat, army boots, breeches and puttees. Bakha has got a passion for smoking because he is driven by a spirit to look like an English gentleman. But he is a man of little resources. He tries to transcend beyond the filthy surroundings of untouchability but his limitations have rendered him helpless. His father Lakha, is the Jamadar of all sweepers in the town and cantonment, and officially in charge of the three rows of public latrines which lined the extreme end of the colony by the brook-side. He is an example of typical untouchable for his abject humility and servility Sohini, Bakha’s sister is extremely attractive as Anand portrays her, “She had a sylph-like form, not thin but full-bodied, within the limits of her graceful frame, well-rounded on hips, with an arched narrow waist from which descended the folds of her trousers and above which were her full, round, globular breasts, jerking slightly for lack of bodice, under her transparent muslin shirt”. But Rakha is the only member of his family who looks like a typical untouchable rather disgusted, lazy and crude in manners. Anand portrays, “He seemed a true child of the outcaste colony where there are no drains, no light, no water; of the marsh land where people live among the latrines of townsmen, and in the stink of their own dung scattered about here, there and everywhere; of the world where the day is dark as the night and the night pitch-dark. He had wallowed in its mire, bathed in its marshes, played among its rubbish heaps, and his listless, lazy manner was a result of his surroundings. He was the vehicle of a life force, which would never reach its culminating point because Malaria lingered in his bones and that disease does not kill but Merely dissipates the energy. He was a friend of the flies and the mosquitoes, their companion since his childhood.” He is nobody’s favourite.

Bakha’s Pals

      Bakha has no friends among the scavengers, but Chota and Ram Charan, the washerman’s son in the outcastes’ colony both are superior to him in social hierarchy. But Anand has given least details about their behaviour towards him. The three pals have very cordial and congenial relationship. They steal a few moments from their business and escape to some calm and tranquil place to relax. Bakha confides in whenever he is depressed and frustrated. They respond amicably and console the grieving soul of Bakha. Bakha finds solace in their company After the excruciating and humiliating molestation of Sohini at the callous hands of Pundit Kali Nath, Bakha rushes to his friends and unburdens his heavy heart. His friends boost his morale and incite him to teach a lesson to the hypocrite priest. There are two juvenile characters who belong to the caste Hindu community one of whom plays in the hockey match and other is excluded because he gets injured. Bakha gathers the injured child in his hands and rushes to his house lest he should bleed excessively and get treatment in time. But, unfortunately, Bakha is greeted with invectives and insults for allegedly polluting a caste Hindu child. In the characterization of these two children, Anand displays his unsurpassed skill and multifaceted genius.

Patrons of Hindu Culture and Tradition

      The characterization of the caste Hindus in Untouchable can further be classified as the sympathetic and the callous. Havildar Charat Singh is generous and benevolent who does not seem to have inherited the caste Hindu complex of pollution. He shares tea with Bakha and offers him a new brand hockey stick. He scolds and abuses him if he does not find the latrine clean enough for him to use but he does appreciate generously for his unparalleled dexterity. Anand says, “It was perhaps his absorption in his task that gave him the look of distinction or his exotic dress however loose and ill-fitting, that lifted him above his odorous world.” What puzzled Charat Singh, in Anand’s words, is his ‘immaculate cleanliness’. Pundit Kali Nath, a priest, callous and hypocrite, who molests Bakha’s sister, stands in complete contrast to benevolent Charat Singh.

Anonymous Character in Market Place

      Bakha comes across two anonymous characters in the market place during his visit to the city to sweep the main road and the temple courtyard. Except two Mohammadan characters (whom Anand appreciates for asserting their faith in the equality of human beings and discouraging (untouchability) all are savage and barbarian. There is betel-leaf seller who deigns cigarettes to Bakha as if he werd throwing a one to an insistent dog sniffing around a butcher’s shop. The shopkeepers consider the money given by Bakha exchanged for merchandise, as contaminated. The sweets-seller treats Bakha with augmented cruelty and antipathy. Although Bakha does pay for the jalebis, he is treated as if he were an animal. The frenzied and irate crowd throng around him and accuse him of polluting and defiling a caste Hindu. Bakha is stunned, embarrassed and unnerved because he is unable to know his crime or his guilt. The crowd, which consists of caste Hindus, are all callous, savage and brute. Not a single caste Hindu comes to Bakha’s rescue who boast of their age old tradition. Only the Mohammadan tonga wallah approaches to rescue Bakha and leads him to a safer place. Anand judiciously censures the caste Hindus. He is not biased. It is not the case of personal vendetta. As E.M. Forster writes, “Mr. Anand stands in ideal position. By caste he is Kshatriya, and he might have been expected to inherit the pollution complex. But as a child he played with the children of the sweepers attached to an Indian regiment, he grew to be fond of them and to understand a tragedy which he did not share. He has just the right mixture of insight and detachment, and the fact that he has come to fiction through philosophy has given him depth.”

