The Theme of Suffering in The Novel Coolie

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Theme—Hunger in Indo-Anglian Novel

      Of the Indo-Anglian novels written after Independence, some have hunger, starvation, and degradation which hunger causes, as their theme. The novel of Bhabani Battacharaya’s So Many Hungers concerns with the famine of 1942 and the suffering and degradation caused by it. Nectar in a Sieve of Kamla Markandaya is another important novel which also deals with poverty and hunger as its theme. The hunger and starvation here are caused by the operation of natural forces—excessive rains or utter drought and mostly the rural people are badly affected by it. The theme of hunger has been genuinely depicted, and the central figures struggle hard against the hardships and that raises the novel to the lofty heights of an epic. However, Mulk Raj Anand is the first in this field. He has deeply studied the theme of poverty and hunger and the suffering of the Indian masses in a large number of novels and short stories. He himself has seen this situation in his childhood and it left a deep impression on his mind which resulted in Coolie—tale of suffering and exploitation of the coolies. In Coolie the suffering and the exploitation of Munoo, the coolie, attains epic dimensions and a universal significance.

Munoo’s Painful Memories

      Munoo is the central figure in the novel. He is a boy of fourteen, living under the shadow of the ill-treatment of his uncle and aunt. Despite all this, he is content with the idyllic happiness. He grazes his cattle and plays with companions and enjoys the juicy mangoes. However, he has seen the people dying of hunger and starvation. He knew how his father died a slow death of bitterness and disappointment and his mother passed, her life in grinding grains. He had also heard that his father’s five acres of land were seized by the landlord because he could not pay the interests on mortgage due to scanty rains and the bad harvest. The most horrible was the sight of his mother’s death. “The sight of her as she had laid dead on the ground with a horrible yet set expression on her face” had sunk into his subconscious with all its weight of tragic and utter registration.

Munoo’s Acute Suffering in Sham Nagar

      Munoo has been taken from the village to the town of Sham Nagar by his uncle in order to work as a servant in Babu Nathoo Ram’s house. The ill-treatment which he receives in the house of Babu Nathoo Ram is more harrowing than he received at the hands of his uncle and aunt. Babu Nathoo Ram is a Sub-Accountant in the branch of Imperial Bank of Sham Nagar. His mistress is a shrewish, quarrelsome woman, who employs the boy at Rs. 5 per month. She ill-treats Munoo. She takes hard work from him. He was engaged in the work from morning till night. She gives him very poor quality food to eat, sometimes stale food. He is practically starved. Babu Nathoo Ram always showered torrents of abuses and curses on his head without rhyme or reason. They also beat him severely. When he complains to his uncle, he instead of showing love and sympathy for the boy beats him mercilessly and he even does not give him any money to take food. His uncle said to him that he has neither money nor sympathy for him. Hence he threw him out from the house. He was so badly treated that he had hatred for him. There is none in his life now. He is alone and alone only and he runs away from his callous and inconsiderate uncle and his mistress.

Daulatpur: Sight of Hunger and Starvation

      Munoo has left the hellish place of Sham Nagar and come to Daulatpur. This is the next phase of his life. This place also could not evaluate him and he is again in the grip of heavy circumstances. He is employed in a pickle factory the owner Prabha Dayal and his wife have a soft corner for the boy but Ganpat, the other co-partner of the factory treats him badly and because of his bad character he cheats on Prabha Dayal and he is reduced to beggary the pickle factory is sold out, and subsequently Munoo is fated to work as a coolie — which, means mere beast of burden—first in the grain market and then in the village market. In the market he saw the naked starving conditions of the coolies who are competing with one another for jobs at extremely low wages. The suffering of Munoo and the other coolies is harrowing. In fact, they are reduced to the level of beasts. The novelist describes their bad condition:

The square courtyard, flanked on all sides by love and mud slops flimsy huts and tall five-storeyed houses with variegated cement facades, arches, colonnades and cupolas, was crowded with rude wooden carts, which pointed their shafts to the sky like so many crucifixes, crammed with snake-horned bullocks and stray rhinoc-eros-like bulls and skinny calves bespattered with their own dung, as they sat or stood, munching pieces of straw, snuffling their muzzles aimlessly or masticating the grass which they had eaten some hours before. Pressed against these were the bodies of the coolies, coloured like the earth on which they lay snoring, or crouching round a communal hubble-bubble, or shifting to explore a patch, clear of puddles, on which to rest,”

