Coolie by Mulk Raj Anand - Chapter 4 Summary

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      The special circus train brought Munoo to Bombay As the train took speed and Munoo looked out with a throbbing heart, he surveyed the scene around him with great wonder. He was going to a new world, the wonderful world of a big city for which he had dreamt. He saw ship, motors, big buildings, marvelous gardens and the rich people who just threw money about to the coolies in the street. Soon they reached Ambala and then the Delhi central station. The elephant-trainer provided him with food and drink from time to time. Munoo was greatly thankful to him for his generosity.

      Then he gazed at the ruined fortress, castles, shrines and mausoleums, which dug their heels into the barren earth among the generated roots of trees, cactus and wild shrub, fuming with a shimmering smoke without burning under the hateful glare of the all-consuming sun. The boy thought of the legend as Delhi was founded by a dynasty of kings who owed their origin to the sun.

      The train now speeded through Rajasthan and soon they were at Kotah station. The desert under the scorching sun fascinates Munoo. It seemed to come to life with his illusory mirages of sand and its extraordinarily sparse population of camels, tied tail to nose, nose to tail, as they threaded the wastes, behind the dour men who struggled on foot against hunger and drought. An occasional collection of texts or ruined outhouse reminded Munoo of the caravanserai he had seen on the outskirts of Sham Nagar. And he tried to picture the rough life that the horse-dealers and buffalo-stealers lived. But the horizon was limitless, and the boy’s eyes ached at the impact of the hot air which came trembling, as if it had been belched out of a furnace.

      Munoo thought of the days of his childhood in the hills and recalled how often he had played around the cart roads with the distended-bellied Bishan, the lean Bishampur and that superior little Jay Singh. But the purple hills of Kangra were too closed in and there was no railway there to watch. ‘It was as well, inspite of the pain I have suffered’, he said to himself, ‘to have come away from world. I am now going to Bombay, and there must be wonderful things there; many more wonderful things than there were in my village or Sham Nagar or Daulatpur’.

      The engine screamed into Ratlam. It was darkness now. Munoo slept, and by the time he woke up in the morning. They had then reached Baroda. He met with rich world of Palm trees and fertile green plains. The vast stretches of land, dotted here and there with sudden steep rocks, lapped by giant temples and by huge buildings with tall tunnels emitting smoke, filled him with a tense nervousness. He felt he was nearing his destination and he doubted whether he would be able to find his fate. However, his heart lightened for a moment with a joy of seeing the sea for the first time in his life.

      The excitement of his newly discovered joy added its weight to the feeling of fear that, momentarily suppressed, burdened his soul. He shook his body violently in attempt to work off the silent, brooding load of terror that almost dragged him down. He rose from the crumpled sack on which he had crouched and came to the window. The sea breeze fanned his face, but left a moist film of perspiration behind. He mopped himself. The particles of sand on his shirt irritated his soft, warm checks. He passed his hand through his hair and brought out small particles of coal-dust on his palm. He felt exasperated. He sighed. He could have cried. So alone and uncertain he felt. But he sat back and resigned himself to the contemplation of the magical landscape of green fields, washed clean in the sunlight and the shimmering dews of the water from the sea.

Munoo in Bombay

      Munoo saw Bombay as he read the sign-boards on the walls of factories, announcing in Roman letters, as well as in hieroglyphs of a language curious to him, difficult names like Rustamji-Jamsetji, Kharimbhoy and the letters ‘Bombay’. The train passed through station to station of the suburbs, and then it stopped at the huge central station. ‘Come, brother, you have reached the land of your heart’s desire’, said the elephant-driver. ‘The circus will soon go to the Ballard Pier, where we mount the ship that is to carry us across the black waters to abroad. Here is some food come, I will show you a way by which you may get out of the station unnoticed’.

      Munoo stared at the confused medley of colours and shapes and sizes, heard varied sounds, and smelt a smell different from all the perfumes, aromas and things he had ever smelt: the mixed smell of damp and sticky sweat, dust and heat, musk and garlic, incense and dung.

