Human Rights Violation as a major theme in Mulk Raj Anand’s Novel Untouchable: A Study on Deprivation of Social Justice in Indian Society
Dr. Suri Babu Ambati,
Dept. of English,
Indian English literature has gained great recognition in the recent times with its grand literary and philosophical thoughts. It has played a significant role in transforming the conventional Indian society into the world of reason and righteousness. Various Indian English writers and poets have exposed the inhuman social humiliation rampant in the conventional social set up. One such Indian literary luminary is Mulk Raj Anand who has dealt with concept of Humanism in his famous social novel Untouchable. Social humiliation is widespread in India which is identified as a black mark on humanity. Evidently, there is a sense of distress in the lives of millions of outcasts who are deprived of their natural rights and basic amenities. Mulk Raj Anand’s insights into the predicament of down trodden are proved to be his frank expressions about social reform. This research paper tries to make a humble attempt to study the deplorable condition of common man in India. It examines the Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable and discusses the plight of neglected section in Indian societal system and also shows the outcasts in their emotional anguish and finally exposes the Human Rights Violation and the deprivation of Social Justice in Indian Society.
Social Humiliation, Human Rights, Deprivation, Humanism, Moral Values, Social Justice.
Writers in their Social Matrix:
Human ethics and values are the essence of ancient Hindu philosophy. Conspicuously, moral values and ethics appear to be losing their significance in the modern world. The free soul of every individual, in any society, seeks proper recognition and honor. It is disheartening to note that a large section of society is oppressed and insulted. Apparently, the reasons for downtrodden people’s unrest and their sense of disgust are multifarious. Socialism has emerged as a major political theory for establishing a classless integrated society. As the focus of this research paper is social degradation and its evil effects, it is required to discuss the concepts of Human Rights and Social Justice. Discrimination against lower caste people such as Harijans and Untouchables is still a social malady in India. In rural areas, people of lower caste customarily serve those of higher caste. This situation has seemingly aggravated caste conflict and has kept the poor politically and socially backward.
Essentially, social humiliation and economic backwardness have hindered the development process in Indian society. Social activists have lead many movements for some kind of social change. Prominent Indian English writers have exposed the disgusting situations in their literary treatises. Human and Societal values in the writings of modern Indian writers in English and the English writers of Indian origin such as Sir Nirad C. Chowdhury, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Upamanyu Chatterjee and Jhumpa Lahiri have won accolades at home and abroad equally. The present generation of Indian writers like Chetan Bhagat, Amitava Ghosh etc. also picked up their plots from the social and personal milieu. Such popular fiction writers’ novels reflect the ideas of morality and ethics.
Champion of Under Privileged:
Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) was born in Punjab to cultured parents Lalchand and Oshwar kaur. As a famous Indian English writer, he has strongly condemned the hiatus between high and low social classes. As a matter of fact, Mulk Raj Anand has firsthand knowledge of how the children of coolies, untouchables, and poor peasants lived. His sensitive heart and creative mind have made him a short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and a writer of nonfiction. His famous novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) expose social humiliation and also explore the areas of social injustice and economic exploitation present in Indian society. He has written fiction to reform the Indian society which is fragmented into many divisions in the name of caste, religion and linguistic groups.
The popular fiction of Mulk Raj Anand also Include Two Leaves and a Bud (1937), The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940), The Sword and Sickle (1942) – and the much acclaimed Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953). His autobiographical novels, Seven Summers (1950), Morning Face (1968), which won the National Academy Award, Confession of a Lover (1972) and The Bubble (1988), reveal his personal story and the growth of his creative mind. Mulk Raj Anand is interested in the “social man”. The personal experiences, an urge for political, social, and cultural reformation are major elements in his writings. His fictional works dramatize the cruelties inherent in the caste system and the suffering induced by poverty. Eminent scholars and critics like Prof. K.R. Srinivas Iyengar and M.K. Naik have suitably appreciated Mulk Raj Anand’s creative writing skills.
