Elements of Picaresque Novel in Coolie

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Picaresque Features in the Novel

      The word ‘picaresque’ descends from the Spanish word Picaro meaning a rogue or a villain. A picaresque novel is a novel which deals with the tales of Spanish rogue and vagabond life. The rogue or Picaro is the central figure, and in the novel, he plays several roles and puts on many masks. Edwin Muir defines it as “The picaresque novel is the tale of the hard working travelling hero, suffering every vicissitude, good or bad, and enduring them all.”

Features of Adventures: Episodic Nature

      Coolie has a number of elements of a picaresque novel. It is episodic in nature. It relates a series of adventures and episodes but lacks in logical or casual unity. It has been called the Odyssey of Munoo, for as in the Odyssey, the great Greek poet has written about the adventures of the King Ulysses, therefore, the novelist has shown the adventures of Munoo because he moves from the North to the South, and then comes back to the North. It describes his adventures or misadventures in Sham Nagar, in Daulatpur, in Bombay and in the end, in Simla where he breathes his last. Firstly, he is appointed as a domestic servant in Babu Nathoo Ram’s house in Sham Nagar and he is ill-treated there and then runs away from Sham Nagar. He then reaches Daulatpur and works as a boy servant in a pickle factory and then he serves as a coolie in the grain market. Next, the turn of fortune’s wheel brings him to Bombay where he works in textile mill, and experiences the worse conditions of the coolies, and communal riots, drinks and even goes to the red light area along with Ratan, another coolie-cum his friend and enjoys the dance and music of Piari Jan. Lastly he comes to Simla and is appointed as a domestic servant-cum rickshaw puller of Mrs. Mainwaring and dies of consumption.

Loose and Weak Plot

      The novel Coolie is charged of loose and rambling plot. The only unity that these adventures have is that they happen to the central figure, Munoo. Coolie is not a novel of character like picaresque novel, but it is a novel of movement and action. The novelist does not take interest in the evolution of Munoo’s character, he simply gives a description of the various phases in his life and the adventures and happenings which take place in his life. Anand never speaks of
Munoo’s inner and spiritual developments, he never attains maturity or self-realization. He wanders here and there without any goal in his life. In fact, he does not act but he is acted upon by the society Munoo spends his life visiting one place to other and within the two years of hard life, he passes away. He moves from Bilaspur, his village to Sham Nagar and from there to Daulatpur, from Daulatput to Bombay and lastly returns from there to Simla. In every turn of his life, he meets someone and is helped by him. The persons who come in his life are mostly kind-hearted and sympathetic, and his future course of action is determined by chance and fate. In the Simla phase of Munoo’s career—he is accidentally knocked down by a car — this episode, is not regarded as an organic part of the novel. The sympathetic critics of Anand like C. D. Narasimhaiah and Jack Lindsay regard it as a serious fault.

Diversity of Characters: Lack of Development

      A picaresque novel deals with a wide variety of events and characters. The canvas of Coolie is a crowded one, so that Anand has little time for character development, for giving us well-developed, three-dimensional, remarkable figures. The novelist has not shown the evolution of Munoo’s character. According to the manner of the picaresque, characters make their appearance on the stage for a short time, and then disappear forever. Thus, in the life of Munoo, a great number of characters appear but soon they are replaced by others. In course of time, when Munoo ends his Sham Nagar sojourn, his uncle, Daya Ram, his master Nathoo Ram, and Bibiji and others are not heard of. Their place is taken by Prabha Dyal, the pickle factory owner, his wife, Parbati and the co-partner of the factory Ganpat, Toder Mal, and others. When Munoo leaves Daulatpur for Bombay these characters are left behind. While living in Bombay he comes across Hari Har, his wife, Lakshmi, Ratan, Jimmie Thomas, the foreman of the factory and many others. These characters also make an exit from the scene when he comes from Bombay to Simla. After that no characters are again seen on the stage. What happens to Hari and his family and Ratan is not further stated. There is not a single character save Munoo who is present from beginning to the end in the novel.

Comprehensive Presentation of Indian Life

      A picaresque novel is panoramic in nature. Through the movement of the hero from one place to another, the novelist presents a wide panorama of social life i.e. it relates to social criticism and social indictment. Coolie is also a panoramic novel. Its action moves from the village of Bilaspur in the hills of Kangra, in Punjab to Sham Nagar, form Sham Nagar to Daulatpur, from Daulatpur to Bombay, and then back again from there to Simla in the North. Thus, the novelist gives a wide view of the varied scenes and sights of India. Munoo is travelling by train and he reaches Rajasthan, the novelist asserts that Munoo feels a subtle fascination about the desert under the scorching sun.