      Munoo made hurry and moved towards a quiet pavement. He looked around to measure the strength of his frame against the world. He saw the huge domes and the minarets of the General Post Office on his right, the vast domes and minarets of the railway station on his left. He saw domes and minarets of the university and the law courts. They all were vying with each other to proclaim the self-conscious heights attained by their Gothic-Mughal architecture which challenged him to decide which of them was the most splendid, not knowing in their vanity that he was only a modest hill boy impetuously impelled by every big building to believe if to be great, and easily daunted by such grandeur into believing himself completely insignificant and small.

      Oppressed and overcast, Munoo walked along the square. He was wiping stream of sweat off his face. He reached a bench at the foot of a marble statue of the short, stocky, broad-bottomed Victoria with a scroll in her hands and crown on her head, on which a blue-black crow cowed defiance to the world as it danced and fluttered after relieving itself.

      He sat in the corner of the bench and took the food which the elephant driver had given to him. He ate mouthfuls, ruining the taste of the food. He could not swallow it fast enough. He then came back to himself with a half-amused, half-chagrined smile. He walked along the pavement surveying the wondrous scene that spread before his eyes. He felt extremely thirsty so he searched for a water-tap, but Could not find one. He went to a restaurant to have a bottle of water. He thought he would have to pay an anna for a bottle of soda water. But he had to pay two anna for the bottle which he drank at one gulp and the people looked at him with mockery and contempt. Munoo felt wild with rage, but controlled his temper by acknowledging the superiority of the clean-clothed rich people, whom he had always been told to respect. Feeling that all the men in the place were staring at him, he looked away into the street through the glass window.

The Miserable Plight of Hari and His Family

      Munoo was going through the road, and as he was to move into a position to see a clearer and more detailed view of the coloured picture of the film star he suddenly heard the loud bellowing of raucous motor-horns, the tan-tan of tramway bells, the angry bells of phaeton drivers and shouts of ‘Dem Fool!’ ‘Where are you going?’ He stood dumb and still in the deadliest fear of having got into the way of the traffic.

      He felt as if he were dead or dying. But sudden impulse for life made him turn quickly on his feet. He saw that he was quite safe, but that on the other side of the pavement a scantily clad small man, dark, with grey hair and bowed legs, loaded with bundles, was dragging at a loaded woman, who was dragging a boy while a frightened little girl shrieked in the middle of the road behind them. He suddenly rushed to where the terror-stricken child stood sandwiched between the dangerous streams of traffic lifting her under his arm, ran across to where the helpless family fussily muttered curses and prayed to the Lord.

      Meanwhile, Munoo met Harihar, his wife Lakshmi, and his children who were to be his friends and colleagues, while he was staying in Bombay Hari had just returned from village where he had gone to take his wife and was going to join his job in the factory. He promised to help Munoo to get a job in the factory. So Munoo was accompanied by them and he carried the two children on his shoulders like Hanuman. They were going to Chaupati, where they would stay during the night. When they reached Chaupati, they met with an appalling sight of hunger, poverty and degradation and then they thought with a great shock that the condition of Bombay is similar to that of Daulatpur. It was all over-crowded with coolies and beggars, and Hari looked around for a vacant place having despair in his eyes. They were late, so they had to face some problems to find a place there.

      ‘If we go further, there might be a place for us somewhere’ Munoo said, urged by the cool breeze that came like a snake swishing from the darkness of the sea on his right. And he bravely led the way. It. showed that he was built up with self-confidence. Sick with disgust and pity and stung by the foul smell, he stumbled on a heap of patches quilt that half enclosed the rotting flesh of a leper who was stretching his bandaged arm and legs as a warning to every passers by.

      Sick with disgust and pity and stung by the scorpion of fear, he capered aside only to be greeted by the hoarse moan of a sleeping beggar, who protected her little child as she lay close to it, resting her head on her elbow and looking out into the dark with a tiger’s steel glance in her eyes.

      Munoo came towards Hari abashed, and looked at the old man with a nervous smile on his jaws. Walk carefully; my son,’ said Hari. Let us not disturb other people’s rest. I will show you the way.

      Munoo made room for the old man to lead and he followed cautiously, adjusting the weight of the sleeping children. He wondered how Hari’s wife could see in the dark with her head apron drawn over her eyes, and he wished he could ask her to uncover her face. If she were as old as Hari he felt he could ask her quite openly as she could be in a position of a mother to him. He was only fourteen years of age.

