Friday, March 05, 2010

Untouchable: Mulk Raj Anand

Though I wanted to read Mulk Raj Anand since a long time, it was Susan's suggestion that made me pick Untouchable as my introduction to the great writer's works.

The story describes a single day in the life of Bakha, the untouchable belonging to the scavenger caste, commonly known as bhangi in many Indian languages. The work of this caste was to clean toilets and streets and keep them clean for the upper castes. The scavenger had to carry the human refuse from the toilets and burn that in a chimney near his house. This caste was considered to be lowermost in the hierarchy of castes in India and were treated worse than humans. Be prepared to be shocked by the behaviour of the Hindu society of those times. And to prepare yourself for the shock don't forget to read E. M. Forrester's foreword to the book.

For Bakha, the day begins with cleaning the toilets in the soldiers' barracks, where he is treated better than the people in the town. Anand takes us through a tumultuous day in Bakha's life. The society needs the services of Bakha and his like. Otherwise, who would clean their toilets and streets? But, in the town, Bakha has to repeatedly announce his arrival lest a Hindu from the upper caste touch him and get "polluted". He is not allowed to come within 69 feet of the temple because that would defile the temple! But he is supposed to keep the premises of the temple clean, by carrying all that is left behind by nature and devotees. The worst of all, he and his like have are at the mercy of "charity" by the upper caste people for even basic needs like food and water.

Bakha's story is set over one "eventful" day of his life. Anand beautifully describes the typical day in a small British town neighbouring the soldiers' barracks. The behaviour of the upper caste Hindus described in the book, churns your stomach. Even the so-called sanyasis are not free from the mentality of the caste-system. The opportunism displayed by the evangelist who has no aim of improving the untouchable's life except converting him to Christianity, the division amongst caste-lines even in the untouchables' colony is depicted realistically. Naturally, Bakha is attracted towards the soldiers who do not treat him as badly as the civilians. He dreams of being like one of those, because for him it is a ticket out of his terrible world.

But, it is Gandhiji's talk that reforms Bakha's thoughts to some extent. In the assembly, he overhears someone telling the people about modern toilets, where the human excreta will be flushed out automatically, thereby putting an end to this sub-human activity. He realises that the salvation of his community is not in any religious conversion or running away from there, but in modern technology. The story ends with Bakha pondering over this feature of technology, which is hailed as the saviour of his kind.

Untouchable: Mulk Raj AnandSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


  1. Vinay, you must be surprised but this still exists in some parts of India.

    Thanks for taking my suggestion and reading the book.

    Joy always,

  2. Well Susan,

    I am not surprised about it. When I was in Gwalior, cleaning toilets was the task of people belonging to this caste. And no one else was supposed to do it.

    That they still have to pickup human refuse in some parts of India is a matter of shame! But, I am not surprised about this.

  3. Interesting and thought provoking post...liked it much.....I have bookmarked your link!

  4. one of my favourite story becose i love reading this kind of stories...