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Modern Civ.

of Asia
Book Review
4/18/2016

Untouchable. BY MULK RAJ ANAND. London, England: Penguin Books, 1940. xv + 139
pages (paper).
Kaitlyn Coleman
Messiah College

Touched by Gandhian influence, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable follows the events of a

single day in the life of Bakha, who is considered an “Untouchable” in India’s caste system. This

low-caste eighteen year old boy spends his days sweeping the streets and cleaning toilets, with

little to look forward to. With little hope of a change in station or occupation, Bakha throws

himself into his work, seeking the physical exhaustion that will bring “easy sleep” (11). This

same work makes him and those of similar occupations “untouchable.” The reader follows

Bakha and his sister Sohini, as they face a number of abuses, due to their status. These characters

and their stories may be fictional, but they represent the thousands of individuals who have

suffered under the systematic oppression of India’s deeply engrained castism. Their hope for a

future where there will be a solution to this plight reflects the very real hopes of those they

represent. Published in 1935, this novel was unique, in that it promoted the cause of the lowest of

low and revealed the injustices shown to them. Through this brief, yet heartfelt, story, Anand

uses the sympathetic characters of Bakha and Sohini to address the issue of untouchability and

argue for the tearing down of caste barriers in Indian society.

As Anand states in the novel’s introduction, Gandhi plays an important role in

Untouchable, not only in the influence of his teachings, which inform the story, but also

appearing as a character in the narrative. His inspiring words linger after him in the heart and

mind of young Bakha who, until that point, could see very little hope of escaping his current

station. Bakha is shown to be a hard-working, diligent, and ambitious young man, but, although

his talents and personality would likely be best suited elsewhere, he is relegated to cleaning, of
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all things, human feces. This dirty role is essential for maintaining a level of cleanliness and

limiting diseases, but untouchables like Bakha are scorned and abused as outsiders in the Hindu

society they call home. When he is able to go into town, Bakha buys cigarettes and a cheap

wrapper of sweets to enjoy, musing that any day could be his last. The seller throws both things

to him, further introducing the idea that “clean” Hindu’s must not touch outcastes. Then, while

Bakha eats, a high-caste man brushes his arm and blames Bakha for not calling out to warn those

on the street that he was untouchable. Bakha receives verbal and physical abuse by the man who

touched him, which again introduces this double-standard, as it was a horrible thing for their

arms to touch, but not for the man to strike him. Bakha has a moment of vulnerability as he cries

in the street and then retreats back to his work.

Bakha’s sister, Sanhini, too, faces the results of this system when she goes to retrieve

water. The abuses laid upon these people turn some cruel, such as the washwoman who insults

Sanhini and her family, while they await a Hindu to pour them water from the well. This is also

seen in the character of their father, who verbally abuses his children maintain an authority he

does not feel often, due to his status and infirmary. The priest, Pundit Kali Nath, who eventually

complies with this request for water seems to lead a double-standard, for he seems both appalled

by the untouchables and doesn’t want them near him, but he is lustful of Sanhini’s body and asks

her to sweep outside the temple later in the day, so that he may see her again. When Sanhini is

later molested, this double-standard returns, for she is “dirty” and mustn’t be touched, yet the

holy man feels that there is nothing wrong with touching her sexually, until there are others in

sight, then he cries out and blames the lowly girl. By presenting snippets of Sanhini’s tale

alongside Bakha’s, Anand exposes how low-caste men and women experience the injustice of

their status, both similarly and dissimilarly.


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After witnessing the abuse heaped upon his sister following her sexual assault, Bakha’s

day lifts when he visit’s the high-caste hockey player, Charat Singh. This man doesn’t seem to

note his untouchable status and presents the boy with a new hockey stick, both of which thrill

Bakha. While playing hockey with some friends later in the day, Bakha becomes engaged in a

brawl that leaves a younger boy injured. When he rescues the boy and returns him to his mother,

however, he is blamed for the boy’s injures. Upon his late return home, his father banishes him

from the house, for being gone so long. The boy is then confronted with three different solutions

to his plight, the last of which being the flush system, which would, essentially, negate the need

for his untouchable occupation and greatly excites him.

In his brief essay on India’s caste system and how it is viewed and represented in

American education, Joe Elder tackles stereotypes and myths about this social order, while

striving to provide a truthful account.1 He carries this history of the caste system into a more

contemporary setting, by discussing both how it has changed and stayed the same. Elder also

covers the differences between castes a “status determiners and marriage pools,”2 which are

often confused. This essay provides detailed and easy-to-understand context for a reader of

Anand and expands upon what happened in Indian society after Bakha’s story ends. Since the

novel’s conclusion and publishing, castes still exist within the Indian social order, but the

harmful construct of and discrimination against untouchables has been abolished. Although

Anand did not have the benefit of this hindsight when he was writing, his optimism, for the most

part, was valid.