      He looked around with a view to seeing if he could address her. Suddenly the rapier-thrust of a heart-rending shriek fell on his ears. He saw that ten yards ahead a coolie had fallen with a thud and was rolling down, kicked from behind by the caretaker of a house, who presumably wanted to close the iron door that secured his master’s mansion against thieves.

      Munoo observed hoarse, whispers, groans and heavy half-subdued sighs. He then saw the coolies rising from all sides of the city where they had taken shelter at night. He was afraid that they would also have the same fate.

      Munoo was very glad to see Hari turn back with a reassuring message. ‘Come, I see a place across the road’.

      Munoo thought the bodies of the coolies of this place were different from that of the labourers in the grain market at Daulatpur. He remembered how Prabha had been beaten up by the police. The hill men and the Kashmiris in the North were hard, thick, big-bonned and raw, while these coolies seemed weak-kneed, spineless and thin. But then, he felt, there was really little difference between them. The up-country coolies were as afraid of the caretakers as were these Southerners. And he recalled the feeling of grim fear that had possessed him during the moment when he had clambered up to the top of the grain sacks—the fear of the long stare of the chaukidar.

      Munoo, Hari Har, his wife and the children were taking rest. He felt the warmth of the child’s breath on his cheek, and Hari spoke: We are not afraid of ghosts’. Munoo was dreaming of gold and silver scattered on the streets of Bombay. He felt he must get up and rush away, away away somewhere where there was a whiff of air to breath. He plunged his head on his hands and lay face clown wards. The suffocating darkness descended on him. It was still quite early and the children were sleeping. But he woke them up saying to them he had no time to waste. They had to reach the factory as early as possible. So they moved on, Munoo was carrying the boy and Lakshmi the girl, and Hari Har himself took their trunk and bedding. Munoo was extremely tired but he kept moving on and finally came to his destination Sir George White Cotton Mills. At the door of the factory they met a Pathan Nadir Khan whom Hari Har requested to call out Chimta Sahib, the English foreman who had engaged him and he entirely depended upon him.

Jimmie Thomas: Manipulation

      Jimmie Thomas (Chimta Sahib) came out of the factory to meet Hari Har who had come to resume his work. He was a great mechanic in Lancashire mill and at present he was holding the position of head foreman in one of the biggest cotton mills in India for last fifteen years. He was a massive man with a scarlet bulldog face and a small waxed moustache, and his huge body was dressed in a greasy white shirt, greasy white trousers and a greasy white polo topee, of which the leather strap hung down at the back of his thick neck. He was proud, arrogant and greedy exploited the poor workers, and extorted money out of them in every possible way He employed Hari Har and Munoo at very low wages—Rupees 15 per month to each and Rupees 5 and a half per month to Lakshmi and the children respectively after much cringing and flattery to him. Infact, he wanted to receive present, fruits, or sweets for their best salary but Hari could not meet his requirements. Further he asked him to occupy the cottage at the end of the lane, for which he would charge him not more than three rupees per month. In addition, he was asked to pay commission due to him (Chimta Sahib) as usual. It was shameless and cruel exploitation but Hari Har had to accept it all.

      Munoo knew that the Sahib is a very important man. He did know that the Sahib in greasy clothes was the virtual master of the factory He had a lot of work to do. He did not know that he was the employer’s agent to engage workmen. He thought that he was the god who provided security of their jobs. He said that because of all this he charged every worker in the factory a price for the gift of job.

      Moreover, they found that there was no end of their exploitation in the city. There was only one grocer’s shop in the area owned by a Sikh who charged exorbitant rates and under-weighed the goods. He provided goods on credit only at very high rate of interest. All the workers were heavily indebted to him. Hari Har and Munoo also had to meet with this kind of exploitation.