Fanatic and Orthodox Temple Characters

      Bakha has no intimacy with any of the orthodox temple characters. He nurses and nourishes his idea of avenging for his sister has been molested by a fanatic temple priest who rather indulges in debauchery than holy rituals. The pusillanimous priest escapes to some protected place for he knows Bakha is strong enough to wrench his neck. Anand describes two other fanatic temple characters. “A priest sat half naked, with a tuft of hair on the top of his shaven head, unduly prominent as it tied itself in an inscrutable knot. An open book stood on a platform before him....A tall man, evidently also a priest, naked save for a loin cloth, dark haired and supple, with a sacred thread throwing into relief the elegant curves of his graceful body got up and blew a conch shell. Bakha saw; peered, stared hard, and realised that the morning service had begun.” Although he is not a priest but one of the devotees, rushes out of the temple on hearing the vociferous shouts of ‘polluted, polluted’. He scolds Bakha and discourages him for coming upstairs and asks him to get off the steps of the temple. ‘He was completely unnerved, his eyes were covered with darkness. He could not see anything. His tongue and throat were parched. He wanted to utter a cry, a cry of fear, but his voice failed him. He opened his mouth wide to speak. It was of no use. Beads of sweat covered his head. He tried to raise himself from the awkward attitude of prostration, but his limbs has no strength left in them! For a second as if he was dead.” According to the priest’s claim although Bakha has not polluted the worship, he pollutes the temple precinct which requires expensive purificatory ceremony to have it de-polluted. And a subtle and lofty discussion on the degrees of pollution follows. They discuss the subtle nuances of pollution. But some worshippers, however, whisper—a temple can be defiled from a distance. As Anand says, “The distance, the distance! the worshippers from the top of the steps were shouting. A temple can be polluted according to the Holy Books by a low caste man coining within sixty-nine yards of it, and here he was actually on the steps, at the door. We are ruined. We will need to have a sacrificial fire in order to purify ourselves and our shrine.”

The Three Saviours

      The three saviours, who come to save the untouchables from the injustice, exploitation and stigma of untouchability are Colonel Hutchinson, Mahatma Gandhi and Iqbal Nath Sarshar. Although Bashir is also a remarkable character but he does not agree with Gandhi and Sharshar. Colonel Hutchinson is a committed and dedicated missionary. He is highly motivated to proselytize the untouchables to Christianity but he is a big fiasco. His profound knowledge and insight into Christian theology and theosophy and theophany do not play any miracle because he has poor knowledge of Indian culture and tradition. He is an uxorious husband and fed up with his nagging wife. The characterization of the missionary is the weakest in the entire gamut of characterization and it reveals novelist’s personal antipathy for the Christian missionary. It is rather a mockery of Christian missionaries who lead a dichotomous life. Mahatma Gandhi’s character is rather sublime and divine as compared with the Christian missionary. It involves certain mysticism and divinity Gandhi comes as a saviour for the untouchables and enlightens the ignorant untouchables with his radical, and sagacious gospels on piety honesty patriotism and immense devotion for the cause of the untouchables and the clown-trodden. Sarshar, an ardent Gandhian with a difference, supports modern machines, one of which is the flush system. He suggests the appliance as the solution to the problem of untouchability. Sarshar is sincerely concerned with the upliftment of the untouchables. Bashir is thoroughly westernised in his views. He calls Mahatma a humbug with his indigenous spinning wheel. He does not understand Gandhian philosophy. Iqbal Nath is superior to Bashir in many respects. Iqbal is rooted in Indian soil and regards Gandhi as “the greatest liberating force of our age. He has his limitations, but he is fundamentally sound.” R.N. Bashir represents the westernized Indians who eulogize the English and extol them. His characterisation is a mockery of the Indian sycophants of the British.

Comment on Anand’s Characterization

      The authenticity of Anand’s characterization is a mixed one. We cannot declare Anand as an unsurpassed character-creator, but there are characters which speak of Anand’s mastery over the art of characterization. The character of Bakha, according to E.M. Forster is “lovable, thwarted, sometimes grand, sometimes weak, and thoroughly Indian. Among other characters, Havildar Charat Singh, stands for exceptional sympathy and generosity rare among the caste Hindus. Kali Nath is superbly portrayed. Through the character of Pundit Kali Nath, Anand has exposed the hypocrisy of the caste- Hindu priests. The most towering among them is the character of the half-naked Fakir (as called by Einstein), Mahatma Gandhi, the champion of the cause of the untouchable and Anand accomplished it effortlessly.

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