Encounter of Indian and British in The Novel Coolie

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East-West Theme: Its Appropriateness

      The novel, Coolie, deals with several themes out of which the East-West theme is one of them. Indeed, the East-West theme figures prominently in Indo-Anglian novels, particularly those written after Independence. This theme is studied through the impact of industry on the traditional Indian way of life. The novelist speaks for the machine, which is merely an instrument of exploitation and creator of misery to the poor. The East-West theme also studies the relationship of European and Indian characters. Generally, the Europeans are caricatured and shown to be the exploiters of the Indian by fair and foul means. Munoo, the central figure in the novel, wants to be modern, to wear Angrezi clothes, and to look like the sahibs. He is most fascinated to see the various scientific gadgets, clothes, boots, gramophone and so many things in the home of Babu Nathoo Ram. He wants to wear the dress like Doctor Chhota Baboo. Munoo’s plight and that of his kind is the direct result of British rule i.e. Industrial Revolution. His position in life raises the question of freedom of mind in a capitalistic society As Anand finds—freedom to Munoo, as to millions of others, means no more than being beaten from pillar to post. The novel Coolie also studies the subject of Hindu-Muslim riots, which is most probably engineered by the mill owners (the English man) and it definitely leads to the partition of India in 1947.

      Moreover, the English ruled our India for many years and they attacked Indian culture. There always have been conflicts and tensions between the English and the Indians for the latter always fought for the cause of Independence. The British contact was conducive to the growth of a new angle of vision, and in many ways it has been profitable. But cultural pride and feeling of superiority came in the way of harmonious relations. In the novel this theme has been elaborated through the relationship of the Indian and English characters, the impact of Industrialisation, and the passion for modernity which influences some characters.

Relationship Between Indian and English Characters

      Coolie, the novel of Anand deals with a large number of characters—Indian and British. The relationship of the two has seen element of exploitation mixed with prejudices, misunderstandings and inhibitions on both sides. The English characters like Sir Reginald White, President of the Cotton Mill; Mr. Little, the manager; and Jimmy Thomas, the foreman are the exploiters of Indian people. Whereas Mrs. Mainwaring shows a different kind of relationship. Says Anand, “Her warmth, her ardour, her intense capacity for desire must have been due to the blood of her pagan Indian grand-mother in her; her curious coldness of mind, the frigidity which had once made her jump into a bath of ice water in order to quell the passion in her body was conditioned by the Christian idea of sin. She has inferiority complex because of her complexion. Therefore she compensates for her strong inferiority complex, by applying various cosmetics to appear as a pucca British lady Mr. W.P. England, the chief cashier of the Imperial Bank of India represents the average British reaction to the Indian in those days. He ignores the flattery and cringing of his subordinate, Babu Nathoo Ram. He takes no interest in his affair even his visit to the latter's house to tea proves to be futile. Again in Daulatpur, Rai Bahadur Sir Todar Mal, retired public prosecutor displays the same embarrassing flattering and cringing in dealing with Dr. Edward Marjoribank, the Public Health officer. He writes a letter to him showing himself a faithful servant of the British government. He says he has been Knighted for contributing twenty thousand rupees to the Viceroy’s War Fund. In Bombay Screw Wallab the Indian clerk in the Cotton Mill, brings before Mr. Little, for he had never felt quite at ease with white men ever since one of them had kicked him at the corner of Hornby Road for no other crime than the childish curiosity which had made him stare with wonder and admiration at the sahib”.

British Characters: Its Degrading and Exploiting Effects

      The British rule brought the Indian people in its contact. The British people are all powerful who degraded and exploited them. The Indians were merely simple persons with lower position. They are subjected to follow their order. Thus, they loose their sense of self-respect and are ready to go to any length to win the favour of their officers. They look down upon the Indians, abuse them, kick them mercilessly, and humiliate them for minor faults. As Saros Cowasjee has commented upon the British characters’ motive towards Indians: “The episode of Mr. England’s visit illustrates Anand’s conviction that the British government not only exploited the country’s natural resources but debased the characters of those Indians who were in services. It created a body of sycophants, looking up to the English, fawning, cringing, becoming a ready tool of exploitation in the hands of their masters. And they lost their sense of humanity and human decency. Nathoo Ram, Daya Ram and (in the next chapter the Todar Mals) have been dehumanised in the service of the English and have lost all fellow feelings. This is best illustrated from the way they bully and abuse Munoo. On the other hand, Prem Chand, who is an independent medical practitioner, is not subservient to the English. And we see that he alone conducts himself with dignity and treats Munoo with affection”.