The Textile Factory and Its Ambience

      Next morning it was still dark when they got up to the sounding of the shrill whistle of the factory. They got ready to go to the factory but even so, they were late for the work. Lakshmi and the children were pushed into a shed with low door on the first floor, while Munoo and Hari had to climb a rickety iron staircase on to the second floor where a number of machines were at work. Munoo sat between Hari and Ratan. Ratan who looked like a wrestler was to teach him the work. It consisted in his having to move a handle with his right hand and to join the end of a thread with knots whenever it broke. It was Ratan who taught Munoo how to do work so quickly and efficiently. Munoo was fascinated to see the machines, but the work was monotonous, he had to sit in the same posture, keep his eyes fixed on the thread, and be constantly alert. It was very hot. He wanted to take off his shirt, as the other coolies were bare-bodied, but he did not know how to do so while at work. However, soon the whistle sounded and it indicating it was lunch time. Munoo rose from his seat, he took off his shirt. It was soon caught in a machine and then it was reduced to tatters in a moment. Munoo tried to get his shirt back but he was stopped and warned to be careful, otherwise he would get caught in the same machine and get killed.

      Munoo then met Hari but unfortunately they were not able to get any food since his wife did not come during the break. Hari later learnt that one of his children had wounded his arm by accidentally touching the moving belt of a machine, and he took him to the hospital. He requested Munoo to bring Lakshmi and his daughter back home, as they would not be able to find their way by themselves.

      When Hari went to the Hospital Munoo’s heart went out to him. He thought he must carry the child on his back to the Hospital. He again thought the boy might die on his shoulder before Hari reached there. Munoo felt it would be more unbearable to live with Hari and his wife if that happened, because they might connect their misfortunes with their association with him. Further, he cursed himself saying he was really ominous, for it was he who brought misfortune to Prabha and then it seemed he had brought misfortune to Hari. He preferred to die.

“It were better to be dead. Yes, better to be dead, because this town has turned out wrong. It is so hot working here, and my aunt’s mud hut in the hills was better than the damp straw hut in Sahib’s Lane.”

      The afternoon of Saturday was a half-holiday even for the coolies. They had gone to hospital to get the boy’s arm dressed up. Suddenly the weather changed. The dark cloud brought heavy rains as it rained two hours torrentially. When it abated a little they started to return home. The roads were like rivers, outside the city was a lake, and the tank had over-flowed and washed away the straw huts.

Rain: Ratan’s Altruistic Acts

      The rain-led flood had washed away the huts of hundreds of other workers. Hari could salvage a few pots and pans from the hut with great difficulty Fortunately Ratan came to rescue and offered to provide them shelter. He took them to a chawl and arranged for them to share a room with a labourer named Shibu. Thus they got a much better place to live in on five rupees a month.

      Hari Har was afraid, for Chimta Sahib might be angry for having vacated his room. The next day his belongings were badly scattered, it was very difficult to trace out a few of them. They came to reside in Ratan’s house. They were well served by Shibu and his wife in the newly rented house.

      Next morning when Munoo got up, he had a foul smell coming through the window. It was all a gutter of dirty water overflowing with night soil. There were two hundred men using seven lavatories and Munoo had to pay one anna to the sweeper if he wanted a clean one.

      Next day when Hari Har reached the factory Sahib Chimta abused him and asked why he had left his hut without giving any information to him. As he wanted to strike the poor man Hari Har, he was intervened by Ratan. Ratan tried to convince him. Hence it led to hot argument between them. The Sahib stepped aside, saying.

      ‘Go away go away get to work. Go away or I will kick you, you fool! I rented the cottage to them, not to you. It is none of your business.’

      ‘It is my business,’ roared Ratan. ‘Go back to your bunglow or I will break your head!’

      Ratan extended his help and co-operation in the hour of need. Munoo was much pleased. He was all admiration for Ratan, more as he told him that he had worked in the Iron Factory of Jamshedpur for long years and had a bitter experience there. However, Chimta Sahib taught Hari Har a lesson for his insult by Ratan when they were paid their wages. He was given only twenty rupees after drastic and unjust cuts from the Hari Hars, Munoo and their children’s wages. Hari accepted the money without raising his eyebrow at him. However, he dared not cut even a single penny out of the wages of Ratan for he was afraid of him.

      Hari wants to give his portion. But Munoo refused to take saying he owed him that for his food and rent. When Hari insisted to take his portion, Munoo took five rupees for his pocket expenses.