The literary luminary Mulk Raj Anand has disregarded Casteism and detested Untouchability. In fact, the quintessence of Untouchable is an appeal for eradicating the caste system and inhuman attitude. Having observed his contemporary social conditions, exploitation of the outcastes, superiority of Brahmin priest and merciless acts of imperialism, Anand has shown his natural feeling of affection and sympathy for them in his popular works. In short, he is a man of people, an advocate of the down trodden and the under privileged.
Anand’s works prove his talent for projecting character, situation and psychological in sights. His creative output is blended with Marxist ideology and so he deals with the ideal of the equality of all men. Apparently, he used his keen observation, creative power and narrative techniques to interpret the fragile situation of socially suppressed classes. The critical evaluation of his novels and short stories show that his works contain intellect, newness and moral purpose. Critics unanimously say that his works are still topical, illuminating and sensational.
Untouchable – An Epitome of Indian Society:
Since the dawn of Indus valley Civilization, Indian society has been divided into many social classes in the name of God and religion. Historically, Hindu society in 1930s was very conservative and orthodox. It has compelled a large section of its people to live subhuman lives like animals. Certain sections in Indian society are given low status and they are asked to perform low level jobs. It has become an evil which cannot be avoided easily. Mulk Raj Anand wrote the novel Untouchable with fire and vitality. In many ways the novel represents the Gandhiji’s idea of untouchables as Harijans (Children of God). In fact the novel brought to him immense popularity and prestige. Along with R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand is credited with the fame of establishing the basic forms and themes of modern Indian literature written in English. He is acclaimed as one of the twentieth century’s most important Indian writers. In order to show the novel’s success these lines of a critic are appropriate to be quoted here:
Since its publication, Untouchable has been sold into several thousands and has been translated into over twenty languages. Richard Maine, in a recent B.B.C. broad cast, called it a “classic”, and of Anand’s forty odd books it certainly is the most popular. (R.L.Varsheny 60)
The power of creation energy of narration and talent for projecting character and situation are his strengths as a novelist. This was to be his model as he set about writing his first novel, Untouchable, published in 1935. While admiring the greatness of the novel a writer K.R. Srinvasa Iyengar felt that:
Of all his novels, Untouchable is the most compact and artistically satisfying………Untouchable is further the shortest of the novels, and the most revealing and rewarding of the lot. The unities are admirably preserved, as in a classical play, for Untouchable covers the events of a single day in the life of the ‘low-caste’ boy, Bakha, in the town of Bulashah. ( K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar 335-336)
Apparently, the novel deals with a burning topic of ancient India namely caste discrimination. It was published in England with a preface by E.M.Foster. He displays his compassion for the plight of untouchables in the novel. The novel narrates a day in the life of Bhaka who is an unclean outcast. His anguish and a number of humiliations in the course of his day are described in an interesting manner. Bhaka is eighteen years old, a child of modern India. He is proud and strong who thinks himself superior to his fellow-outcastes. Owing to his low birth, he does the work of a latrine sweeper. In fact, the story was inspired by the author’s childhood memory of a low-caste sweeper boy carried him home after he had been injured. As a result the innocent boy was beaten up by Mulk Raj Anand’s mother for touching her high-caste son.
We follow Bhaka round on his daily chores cleaning up the shit of the rich and powerful who despise him because of strict social rules governing ideas of purity and pollution. When he walks down the streets he has to signal an alarm with his voice as he approaches so that the ‘pure’ are forewarned to avoid even allowing his shadow to be cast upon them. On one occasion he does ‘pollute’ a caste Hindu and is chased, abused and attacked all day long for this defilement.
Clearly, Mulk Raj Anand, in Untouchable, deals with the outcasts engaged in an intense struggle with oppressive forces. Bakha has to struggle and suffer every minute because he is untouchable and he has no right to live like other upper caste. Bakha has a high sense of duty. He is an ideal brother and a responsible son. He loves his sister Sohini very much. He works hard to clean latrines and values cleanliness. Hawaldar Charan Singh is highly impressed by his sense of decency and work culture. The insults and abuses of the high caste Hindus torment his mind. He wants to protest against the tyranny of the caste Hindus but controls himself due to unavoidable circumstances. He finds himself weak and helpless to break the chains of caste supremacy.