      Saros Cowasjee says that the above passage “is Swiftian in its irony and in its easy piling of detail. And like Swift, Anand uses a keyword to deliver the maximum punch. The word here is pressed. The courtyard belongs to the animals, and the author describes them first. Pressed against them are the bodies of the men. The implication is not simply that the two huddled together, but that man has stolen into the animal world and carved out a niche for himself. The colour of their bodies mingles with that of the earth: perhaps an ironic fulfilment of the prophecy that the poor shall inherit the earth. The references to the ‘many crucifixes’ gives a further ironic twist to the whole business: it could be interpreted either as the crucification of man or the impotence of Christianity in the face of human suffering”.

      Munoo is paid very low wages in the vegetable market and he sees here that there is stiff competition from numerous starving coolies like him. After that, he tries his luck at the railway station but he had no license which is required for every coolie. The police makes him go away and he runs away in terror and a kind-hearted elephant driver comes to his help. He than reaches Bombay with the help of the elephant driver.

Hunger on Large Scale

      Munoo in Bombay witnessed poverty and hunger on large scale and his experiences in this mega city are harrowing and heart-rending. Saros Cowasjee writes “the life and hardships of the poor remain the same; the change is one in scale mostly: the larger the city the more ruthless the exploitation and the greater the human misery. The indigenous pickle factory has now its counterpart in the Sir George White’s Cotton Mills where the 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 the comradeship, while that of the 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.”

      Anand has described the attitudes of the coolies as ‘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 a 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 most agonizing situation occurs when a half-naked woman talks to Munoo and Hari and asks them to stay at night. She speaks to them in suppressed voice, ‘My husband died there last night’. ‘He has attained release’, said Hari. “We will rest in his place”. These statement reflect the present condition of the people. C. D. Narasimhaiah says ‘I see in these simple sentences the wisdom of an old living culture which sustained our peasantry through centuries of misery and (is) manifesting itself now in an uprooted peasant in search of factory job. Death has ceased to frighten the poor — they are past all fright; it is life that is a threat, and death is release as Hari puts it.”

Hunger, Degradation and Humiliation

      While sojourning in Bombay; Munoo came across the lepers, the beggars, the sick and the dying and the wretched condition of the workers and the coolies. They are all degraded and demoralised. They cringe before Jimmie Thomas because they are afraid of being dismissed from the job. They also give commissions and fruits to him so as to make their jobs secured in the factory They have to tolerate bitter humiliation. They also cringe before the banya from whom they purchase provision on loan, and hence their exploitations by all possible crooked ways is at the zenith.

Miserable Condition in Simla

      The last phase of Munoo’s life spent in Simla where he is employed as page-cum-rickshawpuller of Mrs. Main waring. He has not only to do domestic work but also to pull her rickshaw, whenever the memsahib would like to go or wherever she wants to go. Besides, she also uses him sexually. Hence his health is aggravated and he begins to cough out blood. And finally, he dies in the arms of his friend Mohan at the age of sixteen. His miserable life comes to an end as a welcome release.

A Great Epic of Misery

      The misery of Munoo is the misery of millions of Munoo’s of India. The life history of Munoo is full of miseries. He finds nowhere any silver lining in the dark cloud. He is beaten from pillar to post, is overworked and humiliated, and treated merely as beast of burden till he dies in the bloom of life due to hunger, suffering and disease. Munoo is a universal figure, larger than life character, and he represents the suffering and starving millions of the country. In fact, the starvation compels the rural masses to migrate to city in the hope of better life. But they got nothing except sufferings and miseries to a great extent. The novelist stresses the universality of Munoo, therefore he called his novel Coolie not The Coolie. Thus the tale of Munoo’s misery is the story of the Indian masses. So, it can be called “the epic of misery”.

University Questions

Critically examine that Coolie is based upon the theme of hunger, starvation and degradation.
Justify the vicissitudes and sufferings of Munoo, the coolie.
Discuss the significance of “Munoo as a universal figure, and he rises to epic heights in his suffering”
Coolie is “an epic of misery”. Elucidate.

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