By Ryan O’Shea
‘Untouchable! Untouchable!’ is the eponymous cry that echoes through Mulk Raj Anand’s 1935 novel. Set in 1930s India, Untouchable chronicles a day in the life of Bakha, a street sweeper, who is classified as one such ‘untouchable’ – the lowest class in India’s caste system. The novel works as an indictment of these oppressive systems of class and caste.
The repeated cry of ‘Untouchable!’ haunts Bakha as he works through his day, struggling to find a place in a society which shuns him. Anand’s novel still resonates, both in terms of Indian politics – the effects of the caste system are still visible in the present day – and in terms of the psychological damage that systems of discrimination can inflict on minority groups. While Bakha is denied forms of physical contact, wounds still form beneath his skin.
Untouchability has its roots in Hinduism with the belief that certain activities and modes of work, such as street-sweeping and latrine-cleaning, make the person ritually unclean. Workers in these castes were viewed as polluted, defiled, untouchable. Anand’s novel has no such qualms, diving right into the dirt and excrement connected with these jobs while displaying the humanity and fortitude of its labourers. One of the tragedies of the novel is Bakha’s desire to touch, to taste the sweets on a market stall, to feel the fabric of new clothes, to grasp and possess objects of his own. Bakha’s desires are crushed as the day progresses and he is continually reminded of his untouchability. ‘Untouchable! Untouchable!’ erupts yet again, and Bakha is forced to confront his lesser-than-human status in Indian society.
However, while untouchability has roots in Indian religion, it is the British who entrenched the system into Indian politics and law. The British colonisation of India utilised what was previously only latent and used the caste system as a mechanism of control over India’s population. Mulk Raj Anand was a fierce protester against Britain’s continued colonial presence and its propagation of the caste system, and these themes permeate the events of Untouchable. Bakha is by no means an infallible hero: he is obsessed with British culture, dress, and attitudes, and idolises representatives of Britain’s colonial presence. He even desires to leave his own national identity behind, to disown his family and become British. Anand uses Bakha’s naïveté to subversively criticise the psychological effects of colonisation. In the end, the British occupiers are shown to be an insidious presence and their power over India is undermined. Anand gestures towards the possibility of India’s independence and freedom from the caste system.
Lists of canonical novels of the 1920s and 30s (often termed ‘modernist’ – an ambiguous and debated category) unfortunately do not contain many works by minority or international authors. While Anand’s novel utilises modernist techniques, such as its one-day time span and its psychological focus, it does not often feature on these lists. Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable is a text which deserves attention – both because of its aesthetic quality and its social commentary. The novel, like its protagonist, has been left largely untouched. It deserves a place both in the wider literary canon and on your bookshelf, perhaps touching the sides of other overlooked texts which deserve to fill an empty space.
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