British Raj: Its Cruelty

      The British rulers not only degrade the Indians by their contact, but also maltreat and exploit them. They beat them mercilessly for their trifles and sometimes without any rhyme and reason. The policemen of the British Raj are very harsh upon Indians. Munoo is beaten by the police and he is scared away from the railway station, the reason is that the poor boy does not have licence which is required for a coolie, and Prabha Dayal, a good man, is brutally canned at the police station for no fault of his. The British cruelty is seen everywhere in the novel. Munoo is slapped by the Englishman because he merely looks at him. Jimmie Thomas, the foreman of the Mill assumes the worst and most inhuman form of exploitation. He is portrayed as ‘a massive man with a scarlet bulldog face and a small wizened moustache, his huge body dressed in a greasy white shirt, greasy white trousers and a greasy white polo topee’. He treats the factory workers like beasts. He refers to Hari as a ‘stupid bullock’. He always kicks, beats and abuses them at will. He is a very greedy Person. He charges every worker in the factory a price for the gift of a job. He treats Hari, Munoo and Ratan inhumanly. However, Ratan challenges him of dire consequences. But the next day he is dismissed from the job. Thus, the British cruelty is in full swing and it resulted in miserable condition of the people.

Impact of Industrialisation

      The East-West theme is one of the dominant features of the Indo-Anglian novels. This theme is well studied through out the novel Coolie. The impact of industrialisation on the Indian masses has played a crucial role in bringing them in contact with the British. The passion for modernity and the desire for British goods result from the encounter with the West.

      The British people started the Sir George White’s Cotton Mill which is the emblem of western exploitation through its use of machinery and technological skill. The workers are only Indian young people and they have to work in most unhygienic and suffocating atmosphere for a long hours on very poor wages. The wages are so poor that the workers are unable to meet their requirements and they live in very bad condition. The coolies like Munoo, Hari and his wife and children always encounter misfortunes. The mill authority always turns a deaf ear to the demands of the coolies. The foreman of the factory also deducts some amount from the workers’ salary on monthly commission and on the charge of coming late to the factory. Thus their condition is getting bad to worse. A critic has commented upon the condition of the poor workers as “The pickle factory of Daulatpur, has got its counterpart in Sir George White’s Cotton Mill where the working conditions are even more gruelling; Ganpat has been replaced by the foreman, Jimmie Thomas, who is even more tyrannical; the working hours are as long, though with a Sunday off; the creditors are more numerous and more wicked; the world of the poor remains basically one of comradeship, while that of rich is one of hysteria and nightmare; there is the same foul smell and stink, damp and sticky sweat, dust and heat, incense and dung. The occasional destitute to be seen on the streets of Daulatpur has now been replaced by vast concourse of pavement dwellers, and Anand’s description of them makes some of the most poignant reading in the book.” Note how deftly and laconically they are etched: ‘.....In a corner a coolie lay huddled, pillowing his head on his arm shrinking into himself as if he were afraid to occupy too much space’, ‘an emaciated man, the bones of whose skeleton were locked in a paralytic knot; ‘the rotting flesh of a leper who was stretching his bandaged arm and legs as warning, to all passers by’, and ‘a bare body rolling in anguish and slapping itself on the knees to the accompaniment of foul curses.’ The corruptions and exploitation are rampant in the British Raj and they do not pay any attention to the upliftment of the condition of the coolies. They are suffering from all kinds of diseases, Munoo himself is the victim of consumption. There are also cases of drinking. Ratan, the coolie drinks and the innocent boy Munoo also drinks in his company and they pay a visit to the red light district to have some recreation. Ratan is accustomed to visit the apartment of Piari Jan, and there he was entertained by the songs and dances. This is the impact of the industry that made the life of the people busy. When they get their Sunday off from the work of twelve hours a day they go outside for some fun and pleasure.

Craze for Modern Life

      The craze for modernity is one of the facts of Anand’s novel. Some of the characters are keen to enter the world of modernity. This became possible by the contact with the British people. The Indians and the Westerners came close to each other and shared their ideas and feelings. The Indians were motivated to the cause of freedom and through the coming of industry the thought of the people starts changing. The people look for new things and they are wonder-struck to see the development taking place every day in India. So they crave for living a happy life. The juvenile hero of the novel, Munoo is all praise for modern outlook. His cherished desire is to dress like sahibs. While working in Babu Nathoo Ram’s house, he is fascinated by his Angrezi clothes and shoes, the temptation to touch his fine silken suits is much exciting for him. He also gets fascinated on seeing many modern gadgets in his house and wants to go time and again to the drawing room to have a look at them against strict orders of his mistress. The modern equipments like the shaving machine and the gramophone attract him most and he wants to touch them time and again with wonder. During the visit of W. P. England to Babu Nathoo Ram’s house, he looks at him with protruding eye. The English people, their clothes and residences arouse in him a sense of excitement and curiosity.


      In a nutshell, the novel has dealt amazingly well with the comprehensive and elaborate vision of East-West theme. Among the forces of exploitations the introduction of industry is one of them through which the suffering of the coolies is caused.

      The English give no justice to them. They always fall prey to crooked methods, injustice and inhumanity of colonial rule, and degradation and demoralisation is the daily routine of theirs as a result of contact with the Westerners. Besides, the novel is the perfect study of the ‘blend of tradition and modernity and tension and conflicts’.

University Questions

Critically review the term ‘East-West Encounter’ in context with the novel Coolie.
Coolie brings out the ‘relationship of the Indian and the British in pre-Independence days? Discuss.
Give an account of ‘Industrialisation and its impact’ with special reference to Coolie
Justify that Coolie is the ‘blend of tradition and modernity; and tensions and conflicts’.

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