Anand provides in Untouchable a variety of characters who have accepted their fate,

because it is so deeply embedding in their society and identity, but they do not do so passively.

1 Elder, 1.
2 Elder, 2.
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The reader sees Bakha bristle under this status and struggle with the concept of upper caste

hatred a degradation. Simon Charsely quotes G.K. Gokhale early on in his journal article on the

concept of “untouchable.” Gokhale compared the idea of untouchable people being too unclean

to touch to how the same upper caste individuals who make this claim are willing to touch dirty

animals, such as dogs.3 Although the term “untouchable” wasn’t yet being used to refer to these

“unclean” people, this concept was already affecting the mental condition of these people, who

experienced the “resentment” so often that it was an expected aspect of life.4 Charsely mainly

argues that “untouchable” is a label and says more about the people who use it to treat others

poorly and exclude them than it does about those to which it is applied.5 This label devalues

individuals and their efforts and accomplishments, as it stripped Bakha of the diligent work he

did so that he became nothing more than a miserable sweeper boy in the eyes of those of a higher

status than himself. These “untouchables” were often deprived of a voice, which is what makes

Anand’s novel stand out, because it gives voice to these marginalized people and attempts to

capture some agency, through the character of a teenaged boy.

In “Varna and Caste” sociologist M.N. Srinivas describes the Varna caste system of four

main casts and those outside – untouchables.6 Although it is “unlikely that [this] four-varna

society every historically existed for any extended period of time,”7 it serves as a point of

reference for a “model” social order. Also discussed is the tendency of low-caste individuals,

striving to raise their own status, to act like their upper-caste counterparts.8 Anand demonstrates

this through the characterization of the washerwoman Gulabo in Sanhini’s, who places herself

3 Simon Charsley, “`Untouchable': What Is in a Name?” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
2, no. 1 (1996): 6.
4 Charsley, 6.
5 Charsley, 13.
6 M.N. Srinivas, “Varna and Caste,” Dipankar Gupta, ed., Social Stratification (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992).
7 Joseph Elder, “India’s Caste System in Education About Asia,” Enduring Stereotypes About Asia 1, no. 2
(1996).
8 Srinivas.
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above the other low-caste individuals awaiting water. This concept is also heavily personified by

Bakha himself, as he strives to be like the Englishmen that he admires as models of

“civilization.” He wears English-style clothing, mimics their tea-drinking methods, hopes to

someday learn English, and takes pride in working diligently and remaining relatively clean,

despite his disheartening and filthy working environment. Just as Bakha resists the image of an

unclean, low-caste, sweeper boy, Anand resists the caste system itself.

Although very poignant, this novel leaves much room for interpretation, which has leant

to both its success and controversy. Through the sharing of a simple fictional tale that

interweaves the experiences of India’s low-caste masses, Anand was able to pick away at the

foundation of the caste system itself, through emotional impact. When viewed from a historical

standpoint, this novel clearly has a bias toward the teachings of Gahandi and against the caste

system, but the author remains very clear about his intentions and doesn’t shy-away from this

difficult topic, strengthening the overall text. Anand also takes a topic that is difficult to

understand from an outside perspective and opens it to the sympathies and understanding of a

wider audience. At the end of Untouchable, Bakha rushes home to tell his father about the flush

system which could eliminate the need for an untouchable status to be placed upon essential

workers. This ending holds hope both for Bakha and the Harijans (“children of God”) he

represents that things will change and the author certainly seems to have believed that this

powerful novel would play a role in bringing about this change. The successful result of Anand’s

intention to bring recognition to the plight of the untouchables, this novel holds weight to this

day, for its controversial coverage of experiences and abuses within the lowest caste and serves

as a memory of the importance of change and reconciliation in Indian society.


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Works Cited

Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London, England: Penguin, 1986.

Charsley, Simon. “`Untouchable': What Is in a Name?” The Journal of the Royal

Anthropological Institute 2, no. 1 (1996): 1–23.

Srinivas, M.N. “Varna and Caste.” Dipankar Gupta, ed., Social Stratification. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1992.

Elder, Joseph. “India’s Caste System in Education About Asia.” Enduring Stereotypes About

Asia 1, no. 2 (1996). <http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~sj6/elderunderstandingcaste.pdf >

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