Mulk Raj Anand’s novel, Untouchable, explores a day in the life of Bakha, the eighteen-year-old son of the Headman of the sweepers. Let us begin with a view of his home in, Bulasha, the outcaste’s colony:
“…(It) was a group of mud-walled houses that clustered together in two rows, under the shadow both of the town and the cantonment, but outside the boundaries and separate from them. There lived the…outcastes of Hindu society. A brook ran near…once with crystal water, now soiled by the dirt and filth of the public latrines…the odour…of dead carcasses…the dung of donkeys…The absence of a drainage system had…made of the quarter a marsh which gave out the most offensive stink. And altogether the ramparts of human and animal refuse…on the outskirts…and the ugliness, the squalor and the misery which lay within it, made it an ‘uncongenial’ place to live (p. 9)…”
We first meet Bakha half-asleep one chilly morning, on a carpet on the floor of his one-room house. He is covered by a worn-out blanket. Nearby his sister lays on a cot, and his father and brother, on a broken string bed. The single room is twelve by five, dingy and made of mud. Bakha lies awake, waiting for his father’s hateful order to get up and go to work:
“’Get up…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 (p. 13)…”
Bakha is in charge of cleaning three rows of the public latrines. He began this work at the age of six, resigned to the hereditary life of their craft. But he dreamed of being a ‘sahib’ (i.e. superior person). To become one, his uncle told him, he would have to go to school. So Bakha wept to be allowed to attend the local school. But his father refused, said that schools were meant for ‘babus’ (i.e. superior persons), not for lowly sweepers. The other children’s parents would never allow their sons to be contaminated by the touch of a low-caste. As a sweeper’s son, he would never be allowed to attend.
Once he had worked in the barracks of a British regiment, and was attracted by the glamour of the ‘white man’s life’. Having been treated by the soldiers as a human being, he learned to think of himself as superior to his fellow-outcastes. In imitation of the ‘Tommies’, he wore their overcoat, breeches, puttees and boots. Wearing the ‘sahib’s’ clothes made him feel like he was one of them. After his loving mother had died, the burden of looking after the family had fallen onto him:
“…Oh Bakhya! Oh, you scoundrel of a sweeper’s boy! Come and clear a latrine for me!’ somebody shouted from without (p. 15)...”
Bakha rose, flung the blanket off and hurried out the door. Having gathered his brush and basket, he began his morning labors. A strong, handsome youth, he moved from one latrine to the next, cleaning, brushing and pouring phenoil. Dexterously performing his duties, he swept and scrubbed the commodes. The voice that had just taken him to task was that of Havildar Charat Singh, a famous hockey player of the regiment. Although a high-caste Hindu, he recognized something special in Bakha, despite his being a low-caste youth. He promises to give him a hockey stick if he comes by his quarters that afternoon. Bakha is overwhelmed by the generosity of this, the champion of the regiment:
“Charat Singh’s generous promise had called forth that trait of servility in Bakha which he had inherited from his forefathers…A soft smile lingered on his lips, the smile of a slave overjoyed at the condescension of his master (p. 17)…”
After finishing his final round of the latrines, he shovels its refuse into the chimney. He stuffs it with straw from baskets he has collected from the latrines. Stooping over, he gathers shovelfuls and casts them into the grate; then picks up a poker and prods the flames. Sweat trickles down his forehead as he feeds the fire. We can’t help but admire:
“His dark face, round and solid and exquisitely well defined, lit with a queer sort of beauty. The toil of the body had built up for him a very fine physique...it seemed to give him a nobility, strangely in contrast with his filthy profession and with the sub-human status to which he was condemned from birth (p. 20)…”
Having finished his morning labors, Bakha returns home for breakfast. He finds his father still snoring under his patchwork quilt, and his beautiful sister, Sohini, attempting to light a fire. He helps her with the stove. But they have run out of water; so she takes a pitcher – and balancing it on her head – goes off in pursuit of water from the well. Now we follow her from their mud hut to the nearby steps of the well:
“The outcastes were not allowed to mount the platform surrounding the well, because if they were ever to draw water from it, the Hindus of the three upper castes would consider the water polluted…they had to collect at the foot of the caste Hindus’ well and depend on the bounty of some of their superiors to pour water into their pitchers (p. 22, 23)…”
Here, we first encounter the central feature of caste: that their members can ‘pollute’ or ‘defile’ by their very touch. They are taught not merely to believe themselves inferior, but to believe themselves ‘unclean’. So it is only fitting that Bakha work at the latrines: he has been taught this is what he deserves; what, according to their religion, he was born to do.
