Critical Analysis of The Novel Coolie by Mulk Raj Anand

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One of the Distinguished Novels

      Coolie is one of the most distinguished novels of Anand. It is so popular novel that it has been translated into more than twenty important languages of the world. It has been appreciated by many readers, scholars and critics alike. They are of the view that the novels may have been branded as an epic of misery the epic of modern India and the odyssey of Munoo, the Collie. The novel is panoramic in nature having a much larger and wider view than his first novel Untouchable. Coolie has also much larger number of characters than his first work. The novel presents the wider views of socio-political, socio-economic and the socio-cultural condition of India. V.S. Pritchett has said in this respect of the novel “I got more out of Coolie than out of any other novel I have read for a very long time indeed. There is so much talk about political novels in these times but so few of them to me to be works of any high order. In fact, Coolie, is the only political novel I have read which profoundly satisfied me”.

Publication of the Novel

      Anand took three months to complete the novel which published in 1936 by Lawrence and Wiskart. The novel was entitled as Musings on Munoo before it was published. However, Anand says that he was instigated into writing this novel by the prejudice shown by Bonamy Dobree, T.S. Eliot and K.D.B. Codrington to Kipling’s hero Kim. The central character of the novel Coolie is Munoo, who is one of the childhood playmates of the novelist. Munoo was consigned to work as a labourer in a pickle factory and he accepted his lot with a fatalism peculiar to the Indian peasantry.

      While Anand took to writing the novel, he got encouragement from Herbert Read, who is one of the admirers of Anand’s skill with which he contrasted innocence with experience. On the other hand, he was helped by many others such as Eric Gill and John Strachey and the poet Philip Henderson, who unsparingly cut out some irrelevant matters from the subject-matter. Thus the novel soon gained, appreciation and popularity and at once, it established. Anand s position, “as one of the most interesting revolutionary writers of our times”. The novel is rightly his most representative piece of work and it has in it the germs of most of his strength and weaknesses as a novelist.

Plot Construction of Coolie

      The novel Coolie is concerned with the adventures of Munoo, an orphan, hill boy fourteen years old, who is forced to leave his idyllic village, Bilaspur, somewhere near Kangra valley in order to work and stand on his feet. He is full of passion to enter into the world of modernity but his dreams shatter when he first faces the reality of life. Since he is appointed as a servant at the house of the sub-accountant of the Imperial Bank, Sham Nagar, he is ill-treated in the hands of Babu and his shrewish and vindictive house wife, Bibiji and except his younger brother Dr. Prem Babu. One day he runs away from his employers house and finds himself at a primitive pickle and jam factory Daulatpur, where he works as a labourer in a most unhygienic environment and he is also badly ill-treated by Ganpat, the co-partner of the factory owner Prabha Dayal. Further the proprietor who is kind to him, is bankrupted by the treachery of Ganpat and he is hurled back into the ranks of the Coolie from where he rose to be a proprietor of the factory Munoo is fated to be a Coolie facing desperate competition from the other Coolies while working as a beast of burden. From this struggle of life and death he is brought to Bombay by the help of an elephant-driver in a circus. He had dreamt Bombay to be a city where riches were strewn on the streets. But his dream soon meets with harrowing experiences. In Bombay, he is supported by a vagrant family-Hari and his wife Lakshmi and is employed as worker in a cotton mill. He works like others by losing all sense of self-respect under the cruelty of the foreman of the factory Jimmie Thomson. The hut in which he is living is dilapidated and it is soon washed away by the monsoon. He becomes friend of Ratan another Coolie in Mill who rescues him in the hour of crisis. He takes him to the red-light house for entertainment. He witnesses a labour-strike, which is failed at the crucial hour at the instigation of the factory Authority and it is resultant in Hindu-Muslim riots. Finally, he is knocked down by the car of an Anglo-Indian woman Mrs. Main waring, who takes him to Simla and employs him her page-cum-rickshaw puller. Here while in her service, he falls victim of tuberculosis due to overwork, and dies of it watching the peaceful hills and valleys he had abandoned for the plains.

Three Dimensional Novel (Novel of Panorma)

      Coolie is a novel-panoramic in nature, and its action moves from the North to the South, and then back again to North. In this way we come across a shifting view of the hills, dales and rivers of India on the one hand, we also get to see different forts, palaces, ruined buildings and other monuments of the past of India on the other. Besides, we have also the picture of her society in all its variety, its grinding poverty and wretchedness. We quote the view of Peter Quennell: “India seen third class—a continent whose bleakness, vastness and poverty unshaded by a. touch of the glamour, more or less fictitious, that so many English story-tellers, from Kilping to Major-Yeats Brown, have preferred to draw across the scene.”