By the character of Sohini, he tries to show the picture of Indian sweeper caste people especially the lower caste females. She has to wait for water for hours because she is from downtrodden class. She is the most important character in the novel Untouchable because she is the passive sufferer. When Pandit Kali Nath tries to come close to Sohini she is not ready so Pandit himself spreads rumors that she polluted him. Consequently, Sohini tries to tell the truth but no one is ready to believe her. It is the real picture of the outcaste women. Thus, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable exposes the social realism in contemporary Hindu Society.
When Pandit Kali Nath tries to come close to Sohini she is not ready so Pandit himself spreads rumors that she polluted him. Consequently, Sohini tries to tell the truth but no one is ready to believe her. She is the most important character in the novel Untouchable because she is the passive sufferer. It is the real picture of the outcaste women. Thus, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable exposes the social realism in contemporary Hindu Society.
Mulk Raj Anand portrayed the pitiable condition of untouchable who is sweeper boy. The protagonist of this novel is the figure of suffering because of his caste. With Bakha, the central character, there are other characters who also suffer because of their lower caste. They live in mud-walled cottages situated a crowded colony. The slum dwellers are scavengers, the leather-workers, the washer men, the barbers, the water-carriers, the grass-cutters and other outcasts. The lower caste people suffer because they are by birth outcast.
The surroundings of Bakha’s colony are very dirty. The filth of latrines, the dung of donkey, sheep, horses, cows and buffaloes spread foul smell. The absence of drainage system is the reason for unclean surroundings .Such filthy surroundings keep the out castes always low spirited and disgusted. Mulk Raj Anand shows the untouchables in exploitation and degradation. He finds Untouchability even among Untouchables. The untouchables also have their hierarchy and social levels. C.D. Narasimhaiah observes that Bakha seems to be a typical representative untouchable exemplifying the plight of not only the so-called Hindu untouchables but also of dispossessed people everywhere. (C.D. Narasimhaiah 110)
One can find that Mulk Raj Anand depicts the hypocrisy of the upper caste people like Pt. Kali Nath who derive pleasure by touching the Harijan (outcaste) girls. He exposes all this hypocrisy and double standard or double dealing. In this novel the protagonist Bakha is a universal figure to show the oppression, injustice, humiliation to the whole community of the outcasts in India. He symbolizes the exploitation and oppression which has been the fate of untouchables like him. His agony and humiliation are not of his alone, but the suffering of whole outcastes and underdogs.
In short, Untouchable shows the social evil of untouchability present in Hindu Society. The central character attempts to emancipate him from the age old evil of untouchability. Mulk Raj Anand describes the pathetic conditions, painful hardships, physical and mental agonies of the untouchables through the character Bakha. The hero is simultaneously a rebel and victim. His anguish becomes our work with his father’s cascade of abuses and insults makes him dejected in the following manner:sorrow. Cleaning three rows of latrines in a single day and starting his routine
‘Get up, ohe, you Bakhya, you son of a pig,’ came his father’s voice, sure as a bullet to its target, from the midst of a broken, jarring, interrupted snore. Get up and attend to the latrines or the sepoys will be angry.’..…
Are you up? Get up, you illegally begotten came his father’s shout again and stirred the boy to a feeling of despair. (Untouchable 5-6).
One can find interesting and moving situations in the novel. Bakha is the son of Lakha, the Jamedar (the head man) of all the sweepers in the cantonment. He is strong and active. He takes pleasure in his work with sense of dignity of labour. The white men treat him as a human being rather than as mere untouchable. So, he develops a liking for them. He tries to imitate their dressing habits which are why his friends Chota and Charan Singh make fun of him and call him ‘Pilpali Saheb’ (imitation Saheb). In the absence of his mother he is deprived of basic comforts such as a cup of tea and proper meal. He is overburdened with the work of cleaning rows and rows of latrines.
