Critical Analysis of The Novel Untouchable

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Publication of Untouchable

      Untouchable is not only the magnum opus of Mulk Raj Anand but also the most popular, compact and well-knit novel. It is a classic in a limited sense and it was first published in 1935. The stuff for the creation of Untouchable has been derived from his voluminous Confessions which belongs to the earlier phase of his career. Irene, his first love inspired him considerably But it was in 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi insisted him to write a pamphlet on untouchability and it proved a principal source of the present novel Untouchable.

Origin of the Novel Untouchable

      Mulk Raj Anand himself has penned an account of the origin of the novel, “One day I read an article in Young India, by Gandhiji, describing how he met Uka, a sweeper, and, finding him with torn clothes and hungry took him into his ashram. This narrative was simple, austere and seemed to me more truthful than my artificially concocted novel Untouchable. I told Irene this. And, in a sudden fit of revulsion against my existence, in elitist Bloomsbury I decided to go and see the old man.”

“I wrote to the Mahatma asking for an appointment. He immediately wrote back and said he would give me an interview if I came to India. I raised the fare and went to Ahmedabad in the spring of 1929”.

“The Mahatma allowed me to read portions of my novel to him though he was anti all novels, imagining they were all about the boy-and-girl affair. He felt that I had made Bakha a Bloomsbury intellectual. And he advised me to cut down a hundred or more pages and rewrite the whole. My own hunches against snobbery as a clever young man were confirmed. I revised the book during the next three months in the Sabarmati Ashram. I read the new novel to the old man, who more or less approved, though he gave me Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth as a model of sincere writing. He said one must not write anything which was not based on one’s experience. I worked hard to achieve sincerity I cut and cut, trying to combine the Tolstoyan emphasis on the truth of life in the raw and Flaubertian objectivity I bought the novel back to London, glowing with pride about the austerities I had practised.”

Anand’s Predicaments

      At that time Anand was a writer without eminence and fame. And it posed a major hindrance in finding a publisher for it. The novel underwent several revisions. Bonamy Dobree, Maurice Brown and Edward Thomson extended their co-operation to find a publisher but all in vain. The book did not appeal the publishers so it was discarded by as many as nineteen publishers. It augmented Anand’s frustration and led him to contemplate suicide but a young poet, Oswell Blakeston rescued him timely and facilitated the process of its publication. He took him to Wishart Books. Edgell Rickwood, the editor judged the book and pointed out that, “the prospects of good sales in India must largely affect our decision; and also the possibility of getting an introduction from, say E.M. Forster,” Forster has already praised the novel in a letter to the author, and he did not hesitate to supply an enthusiastic introduction. The book was published on 1 May 1935, and the anxious author was given £ 35 only as advance on royalties, since the publisher feared that they could not “dispose of more than a thousand copies.”

The Popularity of the Novel

      Its sale enhanced several times and its growing popularity made Anand a celebrity It has been translated into over twenty international languages and won acclaim world over. BBC showered Kudos and referred to it as a classic and a magnum opus of Anand’s forty-odd books. But it brought Anand under official investigation for his alleged dissemination of communism. He was dogged by C.I.D, for long, for alleged link with the communists.

A Reflection of Punjabi Milieu

      The action of the novel happens in Bulasha, a cantonment town remarkable for Punjabi milieu. It has been confused with Bulanshahar in U.P. It is wrong. Anand had first hand experience with army personnel, both Indian and English because his father served as a Regimental Head Clerk in Indian Army. As a child, Anand accompanied his father. He observed the untouchable milieu. It left an everlasting impression which got expression later in his novels. He was very sensitive and conscious to the miserable plight of the untouchables. Bakha, the central character of his novel, Untouchable, is the portrayal of one of his playmates. Anand himself was born and brought up in Punjab, consequently he inherited the customs, traditions, ideas and beliefs of Punjab. The novel Untouchable replicates the Punjabi milieu with typical exclamations, swearwords, and abuses used in the novel. In brief the novel is a sincere presentation of military and civil life of the Punjab with an exclusive view of the wretchedness and misery of the untouchables.

