Traditional & Modern Society in Untouchable

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The Atmosphere of the Thirties

      Creative writing in the 1930s reflects the spirit of the time and no novelist could fail to reflect the sense of the age. Anand follows the same tradition and he is no exception to this phenomenon. Untouchable was written in 1930. It was published in 1935 after several revisions and modifications at Mahatma Gandhi’s suggestion. It was a decade of great upheavals and India was fighting her battle for freedom. The entire nation was experiencing a radical change. Gandhi launched and led a nationwide movement and inspired the people to participate and play their role in the struggle for freedom. Gandhi enkindled their conscience against slavish and servile submission to mighty imperialism. Gandhi and his followers detested slavery. To Gandhi submission to imperial power was tantamount to spiritual, moral and religious blemish. The movement was a prelude to great radical change in all walks of life. Consequently many of the hackneyed customs and traditions and superstitious beliefs began to crumble and a new society was all set to emerge. The old social order was shaken. There was a conflict between tradition and modernity. Indian society was undergoing a state of transition. This conflict marks the theme of the novel. Anand has condemned the established casteism and religious hypocrisy through his characters like Bashir, the poet. Bashir, the poet (Untouchable) says, “If it had not been for the wily Brahmins, the priestcraft, who came in the pride of their white skin, lifted the pure philosophical idea of Karma from the Dravidians—that deeds and acts dynamic, that all is in flux, everything changes—and misinterpreted in vulgarly to mean that birth and rebirth in this universe is governed by good or bad deeds in the past life, India would have offered the best instance of democracy As it is, caste is an intellectual aristocracy; based on the concepts of the pundits, being otherwise wholly democratic. The high caste High-court judge eats freely with the coolie of his caste. So we can destroy our inequalities easily. The old mechanical formulas of our lives must go; the old, stereotyped forms must give place to a new dynamic.”

Bakha: A Representative of Two Worlds

      Bakha is the central character of the novel, Untouchable. He is oscillating in a state of dichotomy. He cannot get rid of tradition and he cannot resist the temptations of modernity Modernity has overwhelmed Bakha’s mind. This dichotomous state of mind has raised tensions and conflicts within his soul. Truly Bakha represents a society undergoing a state of transition. He is not ready to submit himself to the injustice and oppression perpetrated on the untouchables by the caste Hindus. Except Bakha all have accepted the oppressive system of social hierarchy as their lot. There is a smoldering rage in his soul. He is preoccupied to abolish the existing social order which treats the untouchables as they treat dogs and swine. He is yearning to establish a new social order based on justice and equality But two thousand years of racial and caste superiority has enervated him. Mulk Raj Anand writes, “But there was a smouldering rage in his soul. His feelings would rise like spurts of smoke from half-smothered fire in fitful jerks when the recollection of abuse or rebuke he had suffered kindled a spark in the ashes of remorse inside him.” But Bakha’s sense of revenge subsides when he reflects, “They always abuse us. Because we are sweepers. Because we touch dungs. They hate dung. I hate it too. That is why I came here. I was tired of working on the latrines everyday. That’s why they don’t touch us, the high-castes.” Bakha touches a caste Hindu and consequently polluted him. Anand depicts the psyche of Bakha, “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 of fear, but his voice failed him. He opened his mouth wide to speak. It was of no use. Beads of sweat covered his forehead. He tried to raise himself from the awkward attitude of prostration, but his limbs had no strength left in them. For a second he Was as if dead?’ “His impulse was just to run, just to shoot across the throng, away away far away from the torment. But then he realised 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.” When Sohini tells, ‘He-e-e just teased me. And then when I was bending down to work, he can and held me by my breasts’. Bakha exclaims, ‘Brahmin dog: I will go and kill him’ but he felt the cells of his body lapse back chilled. His eyes caught sight of the magnificent sculptures over the doors extending right up to the pinnacle. They seem 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 seen on the earth. They seemed hard, their eyes fixed as they ogled out of their niche, with ten arms and five heads. He bent his head low. His eyes were dimmed. His eyes clenched, fists relaxed and fell loosely by his side. He felt weak and he wanted support.