The action of the novel takes place in Bulandshahi, a cantonment town in Punjab. Mulk Raj Anand was born and brought up in Punjab and so he makes use of the scenery and culture of Punjab in his novel. A number of things happen to Bakha in one day which increases his pain and agony. A priest tries to seduce his sister and when Bakha peeps into the temple to see what is happening and hears the Brahmin’s words who screams:
‘Polluted, polluted, polluted! Shouted the Brahmin below…..
Get off the steps, you scavenger! Off with you! You have defiled our
Whole service you have defiled our temple! Now we will have to pay for
the purificatory ceremony, Get down, get away, you dog! (Untouchable 53).
He forgets all his hard work when Hawaldar Charan Singh promises to give a new hockey stick. Though the work he undertakes is dirty cleaning up the filth of others, he himself is comparatively clean. Work gives him a kind of joy and pleasure. Bakha feels thirsty when he reaches home but there is no water in the house. He asks his sister Sohini to fetch some water from the well. As the well belongs to the upper caste Hindus, the untouchables are not allowed to fetch the water from the well. There is widespread belief among upper caste people that the water touched by untouchables becomes polluted, impure and unholy.
On the other hand Bakha who is fascinated by the multicolored spectacle of bazaar and is attracted by ‘Rasagolluas’ (Indian sweetmeats). As he can’t afford to buy the expensive sweets, he buys the cheaper jalebis (Indian delicacies). While taking the sweets, he accidentally touches an upper caste Hindu. Bakha is abused and insulted and the packet of jalebis falls in the dust. One can understand that even the simplest pleasures of life are denied to the untouchable. Such untouchables are humiliated and treated as inferior beings. The novel in this manner shows the suffering and misery, moral and spiritual degradation and humiliating experience of the outcastes of India. Bakha is cruelly slapped, beaten and humiliated and the sweets in his hand are thrown down merely because he has accidentally touched a Hindu.
‘You swine, you dog, why didn’t you shout and warn me of your approach!? he shouted as he met Bakha’s eyes. Don’t you know, you brute, that you must not touch me!’…
‘Dirty dog! Son of a bitch! The offspring of a pig!’(Untouchable 38).
One can understand that the conditions which the untouchables are enforced into are really shocking. When Bhaka’s sister Sohini goes to a community well to fetch water, she is insulted by the upper caste people. Their plight is so dire that even for the fulfillment of the basic needs like water and food; they have to depend on the mercy of high-caste Hindus. Sohini has to wait as well, for quite a long time, to fetch a pot full of water, for her tired and thirsty brother, putting up with the lustful men. Pandit Kali Nath draws water for her and calls her his house to clean the courtyard and tries to molest her. But when she shouts to protect herself, he cries out “polluted”, “polluted”. Bakha reaches the temple courtyard in sad mood. He wishes to see the idols of God but years of mental conditioning prevent him from climbing the fifteen steps.
Bakha’s misery is increased when his younger sister, Sohini is molested by the temple priest Kalinath. He is very angry in the situation and wishes to kill the priest. For some time he remains as a mute witness, though his first impulse was to beat him up. Finally he becomes highly emotional and shouts:
Tell me, tell me, that he didn’t do anything to you…
Tell me, Sohini, he said, turning fiercely to his sister, how far did he go?…..
Tell me! Tell me! I will kill him if …….’ he shouted…..
‘The son of a pig!’ Bakha exclaimed. ‘I will go and kill him!’
And he rushed blindly towards the courtyard. (Untouchable 54-55).