“It seemed to come to life with its 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 drivers who struggled on foot against hunger and drought. An occasional collection of tents or ruined outhouse reminded Munoo of the caravans he had seen on the outskirts of Sham Nagar. And he tried to picture the rough life that the horse-dealers and buffalo-dealers 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.”

“Towards evening that flat land gave way to sudden hills capped by forts, and to a plateau where the day’s strong colours melted lovingly on groves of acacia trees and low bushes at which stray goats nibbled and camels strained their long necks. And then beyond the empty beds of muddy rivers, little clusters of huts appeared; men who saluted the train as they leant on their staves, woman who coyly covered their faces as they bore pitchers of milk on their heads, and children who stood with their eyes open in wonder their fingers in their mouths, naked and unashamed.”

“As Munoo cogitated, the train left behind the mounds covered with brown grass, wild flowers, low scrub, and entered a glistening green valley bordered on the far end by a range of ochre-coloured mountains. The old fort of Chitore may be in those hills, he thought, where Padmini fought Ala-ud-Din, the slave king of Delhi, and where the heroes of Mewar donned yellow robes and performed Johur and the women committed sati with the Queen, rather than face dishonour at the hands of the conquerers. I wish I could see it, I wish I could go there. But I have no work there. I must get to Bombay—Bombay and work. I wonder when I shall get there?”

      Hence, we get equally vivid and wide pictures of life in Bombay.

Anand’s Social Criticism

      Anand’s purpose of writing a novel like Coolie as a picaresque novel is to give panorama of the society of the times and to expose and criticise its many evils and vices, and injustices. Indeed a picaresque novel is a novel of social criticism. Anand through his great art Coolie gives us a comprehensive and detailed view of the society of the time. He has concentrated on the sordid side of life.
He describes misery wretchedness and degradation of the poor. These too, are the characteristics of the picaresque novel. The poor are hungry and sick, weak and helpless at every place whether in the village like Bilaspur, the town like Sham Nagar or in the city like Daulatpur or in the metro-city like Bombay. They have no sense of self-respect, no dignity; they have to cringe and flatter their Bosses to hold whatever their positions are. They are beaten from pillar to post and are, forced to face the cruelty and the high-handedness of their masters. They live like animals in the most unhygienic surroundings. They are constantly maltreated and exploited. They have been reduced to this agonising state by the combined forces of capitalism, colonialism, industrialism and communalism. Lastly, the novelist gives a picture of Hindu-Muslim riot which is engineered by the British forces to break the strike of the labourers. And he also adds the Simla episode as an indictment of the Anglo-Indian community.

Munoo Belongs to Lower Strata of the Society: A Social Outcast

      Undoubtedly the hero of a picaresque novel is a rogue, but Munoo never seems to be a rogue. To quote Saros Cowasjee “Munoo himself is a victim of the world’s rogueries”. He is not at all a rogue, but is thoroughly a noble and innocent boy in all his roles. He has not yet passed the state of innocence and entered into the state of experience. He has no intension to harm anybody nor he does any harm to others, but is himself harmed, ill-treated and exploited in world’s rogueries till he dies of consumption which puts an end to his suffering. But it is also an established fact that the picaresque novelists in England have always tended to make a social outcaste, an orphan. And he has to resist for himself from his boyhood onwards, as the hero of their novel. For examples, we see Smollett’s Humphry Clinker and Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. This is more so the case with the modern picaresque novels like Huckleberry Finn. Munoo himself comes from lowest stratum of society, is a social outcaste and has to fend for himself since his early boyhood.


      In a nutshell, Coolie contains the elements of a picaresque novel. In fact, it has the picaresque framework—its series of adventures, its diversity of characters and incidents and its episodic nature. Coolie is only different from picaresque novel as its hero is not a rogue, but a humble, and innocent boy who has been the victim of world’s rogueries.

University Questions

What elements of the picaresque novel do you find in Coolie?
Coolie is an episodic novel. Discuss.
Coolie is the story of the adventures of Munoo. Comment.
Justify critically that Coolie is the Odyssey of Munoo.
To what extent can Coolie be described as panoramic novel?
Examine critically that the novel is the deep study of social criticism.

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