      As Ratan came out after receiving his full amount he saw that Hari was being beaten by the two pathans who were asking him to pay off the debt of Nadir Shah. Ratan again came to his rescue and both came to the Chawl. He asked them to be bold and to stand up for their rights. He invited them to join the workers union. Thus, Hari, Munoo and Shibu all agreed to join hands to go against the Mill.

Munoo in Red Light District

      The friendship between Munoo and Ratan grew fast as a friendship can grow between two Panjabis alone. They considered the mill as a hell, and they were in this hell for twelve hours every day Once Ratan took him to the apartment of a prostitute dancer, Piarijan. Ratan was welcomed there very respectfully it seemed he was a regular visitor of the saloon of Piarijan. He told the dancer that he was with a new customer that day She appreciated the handsomeness of the boy. The two young girls entertained them with their beautiful songs and dance. Munoo had a great enjoyment having seen the nautch and listened to the songs. Ratan gave them money when the story was at the climax. Munoo was much excited and felt an undefined, mysterious longing deep in his heart. After the dance was over Ratan stayed there and suggested Munoo to reach home and he would follow him later. Munoo being alone, wept bitterly and rushed out and reached home long after midnight. Lakshmi was awake and waiting for him. She looked at him with a pained tender glance and saw tear in his eyes. She bent over him, with a wild light in her eyes and a warm flush on her cheeks. She raised his chin with gentle, brush of her hand and, with all the pathos, all the tenderness of her mother’s intuitive understanding of his need, kissed his forehead, murmuring in the faintest of whispers like an incantation: “We belong to suffering! We belong to suffering! My Love!” The novelist had tried to confine her feelings to a case of sexual-intercourse. However, everything is ambiguous.

Chimta Sahib’s Vengeance

      In the factory many events were taking place. Chimta Sahib was often in a mood of revenge since he bore the humiliation by Ratan. When one morning as they entered the mill-gates, Chimta Sahib made Ratan know that he had been discharged from service. Ratan wanted to know the cause of his dismissal, he simply ordered him to get out of the factory. Ratan visited the office of the Indian National Trade Union of which he was member and wanted to put his matter in front of Lala Onkar Nath, the President, but Lala had a deaf ear to him and told him through his clerk that if he had anything to say he should lodge a written complaint. Ratan wrote an application to lodge his complaint, for this he had to pay a rupee. The news of Ratan’s dismissal spread like wild fire and many coolies came to see him and sympathise with him. There was a rival trade union—the Red Flag (Communist) union and its officials like Sauda, Muzaffar and Stanley Jackson also came to meet him, and hence they exhorted the workers to uphold their self-respect and go on strike. The workers, no doubt resented the exploitation they suffered but the necessity of meeting their immediate needs made them shrink from going on strike.

Mr. Little and Declaration of Short Work

      The coming of the three communist leaders made it possible to go on strike. The president of the All India Trade Union Congress made a representation to Sir George White Mills on behalf of Ratan and requested the management of mill to reinstate Ratan. The letter reached the Manager, Mr. Little who, however, had more urgent correspondence to attend to including some letters from the owner of the mill Mr. Reginald White one of the letters contained a direction to the Manager to put up a notice that in view of trade depression and-currency crisis the mill was forced to put the workers on short work. The notice read:-

The Board of Directors regret to announce that in order to keep the plant running and to curtail expenses, the Mills will go on short time, immediately. There will be no work for the fourth week in every month till further notice. No wages will be paid for that week, but the management, having the welfare of the workers at heart, have sanctioned a substantial allowance. This will take effect from May 10th.

Signed Sir Reginald White,
Board President,
Sir George White Mills.

      As the Sahib himself was to pay a visit that day the Manager decided to put the notice board only after the visit of Sir Reginald so that he could face the situation if there was any resentment or uproar among the workers. The Manager told the foreman about the notice. The two Englishmen blamed the native workers for this situation. The foreman asked the Manager that he had discharged one of the trouble makers named Ratan recently. The Manager told him that he had got a representation about his reinstatement.