But centuries of oppression has taken away his free will and independent action. The mental slavery has become an obstacle for him to fight for justice. He feels that an unseen superior force prevents him from getting into action of killing Kalinath. The priest is surrounded by a kind of magic circle which protects him from Bakha’s attack. It is the real picture of the outcaste women. Having been insulted by the temple priest Bhakha desperately comes and tells his father:
They insulted me this morning; they abused me because as I was walking along a man happened to touch me. He gave me a blow. And a crowd gathered round me, abusing and-.’…….. Why weren’t you more careful, my boy? ‘But, father, what is the use? Bhaka shouted. ‘They would ill-treat us even if we shouted. They think we are mere dirt because we clean their dirt. That pundit in the temple tried to molest Sohini and then came shouting: “Polluted, polluted.’ The woman of the big house in the silversmith’s gulley threw the bread at me from the fourth story. I won’t go down to the town again. I have done with this job.’ (Untouchable 70).
The characters in the novel are simple who are found in any Indian village. Bakha, a sweeper boy, is the central character and hero in Untouchable. Lakha is his father; Sohini is his sister; Chota and Ramcharan are his playmates; and Rakha is his brother. Pandit Kalinath is a wicked priest who molests Sohini. Col.Hutchinson and Iqubal Nath Sarshar and Hawaldar Charan Singh are minor characters. The main attention throughout the story is focused on Bakha. Mulk Raj Aanad describes the pitiable situations of Bakha and gives an account of his tormented soul. Bakha symbolizes that an outcaste or an untouchable has the ability to possess positive personality and the caste system applied erroneous perceptions upon the Indian individuals. The untouchability has severely unbalanced their identity formation and invited discriminations and inequalities into their lives:
First, Untouchables might simply be unaware of their legal position. Secondly, Untouchables might appear to accept the rule because they fear physical brutality or, they might challenge the rule because they are no longer prepared to tolerate physical brutality (Currie 124).
Untouchable is a social novel which exposes the Untouchability by focusing attention on the miserable situation, suffering, poverty and degradation of a large section of Indian society. Bakha, thus is a universal symbol for the underdog. It is not the story of Bakha alone but the suffering of the untouchables as a class. Thus the story exposes the heartless attitudes of Hindus who think that the touch of an untouchable makes them polluted and unholy.
Gradually, Bakha forgets the humiliation of the day when Howaldar Charan Singh gives him a new hockey stick. He plays well in the hockey match and scores good points. Once again he is subjected to humiliation by other players. The goalie of other team strikes Bakha on his legs. There is a quarrel between two teams. The two teams get into a fight of hurling sticks and stones at one another. Young little boy gets hit on his head and is seriously injured. Bakha rushes to his help picks up the child and carries him home. The child’s mother instead of thanking Bakha charges him and accuses him of injuring her son:
‘You eater of your masters, you dirty sweeper!’ she shouted.
‘What have you done to my son?’…..
‘Oh, you eater of your masters! What have you done? You have killed my son!’ she wailed, flinging her hands across her breasts and turning blue and red with fear. ‘Give him to me! Give me my child! You have defiled my house, besides wounding my Son!’(Untouchable 106).
She also finds fault with him that he has touched her son while bringing home. Bakha’s misery is unfathomable now. Both physically and mentally he is hurt and defeated. He returns home where he is abused by his father for neglecting his work. Thus his day begins with his father’s abuses and ends with the same kind of curses from his father it can be understood that he is caught in vicious circle in which he is compelled to clean the filth of others and forced to believe that he himself is dirty and inferior to others.
Ironically the caste Hindus like Kalinath is afraid of the touch of Harijan boys but they enjoy the touch of Harijan girls. Mulk Raj Anand exposes this kind of hypocrisy and double standards. Bakha has other humiliating experiences in the story. An old woman throws a loaf of bread at him from the upper window of her house as if he were a dog and a shop –keeper throws a packet of cigarettes in the same manner. Hence the novel is sociological in nature which shows the lack of humanism and love on the part of upper caste Hindus for their Harijan fraternity.
