Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand

Untouchable  by Mulk Raj Anand (1935, 161 pages, 206 KB)

There is no literary tradition with roots older than that of India.   I will always admire Edmund Burke (Anglo-Irish-1729 to 1797) for telling the English Parliament that England had no right to rule a country with a culture much older than their own.    

Mulk Raj Anand was a founding father of the Indian novel in English.    He was one of the first writers from India to gain an international readership in English.    Anand (1905 to 2004--Peshawar, India) after graduating from college in India went to England to receive his PhD.     While at Cambridge (the university of choice for Bloomsbury) he became friends with people like E. M. Forester  and George Orwell.   He was a passionate admirer of Gandhi and a strong supporter of the movement for Indian independence.    He was a friend of Pablo Picasso.    His literary output was very large including several novels, lots of poetry and numerous highly regarded short stories.   He was a strong force for good in the world.

I have already posted on four of Anand's wonderful short stories.   E. F. Forester helped him get his first novel, Untouchable, published in England.     The standard cliche, it is on the back of the paper-back edition I saw in a local bookstore, is that in the Untouchable Anand took on the role of the Charles Dickens of India in his amazing depiction of the life of a member of the very lowest class of all, the Untouchables.   Among Untouchables or Dalits, it it my understanding that there are 49 different sub-castes.  In 1935 and for thousands of years prior to then those of the very lowest class were cleaners of solid bodily waste, street sweepers, and those who removed the bodies of dead animals.   A person was born into this caste and nothing could be done to escape it aside from rebirth in a higher caste.

Untouchable is about one day in the life of an Untouchable,  a young man seemingly in his late teens or early twenties named Bakha.  It is a great book that belongs on any list of 100 best novels.  Anyone interested in colonial studies or the history of India who has not yet read this book really needs to do so as soon as they can.  It is also so wonderfully written that reading it is a pure joy.  The central character totally admires to the point of hero worship the occupying British troops.   Anand is simply brilliant in his depiction of the attitude of the central character to the British.   Bakha so wishes he could one day have a pair of long pants like the English sometimes wear and he dreams of somehow getting the wonderful job of being a "sweeper" for a British regiment.    

There are many very powerful moments in this story.   Bakha is treated very roughly by his father.  He admires very much his sister who has now taken over as the woman of the family since their mother died.   When the sister goes to the well to get water, she is not allowed to draw it directly for fear she will pollute the well.   She has to ask a higher caste person to draw it for her.  When Bakha walks down the street he is supposed to shout "sweeper, sweeper coming" so no one will have the horror of accidentally touching him.   His sister is at the marriageable age, which I am going to say 14 or so, and as she is attractive so  the father hopes she will fetch a good dowry.  

It was, according to my sources, common at the time for Untouchable women to clean the homes of Brahman priests and they would often seduce them into prostitution or simply rape the women with impunity.   Sometimes a "lucky" Untouchable woman might become the mistress of a higher class person and there are vague suggestions Bakha's mother was either a mistress or semi-prostitute also.  Bakha's sister is molested in a small way by a Brahman priest.

There is so much in this short novel.   I found it a near compulsive read.   There is a very interesting scene when a Christian missionary tries to convert  him and a very good seen when he and thousands of others go to hear Gandhi explain why idea of Untouchability is intrinsically evil.   I could feel how moved Bakha was when he heard Gandhi say that if he were to be reborn he would wish to return as an Untouchable.  

All of the action of the story takes place in one day.   The characters are all perfect.    
All literary autodidacts need to put this on their life time list.     It is not a hard  book at all.   It is beautifully written and the action is easy to follow.   

Untouchable is a deeply moving, profoundly wise book.   It may change how you view the world.

E. M. Forester wrote a preface to the book that is interesting if no longer politically correct.

Please share your experience with Anand with us.   

Mel u


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I recently read "Joothan," another Untouchable account, and also seek out fiction concerning the Untouchables. One new book I liked was "Random Placement," an ebbok based on the illegal Jogini culture affecting Untouchable girls.

Sabidin Ibrahim said...