Themes of The Novel Untouchable

Also Read


      Anand as a novelist flourished during the thirties when Gandhi an 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. He read Marx’s letters and could not resist his influence because the letters were in fact gospels of human values. His early novels reflect protest. They are window to the life of the oppressed and the oppressors and they emphasise 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 realise 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 realise 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. As M.K. Naik points out the motif of the novel is the age old tyranny unleashed on the untouchables by traditional Hindu society Anand never harps on theme of romantic love affairs; The very choice of the theme was an intrepid step towards discouraging untouchability. He sailed agains 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 because it costs a lot of money to dig a well in such a hilly town as Bulandshahar. 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. More often than not there was no caste Hindu present. Most of them were rich enough to get the water carriers to supply them with plently of fresh water every morning for their baths and kitchens, and only those came to the well who were either fond of an open-air bath or too poor to pay for the water carriers’ services. So the outcastes had to wait for chance to bring some caste Hindu to the well, for luck to decide that he was kind, for fate to ordain that he had time— to get their pitchers filled with water. They crowded round the well, congested the space below its high brick platform, morning, noon and night, joining their hands in servile humility to every passes-by; cursing their fate and bemoaning their lot, if they were refused the help they wanted; praying, beseeching and blessing, if some generous soul condescended to listen to them, or to help them.”

Anand’s Social Realism Theme

      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 first hand 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. And no untouchables could have written the book, because he would have been involved in indignation and self-pity”

Defiling Temple: Further Degradation

      The cruelty and tyranny perpetrated on Bakha was peculiar to the untouchables alone although they shared the common hardship and indignity with other outcastes. Because Bakha holds the lowest status in social hierarchy even the outcastes loathe them and do not consider them as their equals. Everybody detects him and loathes to accept anything from him or to give anything to him. 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 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 coming within sixty-wine 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’.

Censure and Derision of Untouchability

      In Untouchable Anand, on sure ground, denounces the darker aspects of traditional Hindu society which deserves to be condemned. Forster remarks, “The Indians 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 outcastes from society. Really it takes the human mind to evolve anything so devilish. No animal could have hit on it.” “Anand’s condemnation of untouchability derives its effectiveness from a total control of all the aspects of his problem. He shows a grasp of the psychology of both the caste Hindu and the untouchable. In his dealings with the untouchables, the caste Hindu is armed with the feeling of six thousand years of social and class superiority—a feeling which refuses to accept the fact that the untouchable is a human being, but insists on treating him like a sub-human creature, to be ignored or bullied or exploited as the occasion demands. It is this that makes the temple priest Pandit Kali Nath treat Sohini, Bakha’s sister like a juicy morsel of girlhood to be molested with impunity; and this same attitude prompts the betel-leaf seller from whom Bakha buys cigarettes to fling the packet at the untouchable as a butcher might throw a bone to an insistent dog sniffing round the corner of his shop.”

Theme of 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

Bakha’s 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 paralysed 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, and announce your approach! Do you know you have touched me and defiled me, cock-eyed son of a bow-legged scorpion! It makes him amazed and embarrassed. Anand says, “He was deaf and dumb. His senses were paralysed. Only fear gripped his soul, fear and humility and servility He was used to being spoken too roughly But he had seldom been taken so unawares. False and baseless allegations are hurled on him. He defends himself when a Lalla accuses him of beating his child, 'Nahin Lalla Ji, it is not true that I beat this child, it is not true’. “To Bakha, every second seemed an endless age of woe and suffering. His whole demeanour was concentrated in humility; and in his heart there was a queer stirring. His legs trembled and shook under him. He felt they would fail him. He was really sorry and tried hard to convey his repentance to his tormentors. But the barriers of space that the crowd had placed between themselves and him seemed to prevent his feelings from getting across.” When Bakha accidentally touches a caste Hindu and Pollutes him, a crowd of frenzied caste Hindus surrounded him. There was a turmoil in his soul and ‘his first impulse was to run, just to shoot across the throng, away; away far away from the torment. But he realized that he was surrounded by a barrier, not a physical barrier, because one push from his hefty shoulders would have been enough to unbalance the skeleton like bodies of the Hindu merchants, but a moral one.” It is servility of the untouchable which encourages Pundit Kali Nath to molest Sohini. Sohini’s docile and servile temperament prompts her to yield to the libidinous and hypocritical priest. She is too innocent to detect the malicious intention of the priest. By the time she was being molested Bakha coincidentally reaches there and defends her modesty and chastity ‘Bakha rushed back to the middle of the courtyard, dragging his sister behind and he searched for the figure of the priest in the crowd’. He becomes revengeful and seems to go beyond any limit. “His eyes flared wild and red, and his teeth grind between them the challenge: ‘I could show you what that Brahmin dog has done!” But his clenched fists relax and fall loosely by his side. He feels weak and needs support.

Anand: His Psychological Discernment

      Anand’s psychological discernment of both the caste Hindus and the ostracised untouchable is profound and subtle. Anand reads the psyche of the untouchables and its ever-changing facets along with changing situations. Anand portrays the tumult within, when Bakha approaches the temple and stares at the magnificent sculptures, “He felt the cells of his body lapses back chilled” because they seemed, “vast and fearful and oppressive. He was cowed back. The sense of fear came creeping into 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 ogled out of their niches, with ten arms and five heads”. His passion for English life style and a strange penchant for hockey have been well focused. What he is craving for is total liberty and emancipation from the stigma of untouchability. Bakha’s agony is reflected when Bakha utters, “They think we are mere dirts because we clean dirts.” In Bakha’s scale of values, the English are superior to an orthodox caste Hindu. So he cannot imagine of being a caste Hindu. He would love to be an English gentleman, clad in a superior military uniform, cleaning the commodes of the sahibs in the British barracks.

Impartiality and Equilibrium Theme

      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 Char at Singh who is a generous caste Hindu and he has transcended himself beyond the limits of caste prejudices. He is cordial, amicable and generous to Bakha. So Bakha feels, “I wouldn’t mind being a sweeper all my life. I would do anything for him.” Again in contrast to the belligerent and garrulous outcaste woman, Gulabo, who hurls invectives on Sohini for her being silent, stands a generous and benevolent caste Hindu women who hands a chapati to Bakha, adding politely; “My child, you should not sit on people’s doorstep like this.” Among the untouchables too, indiscreet, idle and filthy characters like Lakha and Bakha do not evoke our compassion as Bakha does.

Anand’s Greatness as a Novelist

      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. E.M. Forster acknowledges his merits as he portrays the untouchables in their surroundings. ‘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 the consolations of his religion. Unclean himself pollutes others when he touches them. They have to purify themselves and to rearrange their plan for the day Thus he is a disquieting as well as a disgusting object to the orthodox as he walks along the public roads, 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 this is not the opinion of those who have studied his case, nor is it born out by my own slight testimony.’ Forster himself perceive a change in the attitude of the untouchables. He remarks, “I remember on my visits to India noticing that the sweepers were more sensitive-looking and more presentable than other servants, and I knew one of the them who had some skill as a poet.”

Previous Post Next Post