Having exposed the evil of Untouchability, Mulk Raj Anand offers a solution to it. He suggests three possible solutions namely: Gandhian ideals, conversion to Christianity and mechanized sanitary system. The third solution is acceptable to the hero of the novel. Talking first with a Christian missionary and with a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and then listening to a speech about Untouchability by Gandhi, Bakha searches for a solution to his tragedy. By the end of the book he concludes that it is technology, in the form of the newly introduced flush toilet that will be his saviour. While the toilet may deprive him and his family of the traditional livelihood they have had for centuries, it may also liberate them in the end by eliminating the need for a caste of toilet cleaners.
It seems that the novel brings to light the crude and barbarous behavior of the high caste Hindus towards sweepers who clean their dirt. The novel also deals with the gulf between the superiority and the inferiority complex among members of the low caste people. The superior among the outcastes ill-treat others of their own class. It means there is untouchability even among untouchables. Gulabo, the washer woman who is untouchable, considers herself superior because she claimed a high place in the hierarchy of the castes among the low castes. She shamelessly humiliates and insults Sohini.
Thus, we see Untouchable as a realistic novel which depicts the social conditions in the pre-independence in India. It evokes the sympathy and pity of the readers who can understand how the outcasts are ill-treated. They are not even praised for the humanitarian and kind deeds they perform. Their women are ill-treated, molested and looked up on with greedy eyes. Yet they have to tolerate all such humiliations in the name of religious beliefs customs and traditions. As a matter of fact, Indian society sanctions special privileges to upper caste priests who, generally, misuse their supremacy. The principal character Bakha is shown as a person chained by social customs and the selfishness of upper caste people.
Mulk Raj Anand looks at the problem of untouchability in a balanced manner. He not only writes about cruelty of high caste people but also shows the good side of their characters. There are good castes Hindus like Charan Singh who gives new hockey stick and encourages Bakha for whose sake Bakha is prepared to live as a sweeper all his life. And there are cunning people like priest Kalinath. Among the untouchables also there are good people like Bakha and there are cruel people like Lakha and Rakha. It suggests that not all upper caste people are harmful and not all untouchables are admirable. The novel is a social protest against evil traditions, narrow minded outlook and conservatism. Bakha is an exceptional, uncommon individual, entirely different from other untouchables. On the other hand his father Lakha and brother Rakha do not show any desire for protest against injustice.
Anand is skillful in understanding the sentiments and feelings of both the suppresser and suppressed. It can also be seen that Mulk Raj Anand has studied a suffering man in relation to the social environment. His characters are universal in appeal, particularly Bakha’s characters in Untouchable is seen as a universal sufferer. Obviously, the novel is about the conflict between the individual and society. It shows how helpless and powerless the untouchables are.
The novel makes Bakha an unforgettable character in Indo-Anglian literature. Mulk Raj Anand’s characters fall into two categories namely the tormentors and the tormented. He shows the victims of social injustice in the characters like Bakha and Sohini and also shows the selfish hypocrites in the characters like Kalinath and Seth Gokul Chand. Women play very minor role in Mulk Raj Anand’s novels and so they remain as passive members in the story.
If Indian society is split into touchables and untouchables, some other societies are divided into Jews and Christians, Blacks and Whites Privileged and Unprivileged etc. The root cause of the problem lies in man’s sense of cleanliness and uncleanliness. The clean body may contain unclean heart and the unclean body may contain clean heart. So there can be no perfect cleanliness among individuals. So it can be believed that everybody can be touchable as well as untouchable because some kind of impurity lies in every individual.
Thus, Mulk Raj Anand expressed his concern for the larger segment of the Hindu society which has been subjected to humiliation, exploitation. In the light of this fact, his Untouchable deserves greater attention of the sensitive scholars and the hero Bakha can be called an epical character. Since the publication of this novel, it has become almost customary to look upon it as a social document and to treat Bhaka as a social crusader. His sorrows and sufferings, broodings and ruminations, hopes and aspirations, and quest and determination are equated to those of the Indian untouchables generally. It would be proper to look upon him as the champion of human dignity, freedom and growth.
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