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Character of Bakha in Anand’s Untouchable

‘BAKHA’ the Untouchable Hero in Anand’s Novel: A war against stigma and social injustice

 Mulkraj Anand gives an insider’s view of Indian society and its orthodox and superstitious mindset in his novel ‘Untouchable’. The author had observed the Indian orthodox way of life and knew well how detrimental it was to the Gandhian view of equality and unity. An outsider would not feel the same empathy for a downtrodden Indian as Anand does. He is able to illicit the same from his readers who cannot help sympathizing with Bakha – Anand’s hero against the curse of untouchability and discrimination. Caste system is a curse and millions like Bakha in India bear it for their entire lives. No person is born inferior; it is the society and the people that impose limits by assigning roles and status. All are equal in God’s eyes, but for some people life is hell for they were born in the wrong caste and the wrong class. Indian society is marked by caste and class divisions. The people from the lower class have been marginalized and poor since days before the British Raaj.

Anand’s fury and dissatisfaction over an ugly caste system that brews nothing but hatred and discrimination is evident in his work. His frustration at the existence of divisive lines cutting through the Indian social and cultural fabric is unmissable. Anand has focused at the end of the society where souls are clean but lives dirty and suffocating amid piles of filth. His novel was criticized for being dirty but then it is difficult to help it when you are writing about a class whose job is to clean people’s toilets. Anand has laid it all bare in his novel. Bakha is a cleaner who cleans the society’s dirt, for it is his caste’s obligation. Anand serves everything before his readers just as it is and without any coating or make up – a raw and naked portrayal of the caste system in Indian society.

Bakha does not clean toilets of his own choice but because he is born in a cast that has been assigned to do an unclean job so the Hindu society can remain clean. One who washes other’s sins is considered and treated like a sinner. There are no chances of redemption and the only hope for people like Bakha exists in the form of Gandhi. Gandhi’s efforts in this direction were valuable but few people remained after him that could carry on his legacy. Being born in a lower caste in the pre-Independence era could be devastating because you did not have the same rights as every human.

The Hindu caste system had drawn a line between the upper and lower castes. This line was cast in stone and to erase it has remained impossible. The upper castes were allowed certain privileges that the lower castes never had. In this caste system, the cleaners belonged to the lowest of the lower classes. Even a lower class man that was higher in hierarchy than Bakha would not let him touch himself. Anand’s book strikes hard at core of the Hindu caste system and the meaningless divisions it has created in the society to highlight how difficult and impossible life is on the lowest rungs of the Indian society where Bakha is fighting to survive. Every day he battles to maintain his self esteem and like every honest being, he has a strong will and hopes for things to change some day. His struggle for equality will continued; might be for several more generations. 

“Posh keep away, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming!”

This is how Bakha announced his entry into populated areas every morning so that people did not knock against him accidentally. Things have changed since India’s independence but some of that rotten and primitive mindset has prevailed. Anand had highlighted that untouchability was a curse on Indian society and something worse than racism. A cleaner was not allowed to enter the temple and touch his Lord’s feet.

Untouchability was considered a punishment for sins committed in the previous life. Anand successfully brings out the hero in Bakha, who sees some hope in Gandhi and his teachings of Ahimsa and kindness for all.  For people like Bakha, Gandhi had brought some hope. Gandhi was a barrister educated in South Africa who left everything else and lived an ascetic’s life to lead people to freedom from the British rule.  Bakha’s town is blessed when Gandhi visits it with his wife Kasturba. He had named the untouchables ‘Harijans’ or people of God to raise their status and bring them on an equal footing with the rest of the society. Only God knows how much it has worked in the favor of the poor cleaners because for the Indian society it is difficult to shake off the those primitive rules it has remained tied with. Many of them have grown quite primitive and casteism was a problem whose barbaric and humiliating effect Gandhi had felt and Anand criticized deeply. 

Bakha is looked down upon by all castes, even the lower ones. He is as untouchable as the human dung he cleans. Alienated from all, he finds peace in his hut on the fringes of the town and with his sister Sohini.  In Anand’s novel, the situation grows intensely painful when he shows how even the lower caste people discriminate against the cleaners. Gulabo, the mother of Ramcharan and a washerwoman by caste, dislikes Sohini because despite being born in an inferior caste, she has superior features and physical appeal. She does not like her son being friends with Bakha either.  Jealous of Sohini, Gulabo tries to strike her at the well where Waziro stops and calms her. 

In Anand’s novel, Bakha is the protagonist and the next important role is played by Sohini who understands her brother’s pain and stands with him. Religion and cast are two important forces in the context of Hindu society and Bakha exists on the wrong side of each. For him, the only hope lies in Gandhi’s words. At least Gandhi has given him a dream that society would someday stop alienating and ill treating the people on the lower rungs.

 Bakha’s pain only grows intense but all hope is not lost. When Pandit Kalinath assaults his sister and accuses her of having defiled him and the temple, Bakha feels a more intense pain than he had felt upon being slapped by an upper caste Hindu.  Pain does not leave his life; it is cyclical and keeps repeating every day. As if a weight is tied to his legs, Bakha has to realize his status of a pariah in the Hindu society everyday. Cornered by the entire humanity, Bakha is not ready to give up. At the end, Anand proves that Bakha is doing the Herculean task of cleaning the society’s shit. He can clean it but will not bear it. His war against untouchability will continue. However, the question sometimes weighs heavily on his heart when his conscience seeks an answer.

“For them I am a sweeper, sweeper — untouchable! Untouchable! Untouchable! That’s the word! Untouchable! I am an Untouchable!”

However, all is not bad with Bakha’s life. Anand has shown that whatever be the state of casteism in India, Indian people are basically made to be kind. Whether it is the weaver’s wife Waziro, washerman’s son Ramcharan or Havildar Charat Singh, they all cannot help feeling for Bakha. They all know that there is a limit of pain for anyone and sympathize with Bakha. They are not pitying him but instead they all recognize the hero in him who is strong and can bear all he is subjected to without fear. Havildar Charat Singh gets angry at him first but later gifts him a brand new hockey stick, as if Bakha was a younger brother or a disciple.

 Bakha is not always on the receiving end. He gets his share of affection from people like Charat Singh and his best friend Ramcharan. His father is the Jemadar (leader) of the cleaners and his family has an important position among the people of his caste. He has young and glamorous dreams of living like an English Babu and worst of all an obsession with English and English lifestyle.

Except for his untouchability, Bakha is just as good, kind, happy and clean as any Indian. He holds the same love and respect for his family and people and has the same desire of rising higher in his life that any other Indian might have. Anand is just trying to make the point that those who have not sinned must not  bear the punishment. If Hindu society cannot fix these practices that are holding it back, it will continue growing backward. Anand knew he could not generate a magical solution to the anathema that had made life hell for Bakha and his people, but he knew if he could generate some sympathy in Indian hearts for people like him, it could be a partial cure to Bakha’s wound. Mahatma Gandhi had tried to lift these underdogs out of the identity crisis they had been living in by giving them a new identity and by calling them Harijans. Combined with the reservation and special status of backward classes, these castes have been able to emerge out of the crisis to some extent. However, none of these proved to be an effective remedy and the lower castes are still battling some of the same problems they faced centuries ago. India has come a long way but it has not been able to change itself much in terms of caste and class. 

Main Sources:

Society vs. Individual: Analyzing the Character of Bakha in Mulk Raj Ananda’s Untouchable by Md. Mahbubul Alam