Recapitulation of Story

      Untouchable presents an account of a single day in Bakha’s life, a scavenger boy of eighteen, and the central character in the novel. His father, Lakha wakes him up early in the mornings in order to resume his usual routine of cleaning latrines. Recapitulating the novel, Jack Lindsay remarks, “Bakha works at cleaning latrines in the barracks, and the Tommies are the first person outside his castes who treats him as a human being. The result is a shock which makes him reconsider what he has previously accepted as a natural and fixed order of things. Thus by showing in one small case of the unintended but inevitable effect of British in dissolving the fixed caste as feudal relations which in other ways it has wished to preserve as the basis of its power; Anand reveals at the outset his mastery of method—his capacity to define the general in particular. Not that Bakha is led at once to direct revolt; Anand never over-simplified the development of character. What has happened is that Bakha adores the soldiers and feels he has acquired some new sort of status with his suit of old European clothes, a gift from the barracks. Still the virus of change is at work in his being.”

      A number of things happen to Bakha on this one day all of which contribute slowly to the changes in his spirit. He goes into the town to sweep the gullies in exchange for food. He changes to jostle a little Hindu merchant, and is slapped and abused. A priest tries to seduce his sister, and when Bakha peeps into the temple to see what is happening, the Brahmins scream, “polluted! polluted!” His father tells him how once when, Bakha, was ill with fever, he couldn’t go into the chemist’s shop to buy medicine for fear of defiling the place, and had to stand by the roadside, imploring passersby to fetch it for him. All these episodes conspire to crush Bakha’s self-confidence, to force him back into his hopeless caste-position and make him dimly but poignantly aware of the forces determined to keep him there.’

      “But amid all these brutal setbacks he keeps on meeting people who have what they think is a solution for the caste problem. First, an English missionary tells him that Jesus does not recognize caste and that He died especially that untouchables like Bakha might be forgiven. All this is not understood. Bakha, however, hangs about in the hope of getting a pair of white trousers. Then the advent of the missionary’s wife with a painted and powdered face scares him into running away. He gets mixed up with a crowd waiting for Gandhi, and is impressed when he overhears people say that Gandhi is a saint, an incarnation of Vishnu and Krishna. Then Gandhi arrives amidst a profusion of flowers and flags; a hymn is sung; Gandhi says that the sweepers are men of God and must keep themselves pure by eating only the right food and refusing the leavings of others. Bakha is more confused than ever, since if he were to refuse the food thrown to him for latrine jobs he should starve. In the crowd, however, he hears a poet remark that water closets and a proper drainage system would simply eliminate the whole problem of untouchability Bakha returns to his home in the outcasts quarter thinking about ‘this is wonderful machine that can remove dung without anyone having to handle it.”

The Characterisation

      The novel is elegant with less crowded canvas. There are Bakha, a scavenger boy the hero, Lakha, Sohini, Chota, Ram Charan and Rakha. Bakha is the son of a jamadar, Lakha. Rakha and Sohini are siblings. Rakha has no sense of self-esteem, he is rather naive. Pandit Kali Nath is a caste Hindu priest, libidinous and hypocrite. He assaults Sohini. Colonel Hutchinson is a Christian missionary; he is highly motivated to proselytise the untouchables into Christianity Iqbal Nath Sarshar is a zealous poet. There are a few characters of less significance. They are Gulabo, the washer woman and Havildar Charat Singh who is generous to Bakha. But Bakha is focused and ubiquitous and the novelist presents an account of everything that happens on this fateful day

Bakha's Psyche

      Anand counts upon stream of consciousness technique to render Bakha's psyche or soul. He has successfully exploited this technique to produce the desired effect. The novelist assumes himself as an incarnation of an untouchable, Baldia. He presents a live picture of the traumatic experiences, misery and savagery he undergoes in a society dominated by caste Hindus. He penetrates the soul and brings a telepathic details of Bakha's sufferings and portrays the harrowing and excruciating humiliations, insults, and tortures beyond description. He has liberated the “stream of consciousness” technique from vagueness and confusion which vitiates so many of the modern “stream of consciousness” novels. Anand belongs to 19th century tradition of the novel but in other novels he applies the conventional technique of narration. He has adopted the modern technique of “interior monologue” for Untouchable and The Big Heart. All other novels of Anand may be nomenclatured ‘third person narrations’ by the novelist, in his potential as an omnipresent and omniscient writer. The present novel hardly betrays any resemblance to conventional story