When Sohini arrives at the well, there are many others waiting, but there was no one to give them water. Gulabo, the washerwoman – “an assertive old hussy”, envious of Sohini’s beauty – cries:
“…You bitch! You prostitute!…What are you laughing at, slut?...You eater of dung and drinker of urine!... I will show you how to insult one old enough to be your mother (p. 25)…”
Waziro, the weaver’s wife, intervenes before Gulabo is able to strike Sohini. Finally, Pundit Kali Nath, a Brahmin and one of the priests in charge of the temple, notices Sohini’s voluptuous figure among those begging for water at the well. He fills her pitcher, and orders her to come clean his house at the temple that day. Then she returns to her home and her cantankerous old father:
“’I thought you were dead or something, you daughter of a pig!...Put the tea on and call those sons of a pig, Bakha and Rakha to me!’ Then he frowned in the gruff manner of a man who was really good at heart, but who knew he was weak and infirm and so bullied his children, to preserve his authority (p. 31)…”
After drinking tea and eating bread, Bakha picks up his broom and basket. Now he exits and proceeds down their village lane. Leaving the outcastes’ colony behind, he breathes the fresh air that lies beyond it. Because his father has pleaded illness, he must go in his place to sweep the roads and temple courtyard in town.
He passes one of the Hindu stall-keeper’s shops, where he sees a display of boxes of cigarettes arranged in rows. Like Sohini that morning at the well, he experiences the attitude of the high-caste toward the low in the person of the betel-leaf-seller:
“He halted suddenly, and facing the shopkeeper with great humility, joined his hands and begged to know where he could put a coin to pay for a packet of ‘Red-Lamp’. The shopkeeper pointed to a spot on the board near him. Bakha put his anna there. The betel-leaf-seller dashed some water over it…Having thus purified it he picked up the nickel piece and threw it into the counter. Then he flung the packet of ‘Red-Lamp’ cigarettes at Bakha, as a butcher might throw a bone to an insistent dog sniffing round the corner of his shop (p. 42)…”
It is considered an offense for a sweeper to be seen smoking, so Bakha must do it on the sly. He begs a light from a Muhammadan – also considered an outcaste – inhales and continues walking down the street. Finally he arrives at the city’s great bazaar, a kaleidoscope of color and savory smells. His eyes scan the vast array of delicious things to eat – rasgulas, gulabjamans and ludus – all of them smothered in syrup. He approaches a shopkeeper to buy some of the cheaper pastries, knowing that he would charge an outcaste more, to compensate for the pollution of dealing with these ‘unclean’ ones:
“’Four annas’ worth of jalebis,’ Bakha said in a low voice as he courageously advanced from the corner where he had stood. His head was bent. He was vaguely ashamed and self-conscious at being seen buying sweets…(The shopkeeper) threw the sweets into a piece torn off an old Daily Mail…Bakha…knew he had been cheated, but dared not complain. He caught the jalebis which the confectioner threw at him like a cricket ball, placed four coins on the shoe-board for the confectioner’s assistant who stood ready to splash some water on them (p. 46)…”
He unwraps the sweets and puts a piece in his mouth. The taste of the thick, sweet syrup is delightful. He continues on through the bazaar, staring at the giant signboards on the upper floor shops. Suddenly, he is accosted by upper-caste Hindu:
“Keep to the side of the road, you low-caste vermin!...announce your approach!...you have touched me and defiled me, you cock-eyed son of a bow-legged scorpion! Now I will have to go and take a bath to purify myself (p. 46)…”
Bakha freezes, taken unawares. A smile of humility plays on his lips. Lifting his face with his eyes bent low, he joins his hands and mumbles an apology. Now the angry man addresses a rich Hindu merchant, ranting about being ‘defiled’. As a crowd gathers round, Bakha stands there mute: shamed and humiliated before them. Then a poor Muhammadan, followed by a rickety horse and cart, breaks up the crowd while moving down the street. The high-caste man complains he’s been defiled by the Muhammadan, as well, and slaps Bakha hard across the face:
“Bakha’s turban fell off and the jalebis in the paper bag in his hand were scattered in the dust…Tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. The strength, the power of his giant body glistened with the desire for revenge…he had lost all his humility, and he would have lost his temper, too, but the man who had struck him had slipped beyond reach into the street…wiping the tears off his face with his hands he picked up his tools and started walking…But there was a smouldering rage in his soul…Why are we always abused?...Because we are sweepers. Because we touch dung…Untouchable! I am an Untouchable! (p. 50, 51)…”
As Bakha lingers in the bazaar, he spots a big-humped brahminee bull ruminating nearby. He smells the stink from its mouth as it belches; sees its liquid dung drip onto the ground. It was his duty to sweep it up. A rich, well-dressed Hindu now touches the bull, a custom of their religion. The bull approaches a vegetable stand, and grabs a mouthful of cabbage. The dealer threatens without striking, and the bull moves off to yet another stand. Bakha compares this with the cruel way he had been treated, thinking:
“…But they are kind to the cows (p. 54)…”
He continues through the city and arrives at the temple – a colossal, turreted structure of massive stone and masonry. The exuberance of its florid carving strikes him with awe. With his broom and basket, he begins to sweep the temple courtyard. A crowd of worshipers now enters the temple, so Bakha must shout his ‘call’, “Posh, posh, sweeper coming!” to warn them of his presence. He wonders about the temple rituals, wishes to see its mysterious interior. But being an Untouchable, his entering the temple would pollute it beyond purification. Curiosity overcomes his fear, however, as he slowly mounts the temple steps:
“…creeping slowly up…He picked up his broom by its short wooden handle and began to sweep the ground…The temple stood challengingly before him…He bent down and began to collect the heaps which his broom had piled up…He gripped the steps hard, and…rushed headlong to the top step. From here, as he lay, he could peer through…affording a glimpse…of the sanctuary…the innermost recesses of the tall, dark sanctum (p. 58, 59)…”
Bakha watches the worshipers within the temple interior, hears their chants and the musical accompaniment. Then suddenly he hears a terrible cry from priest of the temple: ‘Polluted, polluted, polluted.’ A crowd of worshipers rush out of the temple, shouting and waving their arms in the air! Then Bakha sees his sister,
Sohini, standing beside the priest, and runs toward her frightened for them both. One of the angry worshipers shouts:
“Get off the steps, you scavenger! You have defiled our temple! Now we will have to pay for the purificatory ceremony. Get down, get away, you dog!...