      Mr. Little was of the view that all the strikers should be made to stand against a wall and shot. Sir Reginald arrived and he explained the circumstances which had necessitated the notice about the announcement of Short Work. The notice brought all discontentment among the workers. But Munoo thought that the agitation was made because of Ratan’s dismissal. Munoo was now a more responsible person who decided to go to Chimta Sahib and plead for Ratan. He reached his house and had a talk with him politely. But Chimta Sahib was drunk and he got scared and thought that someone had come to murder him in revenge for the notice of short work and therefore, he lost his temper and threw a whiskey bottle at Munoo. But he was not hurt. His wife told herself that her life was not safe with him, and she began to weep ruefully with most heart rending sobs.

The Strike Started

      The strike was considered in the congress meeting. Various slogans were shouted such as ‘Down with wage cuts’ and ‘Down with the Dniox Jack’, ‘up with the Red Flag’. The president Lalla Onkar Nath wanted to negotiate with the Mill owner on the issue of wage cut and other issues. But other members wanted to fight against the mill authority for their well being. The workers said their demands included the right to work without having to pay bribes, shorter hours of work; no arbitrary dismissals or wage-cuts and amenities like clean houses and schools for their children. There was a loud voice that could be heard and a Hindu person insisted that his son was kidnapped by Muslims. Another voice declared that many Hindu children had been kidnapped. Somehow many workers could believe it, and the meeting which was called to take a decision on strike soon turned into a wild crowd frenzied with communal passions. Communal frenzy possessed the coolies, and within no time the riot took its own turn and spread like wild fire in most parts of Bombay. Hindus and Muslims struck blows and killed each other’s head in the name of religion. It created a horrible scene of communal madness in the city.

Communal Riot in Bombay

      Fighting for demands and rights suddenly turned into fighting for religion. The Muslims in one corner of the meeting were seen pulling off the turbans of Hindus and striking blow at them. Hindus on the other hand also lost their temper and struk them and hence unrestrained fighting among them broke out. Munoo rushed upto Ratan and clung to his tunic trembling. Ratan asked Munoo to go home. However, a Pathan asked him whether he was Hindu or Muslim. When he could not respond he struck a blow at him and he barely escaped by jumping aside.

      Munoo within no time fled from the maidan where the meeting was held, and crept through the bazars, lanes and by-lanes of Bombay On several occasions he saw men struck down with lathi blows, and lying unconscious and bleeding on the road. In one of the lanes he himself was struck a heavy blow on the head. He escaped narrowly. He was soon taken to the school verandah by some men of the Social Service League. He was given hot milk to drink, and this restored and invigorated him a little.

      He decided not to stay there and steal away under the cover of the darkness at night. He rested for the night in an empty wagon. He woke up late in the morning and he was in confusion where to go and what to do. The name list commented on his earlier days saying “During the days when he had worked, however, and come home to meal, he had seldom been lonely, even though he was fired by work and suffered inconveniences. For he talked and heard people talk, played practical jokes on people, and slept, rising to face the morning. That was life!”

      However, he was again on the move, enjoying the scene around him as he went along. He began to read the sign boards outside various shops. He then came to know by the conversation of the people that rumour about kidnapping had been entirely false. There was considerable rioting in the mill area but the police claimed that they had brought the situation under control and there was no problem of law and order in the city. All the coolies had returned to work. But hardly had he moved two hundred yards, when he heard the roars of a long volly of shots clearly indicating that the riot was not over and the police were firing to normalize the situation. Munoo continued walking through the long avenue of trees of Malabar hill. At one place the scene of boats in the harbour fascinated him and he was spell-bound and stood in the middle of the road to see its beauty, and was suddenly knocked down by a speedy car.

The Accident of Munoo

      The scene of the boats was so fascinating that he was lost in contemplating its grandeur. It was the loud honk of a car—and, before he could jump aside, he was knocked down. He rolled down the hill, urged by an instinct to avoid injury but the front wheels of the vehicle passed over his chest before it came to a standstill. Mrs. Mainwaring was the owner of the car and was greatly disturbed by the accident. Her driver was Mohammedan who saw that the injured boy was a Hindu. Mrs. Mainwaring applied her hand to his heart and passed it over his head with the skill of the woman who had taken first-aid diploma at the Regent Street Polytechnic. ‘His pulse is all right’, she continued; ‘he is only stunned.’ She then suggested her driver to put him in the car. “We will take him to Simla with us. I wanted a servant.” Thus it was the end of one phase of his journey and Munoo started his second phase of career in Shimla.

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