Indifference of Other Untouchables

      Bakha wants to demolish tradition but cannot because the shackles of tradition are too strong for him. But Bakha is sensitive and intelligent. He has a sense of self-respect. But he is to be contrasted with his father and brother who remain indifferent to the social injustice and tyranny unleashed upon the untouchables. They accept the established oppressive and caste-ridden society as their lot ordained by the mighty caste-Hindus. Rakha, Bakha’s brother; seems the true child of the outcaste colony He is a friend of the flies and the mosquitoes, their companion since his childhood. The mute and dumb and indifferent untouchables are the true representatives of the forces of tradition, orthodoxy and conservatism. Bakha represents social transition from the old to the new. He stands for social protest and betterment of the lot of the untouchables in society.

Characteristic Features of Bakha

      Ever since he was a child he had walked past the wooden stall on which lay heaped the scarlet and khaki uniforms discarded or pawned by the Tommies, pith sola topis, peak caps, knives, forks, buttons, old books and other oddments of Anglo-Indian life. And he was hungered to touch them. Bakha does not want to be a caste Hindu but a British Saheb. He is superior to other untouchables because of his intelligence and sense of self-respect. He is sincere, honest, and committed professional. ‘What a dextrous workman! Mulk Raj Anand depicts Bakha’s characteristic features, as, “And though his job was dirty he remained comparatively clean. He didn’t even soil his sleeves handling the commodes, sweeping and scrubbing them. A bit superior to his job,’ one would have said, ‘riot the kind of man who ought to be doing this.’ For he looked intelligent, even sensitive, with a sort of dignity that does not belong to ordinary scavenger, who is a rule uncouth and unclean. 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. Havildar Charat Singh, who had the Hindu instinct for immaculate cleanliness, was puzzled when he emerged from his painful half an hour in the latrines and caught sight of Bakha. “Here was a low-caste man who seemed clean! He became rather self-conscious, the prejudice of the ‘twice-born’ high caste Hindu against stink, even though he saw not the slightest suspicion of it in Bakha, rising into his mind. He smiled complacently Then, however, he forgot his high caste and ironic smile on his face became a childlike laugh.” The forces of modernity are at work, modern society is in a state of transition, and Bakha feels the pressure of such forces and so yearns for social change and the betterment of his lot.

The Forces of Radical Changes

      Mahatma Gandhi and Iqbal Nath Sarshar represent the vital forces which are working for the transition of society from injustice, oppression to equity Bakha goes to Gole Maidan and listens attentively and curiously the speech of Gandhi: “I am an orthodox Hindu and I know that the Hindus are not sinful by nature”, Bakha heard Mahatma declaim. “They are sunk in ignorance. All public wells, temples, roads, schools, sanatoriums, must be declared open to the untouchables. And, if all of you profess to love me, give me a direct proof of your love by carrying on propaganda against the observance of untouchability Do this, but let there be no compulsion or brute force in securing this end. Peaceful persuasion is the only means. Two of the strongest desires that keep me in the flesh are the emancipation of the untouchables and the protection of the cow; When these two desires are fulfilled there is swaraj, and therein lies my soul’s deliverance. May god give you strength to work out your soul’s salvation to the end.”
Iqbal Nath Sarshar delivers an impressive harangue: “Early European scholars could not get hold of the original texts of the Upanishads. So they kept on interpreting Indian thought from the commentaries of Shankracharya, “The word 'maya' does not mean illusion, it means series of illusions.” Further Iqbal anticipates, “We can feel new feelings. We can learn to be aware with a new awareness. We can envisage the possibility of creating new races from the latent heat in our dark brown bodies. Life is still adventure for us. We are still eager to learn. We can not go wrong. Our enslavers muddle through things. We can see things clearly.”

      When sweepers change their profession they will no longer remain untouchables. And they can do that soon, for the first thing we will do when we accept the machine will be to introduce, the machine which clears dung without anyone having to handle it the flush system.


      In brief, Untouchable gives us a view of a traditional and caste-ridden modern society where the Hindus treat the Untouchable as scum of the earth. It is marked for its conflict between tradition and modernity. Some radical forces anticipate a great social change. Everything is dynamic and Bakha represents a great transition from injustice to justice.

University Questions

Critically examine that Untouchable reflects the traditional and modern society.
Untouchable deals with tensions and conflicts. Justify the statement.
Untouchable portrays a society that is undergoing a state of transition. Elucidate.

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