Modern Irony & Social Criticism in Untouchable

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Untouchable: A Novel with Great Social Concerns

      Untouchable is a novel with great social concerns which focuses on the social consciousness and some of the worst customs and traditions which authorise the caste Hindus to exploit the outcastes for their selfish interests. Hindu society in the 1930s practised 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.

Ignominious and Impoverished Plight of the Untouchables

      The opening of the novel reveals the ignominious, impoverished and deplorable plight of the untouchables. Anand depicts the place where the children of lesser God are compelled to live. Anand “The outcastes’ colony was a group of mud-walled houses that clustered together in two rows, under the shadow both of the town and the cantonment, but outside their boundaries and separate from them. There lived the scavengers, the leather workers, the washermen, the barbers, the water carriers, the grass-cutters and other outcastes. from Hindu society. 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. And altogether the ramparts of human and animal refuse that lay on the outskirts of this little colony and 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. Even doctors who belong to caste Hindu community do not visit the untouchable’s colony for it would pollute them. Once Bakha, when he was a child, became seriously ill, it was with great painstaking efforts that his father Lakha persuaded a Muslim Hakim to visit his cottage to examine him. The Muslims do not believe in untouchability.

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. He goes from door to door to collect his food for his brother, sister and father. A caste Hindu throws of bread at him. Bakha feels extremely offended and mortified. He has to accept these crumbs and left overs because he needs them to survive.

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. “Pandit Kalinath of Untouchable is an ‘ill-humoured old devil’ with a congenital moral weakness, which gets the better of him as he talks the real strength of a spiritual person. His life is one of endless recitation of sacred verses punctuated by the occasional writing of a horoscope with reed pen. He has no spiritual cretitude 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 facade 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,” writes Premila Paul. Christian and Muslim do not practise untouchability It is Muslim and Christian sense of equality love and compassion which attracts Bakha. Bakha is more intimate with Christians and Muslims than with the caste Hindus. 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. He looked ruthless, deadly pale and livid with anger and rage. A similar incident he had heard about rose to mind in a flash. A young rustic had teased a friend’s sister as she was coming through the fields after collecting fuel. Her brother had gone straight to the fields with an axe in his hand and murdered the fellow”. But the next moment he realizes his limitations. “Why didn’t I go and kill the hypocrite!’ he cried out silently ‘I could have sacrificed myself for Sohini. Everyone will know about her. My poor sister ! How can she show her face to the world after this? Why didn’t she let me go and kill that man? Why was she born in our house, to bring disgrace upon us? So beautiful! So beautiful and so accursed.” And he just wished “O God, why was she born, why was she born?” The idea of revenge ceased. He realized that he is an outcast. He cannot change his fate. His eyes caught sight of the magnificent sculptures over the doors extending right upto the pinnacle. They seemed vast and fearful and oppressive. He was cowed back. The sense of fear came creeping into him. He felt as if the gods were staring at him. They looked so real although they were not like anything he had ever seen on earth. They seemed hard, their eyes fixed as they aged out of their niches, with ten arms and five heads. He bent his head. low. His eyes were dimmed. His clenched fists relaxed and fell loosely by his side. He felt weak and he wanted support. He knows his position in society He surrenders and accepts his low birth and his destiny. He cannot transfer his dream into reality.

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. E.M. Forster remarks, “The sweeper is worse off than a slave, for the slave may change his master and his duties and may even become free, but the sweeper is bound forever, born into a state from which he cannot escape and where he is excluded from social intercourse and consolations of his religion. Unclean himself, he pollutes others when he touches them. They have to purify themselves and to rearrange their plans for the day Thus he is disquieting as well as disgusting object to the orthodox as he walks along the public road and it is his duty to call out and warn them that he is coming. No wonder that the dirt enters into his soul and that he feels himself at moments to be what he is supposed to be. It is sometimes said that he is so degraded that he doesn’t mind, but it is not the opinion of those who have studied his case, nor is it borne out by my own slight testimony”

      The Missionary persuades Bakha to convert to Christianity But he himself fails to transform his luxurious and voluptuous wile. 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. Bakha is perplexed at the explanation of Jesus Christ,

“Life is found in Jesus
Only there ’tis offered the
Offered without price or money
’Tis the Gift of God sent free.”

      Bakha was dumb with amazement, carried away by the confusion, feeling flattered, honoured by the invitation which had come from the Sahib, however much that Sahib might mix with the natives. He followed willingly listening to each word that the Colonel spoke, but not understanding a word.

      Untouchable is a novel of 1930s when India was a British colony. Hindu society was infamous for practising 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. Practice of untouchability has been made a crime under the Indian Constitution, still there are millions of untouchables who have to depend on the dirty job of cleaning the latrines, for their bread. 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 India’s predicament, after thirty years of independence, is a vindication of Anand’s vivid imagination”. (Suresh Nath)


      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.

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