Motif of the Novel

      Untouchable is a novel with prime concern for society and inspired by a mission to eliminate the evils of casteism, hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor in the name of pseudo supremacy. The novel has exposed the hypocrisy and debauchery of the caste Hindus who used to be headless to the modesty and chastity of the fair sexes who belonged to the outcaste community. They used them as their personal property. The most poignant situation was that they had no right even to ask for justice. They had to suffer. They were so submissive that they accepted every act of injustice as their destiny Bakha is a symbolic figure who represents the untouchables with their sufferings, absolute. The East-West theme, Bakha’s passion for English way of living marks the beginning of a renaissance that is the fall of caste Hindu dominion. The zealous poet predicts total eradication of untouchability if the flush system should be adopted.

Untouchable: A Criticism of Hypocrisy

      The novel vehemently condemns and criticises the devilish practice of casteism and savage treatment of the untouchables in the name of divine supremacy of the caste Hindus who, according to Hindu mythology; are supposed to be the most cherished children of the Brahma, the Supreme Soul. It is the hypocrisy of the Hindu tradition which renders the untouchables as born of the feet of the Brahma, therefore regarded the lowest in social hierarchy. E.M. Forster says, “The upper caste Hindus who have evolved a hideous nightmare unknown to the West: the belief that the products are ritually unclean as well as physically unpleasant, and that those who carry them away or otherwise help to dispose of them are outcasts from society. Really it takes the human mind to evolve anything so devilish. No animal could have invented it.” Anand’s derision of untouchability and all social evils succeed because of his extraordinary insight into the psyche or soul of the untouchables. Anand has surpassed all contemporary novelists in their grasp of the psychology of both the caste Hindus and the untouchables.

A Compact Plot Construction

      Untouchable is a magnum opus from the point of construction. Its plot construction is superb because it is close-knit and compact. It discards all superfluity; every incident and episode boost the action ahead. Anand has superbly observed the classic unities of time, place and action. It presents an account of a single day in the life of a sweeper boy Bakha who is the cynosure of all eyes for he undergoes inner conflicts and tensions and spiritual anguish. The entire action happens in Bulashah, which finds very lucid expression under Anand’s pen. The novel is divided into scenes which follow a sequence and the most harrowing and excruciating among them is the “touching scene” in the temple courtyard. However, the novel concludes with a lacerating criticism of superstition, untouchability and hypocrisy The young and zealous poet predicts the fall of casteism and inhuman practices and he suggests a flush system to put an end to the stigma of untouchability. Anand has been allegedly propagating his doctrine of social justice and equality without any discrimination of caste and creed. But the allegation proves baseless. E.M. Forster says, “Untouchable could only have been written by an Indian and an Indian who has observed from the outside. No European, however sympathetic could have crafted the character of Bakha, because he would not have known about his troubles. And no untouchables could have written the book, because he would have been involved in indignation and self pity Mr. Anand stands in the 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 the fiction through philosophy has given him depth.”

Anand’s Role

      By virtue of his magnum opus, Untouchable, Anand has enhanced the scope of Indo Anglian novel and introduced into it a constellation of new characters. It has been the convention to deal with romantic and historical theme and had largely been focused on the characters belonging to upper and middle class of social hierarchy Anand (an iconoclast) sailed against the stream and unlike Balzac and Zola, imparted in it not only social realism, even naturalism but also introduced into it proletarian motifs and characters. M.K. Naik remarks, “Untouchable, Anand’s fictional genius sprang up fully armed like Pallas Athene from the head of Jove. Never again was he to write novel in which content and form were so perfectly fused, a triumph of creativity achieving the maximum of effect with minimum of means.”

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