Untouchable – Pain of The Indian Lower Caste

Untouchability an Anathema in Anand’s Novel Untouchable

Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, despite being called dirty has been able to hit the right chord with a very large audience which believes that untouchability is one of the biggest challenges to social unity and cohesion in India. Anand was a prolific writer who wrote several novels and short stories that received critical international acclaim. He was among the first Indian writers in English literature to have gained international acclaim along with R K Narayan, Raja Rao, and Ahmad Ali. Untouchable is among his most appreciated and widely discussed works. The story of a young latrine cleaner, Untouchable talks of the plight of the lower caste in general and that of the latrine cleaners specifically. We as Indians already know of the harsh limits the Hindu caste system has imposed. Being from an upper caste can be an honor and being from the lower caste can be like a punishment. However, the worst is to be a cleaner as Anand successfully highlights. Anand’s work raises a red flag against the orthodox practices in the Hindu religion and makes us feel concerned about the people society has left behind and ignored for ages.

The book does raise some serious concerns about the caste system and its ability to harm the civil mindset. The life that the backward classes (backward castes) have lived for centuries is no less than a punishment. A sweeper was made to wear the tag of an untouchable for his entire life. In modern India, some of the stigma attached to the lower castes has reduced. However, to say that the condition of the cleaners has grown much better would be difficult. Anand’s work does evoke sympathy successfully but then the Hindu caste system is a complex system. People have sympathy for the lower castes but they hesitate to show it lest they might violate their sacred rules. The caste system gives rise to several complexities, the worst of which is an orthodox mindset that is near impossible to change. An upper-class Hindu slaps Bakha in the streets just because he has touched one of the upper-class Hindus by mistake. Even a lower class Hindu has a soul and can feel pain. The caste system has made people so impervious to others’ pain that they have started believing in a false God who allows them to treat a lower caste person like an animal. These divisions are concrete walls so high that even generations have not been able to climb over and get past them. The author highlights that these self-defeating boundaries that the Hindus have drawn are an important reason that they are held backward and find it difficult to grow modern.

‘Untouchable’ raises several important questions related to humanity and dignity. Is it dignified that people who clean your toilets for you to be called Untouchables and treated as inferior beings and animals? Bakha’s heart is full of courage. He has the energy and his heart is full of dreams. Even the stigma attached to his caste has not been able to take away his dreams. He dreams of dressing and living like an English babu and playing Hockey. Anand shows that if only the stigma of Untouchability was removed from the life of Bakha, he too could live a life of self-respect but there is no one to empower these people so they can hold their heads high. Untouchability is a disease and it has made people do things that are unfit for a civilized society. The author is asking for a change that has not been possible yet. The book evokes sympathetic feelings but beyond that things are possible only when people arise. The goal of equality is unreachable in the Indian society unless every Hindu understands its value and accepts with his heart that every Hindu is born equal.  The author has struck hard at the practice of untouchability and the stigma attached to it.

Sohini’s molestation at the hands of the priest raises concerns. Upper caste Hindus who call themselves descendants of God are demons at heart. Someone they would not sit with during the day, they would like to touch in the dark. They would force someone else to live a curse only because they cannot clean their own dirt. Anand’s novel was called dirty for its mention of human excreta. However, Anand was a writer who touched a topic openly that other Hindus do not even discuss in the open. He was frustrated at his own religion which prided itself as one of the most ancient religions but was full of such orthodox practices that only encouraged discrimination. E M Forster wrote the introduction to his book and mentioned that instead of trying to take things around Anand has hit at the heart of the topic and purified it. The questions raised by the book are still unanswered and any caste Hindu will find them impossible to answer till untouchability and caste system prevail.

A religion whose foundation is based on things like Yoga and Vedanta has such holes in its fabric that to hide them is difficult. Mahatma Gandhi had made attempts that these lower caste people can find a way out of these boundaries and can lead a life of dignity. He called these people Harijans. Bakha’s heart finds some solace in his words. However, his story has not changed much. Some lower caste heroes in Indian history including B R Ambedkar have tried to raise the status of these people in Indian society but to build a different identity for them than the one assigned by their religion has remained impossible. Untouchability is anathema and there is no better option for Hindu society than to end it. Otherwise, the slap on Bakha’s face will become a slap on the face of Hinduism forever. Unless Hinduism can get rid of one of its worst practices, untouchability, it is going nowhere and will never be able to call itself modern as it calls itself ancient. Anand’s book points to the dark side of the Hindu caste system and how the Hindu society is practicing some sins that even Gods consider unpardonable.

Untouchability has remained a difficult issue for the Indian society.  Despite trying for several generations writers, political leaders and activists have not been able to generate a solution for the problem. While with fast growing opportunities of education and career growth facilitated by a strong reservation system, the backward castes are now more  empowered than three or four decades ago.

 Untouchability, still could not be completely eradicated due to its deep roots in the Indian society and culture. In the remote corners of rural India, it is still prevalent in a blatant form. The Indian government has made several laws banning untouchability. This has led to restrictions in the society on open discrimination against the people belonging to the backward castes. However, while law acts as a deterrent in a large number of cases, it is not a permanent remedy. 

Writers like Mulk Raj Anand and leaders like Mahatma Gandhi as well as Bhim Rao Ambedkar raised their voices against the discriminatory practices in the Indian society. To some extent their efforts found success. However, it is going to be a generations-long battle until the problem has at least been substantially eliminated. Law, society, government, media, NGOs, and activists, all will play an important role in this fight against untouchability. However, untouchability is not just one problem in itself, but it is several intertwined problems. 

Mostly, the people from the backward classes who are both economically and socially backward get to be at the receiving end. Empowerment programs run by the government that offer financial and legal support to backward classes offer a ray of hope against this social evil. Education and empowerment are considered effective tools in the fight against untouchability.

Education has helped the backward classes realize their rights and made them aware against exploitation that goes on in the name of untouchability. Mulk Raj Anand has offered a good example in his novel when the priest tries to molest Sohini. Such cases still happen and are often highlighted in the media. Untouchability is a painful practice but rather than trying to find a lasting solution for the problem, the Indian society must try to develop methods and tools that will minimise its impact on the backward castes. Mulk Raj Anand has selected one of the most backward classes in his novel – the latrine cleaners. 

Anand’s novel deals mainly with the plight of the most backward caste in India. (Bakha is the central character.)

There are some more characters in the novel that are from the other backward classes. They also face discrimination in their life but compared to the cleaners their situation is substantially better. Moreover, the same emancipation program or solution will not suit the needs of all the backward classes.  The reservation system in India has often been criticized for being discriminatory and aiding mainly those who are already in a financially strong position. The other similar programs run by NGOs or private organizations could not see substantial success because of a lack of Government support. In such a situation, when the Indian society is already mired in a web of social and economic issues. The problem of untouchability remains unaddressed and the pace at which it is being addressed guarantees that it is going to be a generations long battle until a meaningful solution emerges.