      As Munoo comes out of the Victoria station, he sees Bombay at a first sight. Anand describes the whole scene “Munoo emerged from the central station. Before him was Bombay; strange, hybrid complex, Bombay in whose streets purple-faced Europeans in immaculate suits, boots and basket hats rubbed shoulders with long-nosed Paris dressed in frock-coats, white trousers, domelike miters; in which eagle-eyed Muhammadans with baggy trousers, long tunics and fezes mingled with sleek Hindus clothed in muslin shirts, dhotis and black boat-like caps; in which the saris of Parsi women vied with the colourful Toads of garments on rich Hindu women and put to shame the plain white veils of purdah women and the flimsy frocks of masculine European woman; in which electric motor-horns phut-phutted, victoria and tram bells tinkled firga-lirga-ling; in which was the press of many races, and the babble of many tongues which he did not know at all. It seems that the novelist has taken round on guided tour of India. The novel thus is able to attain epic dimensions and there is no doubt to be called, “The odyssey of Munoo”, the coolie.

Various Types of Characters

      As far as the characters of the novel Coolie are concerned, there are much larger variety of characters in the novel than Anand’s earlier novel Untouchable. It is an established fact that the range and scope of the novel is much vaster than that of an aforesaid novel. Hence the canvas of the novel appears to be a crowded one. The central figure of the novel is Munoo and through his eyes, the action is seen. To quote Margaret Berry “the centre of consciousness” in the novel, a pair of spectacles through which the social and political life of India in all its misery and wretchedness is surveyed. Other men and women, their morality and behaviour, their mode of thinking and doing are all evaluated in accordance with Munoo’s reactions to them.

      Munoo is the hero of the novel and a number of characters are grouped around him in each phase of his career. These characters may be classified as (i) individual characters (ii) institutional characters and (iii) representational characters. In fact, the individual characters have little importance than the central character. However; these characters have their own importance; they have their own well-marked personalities and they act as per their qualities the good or evil, found in their characters. Such individual characters in the novel are Jimmie Thomas and Ganpat who are almost the wicked ones on the one hand. And Prabha Dayal, Hari and others are among the noble-hearted on the other. Institutional or typical characters are those who are usually present in groups and they represent some particular classes, social evil, profession or institution. Among all the institutional characters, we have the village friends of Munoo, the servants of the rich men in Sham Nagar, Tulsi, Maharaj and the wife of Prabha in Daulatpur, the soda water seller, the foot-path sleepers including the woman whose husband had passed away the previous night, the yogi, Piarijan, the prostitute, the pimp Bude Khan, and the dancers Janki and Gulab Jan, Mr. Little, the manager, the rickshaw pullers of Simla etc. There are some Minor characters in the novel who typify the wretchedness and misery shams and hypocrisy corruption and decay of Indian society The representational characters are the minor figures in the novel. They are like institutional ones but their personalities are well-defined. They have their own way to approach to various social problems. They are very conscious of their approach. Such representational characters Sauda and Ratan, Mr. White, Daya Ram, and Mrs. Mainwaring etc.

      Secondly, the characters in the novel may be divided into two groups—the English characters and their Indian sycophants. The English characters, except W.P. England, are generally caricatures and are regarded as failures. On the other hand, there is also an element of caricature in the presentation of Indian characters. The characters towards whom Anand has no sympathy are Mr. England, Mr. Little, Mr. Marjory Banks, Sir Todar Mal, Babu Nathoo Ram, Mrs. Mainwaring, the police Inspector who ruthlessly beats Prabha Dayal. The characters, who have wickedness in their approach are Ganpat, Jimmie Thomas, Bibi Uttam Kaur and lady Todar Mal. There are some characters in the novel in whom traits of goodness are exposed. They are Prabha Dayal, who helps Munoo and tries to abate his sufferings; Chota Babu, (the younger brother of Nathoo Ram) who is only sympathetic to him; Ratan who befriends him and rescues him from an acute crisis by giving him and his other patron Hari shelter when their house is washed away by monsoon; Hari Har and his wife Lakshmi, and Parvati the wife of Prabha and Mrs. Mainwaring and many others who help him directly or indirectly. There are some other minor characters in the novel who happen to fulfill the canvas and complete Anand’s panorama of Indian social life. For examples, the coolies in the grain market of Daulatpur, the sick and helpless pavement dwellers of Bombay and the workers in the cotton mill.

Various Themes and Concepts of the Novel

      Coolie is quite a complex work of art and it is epical in its dimensions, hence in it stand out a large number of themes and ideas. According to M.K. Naik “In these chronicles of coolies, the range and scope of Anand’s fiction widens, his canvas expands and there is an orches-tradition of themes which are barely touched upon in Untouchable—themes such as the contrast between rural and urban India and the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, on the one hand, and Indians and the British, on the other. In his treatment of these themes, Anand’s compassion for the underdog and his indignation at the exploitation of the Indian by the forces of capitalism, industrialism, communalism, colonialism, and racism invest these two novels (Coolie and Two Leaves and a Bud) with great power so long as his artistic control over his material does not slacken.” As a matter of fact, Coolie is a novel of the thirties which express Anand as a revolutionary young man of that “pink decade”. However one of the important themes of the novel is the exploitation of the poor by the rich and of the ‘have-nots’ by the ‘haves’ of the society. The novel deals with hunger, starvation, suffering and wretchedness, sickness, disease, death and degradation which are caused by hunger, since it becomes one of the themes of the novel.

Detailed Theme of East and West

      The theme of East and West is one of the important themes of the novel. The English have ruled over India for more than 200 years and there have been confrontations between the two. Hence, it resulted in tradition versus modernity. The English people launched industry in India and the impact of industry on the traditional Indian way of life changes the condition and brings the sense of modernity. Anand talks of machine, which is merely an instrument of exploitation and a cause of bringing misery to the poor. It is the relationship of European and Indian characters, through which the East-West theme is studied in the novel. The European characters seem to be caricatured and shown to be the exploiters of the Indian masses. Munoo, in Coolie and Bakha in Untouchable have passion for modernity. Munoo wants to wear the European dress of Chota Baboo and he likes to look like him. He is most fascinated by the various scientific gadgets in the house of Babu Nathoo Ram. On the other hand, Bakha wears the European dress. The condition of Munoo and other colleagues like him is the direct outcome of British rule and of Industrial Revolution. The position of Munoo in this capitalistic society raises the question of freedom. According to Anand “freedom to Munoo, as to millions of others, means no more than being beaten from pillar to post”. It is to be noted that in Indo-Anglian fiction perhaps, Coolie is the first novel to focus on the topic of Hindu-Muslim riots which are engineered by the Mill owners to break the strike or the unity and this thing becomes stronger leading to the partitioning of India in 1947.

Reflection of Human-relationship in the Novel

      Anand is a great humanist. He has tried to develop the relationship of man to man, man to nature and mind to soul in his novels. Hence, he has humanized the Indian novel, but his championship of the have nots and his angry denunciation of the exploiters of the poor has made him a communist and a propagandist though he has himself tried again and again to reject this allegation. Says C.D. Narsimhaiah that Coolie is “a novel of human centrality”, for humanity is the focus of Anand’s interest. Commenting on human-relationships in the novel O.P. Mathur says “the epic-structure of the novel is unified by the intensely human personality of the hero, who goes through this world like a shaft of love illuminating it and resolving the blind confusions of human-relationships” In fact, Coolie is a deep study of the relationship of the rich and the poor, of children, of servant and master, and of the poor themselves, and of Indians and Europeans.

Picaresque Traits of the Novel: Episodic Plot

      The novel exposes a series of adventures in the style of a picaresque novel, though the hero of the novel is not a rogue like the hero of the picaresque novel, as its action takes from the North to the South and then back to the North, the hills of Simla from where Munoo, the central character begins his career. Thus, the plot of the novel is episodic. However, the novel has a thematic unity and every action which befalls Munoo illustrates the central theme of exploitation and suffering of the poor in the capitalistic society There are various characters which are representing either the exploited or the exploiters, the Europeans, the capitalist, and their helpers and supporters or the suffering and the misery of the poor, the helpers, the beggars and other pavement dwellers etc. They are mere beasts of burden and kicked about from pillar to post.

A Novel of Parallelism and Contrasts

      The novel contains a varied and heterogeneous materials which are further organised through a series of parallelism and contrasts, which run through the novel. In this connection, writes C.D. Narasimhaiah “Contrasts, reinforcements, parallel situations seem to be an important part of Anand’s technique in concretizing in words the patterns of life which he knows best.” The novel best exposes the contrast between the well-fed opulence of the rich and the starvation and hunger of the poor and the helpless, between the luxurious sky-scrappers of the rich and the miserable dwellings of the poor, between the decent bungalows of the English and the meaner dwellings of Indians, even the well-to-do people, between the gorgeous dresses of the rich and the tattered rags of the poor, between pride and arrogance of the European and the cringing servility of the Indians. The life of Munoo passes through five phases covering a span of nearly two years in the novel. Each phase deals with the theme of the misery and wretchedness of the poor as a result of exploitation from the forces of capitalism, colonialism and industrialism.


      In a nutshell, Coolie is a distinguished work and fully deserves the appreciation from the readers, critics and scholars, that it got ever since it was first published. Among the Indo-Anglian fictions, it is a classic one. It will be read and enjoyed as long as English is read and its literature continues to be enjoyed. Thus, Munoo, the central figure of the novel, is among the immortals of literature. Munoo is a universal character. He is the passion of India as well as of mankind. According to Saros Cowasjee: “He (Munoo) belongs with some of the endearing juvenile characters in modern literature: with Victor Hugo’s Gavroche and Dickens’ David Copperfield.”

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