‘You people have only been polluted from a distance,’ Bakha heard the little priest shriek. ‘I have been defiled by contact.’ (p. 61)…”
As Bakha and Sohini stand frightened and cowering, she tells him how the priest had behaved indecently to her as she was cleaning his house. When she screamed, he had come out shouting that he had been defiled. Infuriated by what the priest had done to his sister, Bakha rushes after him but loses him in the crowd. Sohini persuades him not to kill him, as the crowd of worshipers disperses, leaving the temple courtyard empty. A busy street lay before them, as they emerged from the temple courtyard. Although Bakha was:
“A superb specimen of humanity…there was a futility written on his face. He could not over-step the barriers which the conventions of his superiors had built up to protect their weakness from him. He could not invade the magic circle which protects a priest from attack by anybody, especially by a low-caste man. So in the highest moment of his strength, the slave in him asserted itself (p. 65)…”
Sohini takes his broom and basket and returns to their home, as Bakha goes in search of the family’s food. He passes flea-bitten dogs, refuse heaps and a cow lying in the middle of the road. Past the din of the coppersmiths hammering in their dark little shops, he moves into the alley where he goes to ‘call’ for food. Being an outcaste, he cannot defile the sanctity of the houses by climbing the stairs to the upper floors. He must announce his arrival from below:
“’Bread for the sweeper, mother. Bread for the sweeper’, he called. (p. 68)…”
But no one hears him, as he shouts his ‘call’, passing by one house after another. Exhausted, he rests on a platform of a house, slowly drifting off into sleep. Then he’s rudely awakened from his wishful dreams. The housewives wait with food for the arrival of the ash-smeared ascetics. But when one of them stops short – seeing Bakha resting on the platform of her house, her kind expression suddenly changes into rage:
“You eater of your masters…May you perish and die! You have defiled my house! Go! (p. 71)…”
After generously feeding the holy man, her torrent of abuse subsides. She gives Bakha the leftovers of rice and chapatti. Another woman now shouts that he has defiled her house. She orders him to clean up after her child, who has relieved himself in the gutter. Then she flings bread at him which lands on the ground. He picks it up and moves back toward his village.
Returning home with the meager food he has gathered, he is tongue-lashed by his father:
“’You are a good-for-nothing scoundrel,’ muttered Lakha (p. 77)…”
Now Bakha imagines the prospect of all his future days of toil, all the insults he would have to endure. He remembers that morning: saw himself shouted at by a crowd; saw the little priest fling his arms in the air and cry, ‘defiled.’; saw the lady who had thrown the bread at him for not cleaning up after her child:
“They think we are mere dirt because we clean their dirt (p. 79)…”
Later that day, he visits Havildar Charat Singh’s place, located in the barracks of the regiment. He approaches it warily: as a sweeper, he dares not go within “defiling distance” of its veranda. He walks to and fro outside, hoping that the Havildar has remembered his promise that morning to give him a hockey stick. Finally he arrives, entrusting Bakha with the job of fetching coals to light his hookah. After the Havildar drinks his tea, he leaves his room and returns with a hockey stick:
“Bakha bent his head and evaded the Havildar’s eyes. He couldn’t look at so generous a person. He was overcome by the man’s kindness. He was grateful, grateful, haltingly grateful (p. 109)…”
He longs to show the hockey stick to his friends, the high-caste Hindus’ sons. Walking to their neighborhood, he finds the younger brother of his friend, Chota, who himself has received a hockey stick from the Havildar. Soon others arrive to play, and the hockey (i.e. soccer) match begins. It soon leads to fierce fighting between the teams; then escalates to the hurling of stones. One of them hits Chota’s little brother in the head:
“He gave a sharp, piercing shriek and fell unconscious. All the boys rushed to him. Streams of blood were pouring from the back of his head. Bakha picked him up in his arms and took him to the hall of his house. Unfortunately for him, the child’s mother had heard the row they had been making and casually came to see if her children were safe. She met Bakha face to face:
‘You eater of your masters, you dirty sweeper!’ she shouted. ‘What have you done to my son?’…You have defiled my house, besides wounding my son! (p. 116)…”
Bakha hands the child over to his mother, withdrawing dejected and miserable. The mother was right that he had defiled the child by picking him up and carrying him: but he was obliged to help the little boy. When he returns home to his father, it is to yet another scolding from the old man smoking his hookah. The long harangue ends with his banishment from his father’s house. He must never return, his father says: he will never set eyes on him again. But the accumulated abuses of Bakha’s day have now reached the boiling-point:
“…He had quietly suffered his father’s abuse…He would never lift his head, or his hand, to defend himself…To-day, however, he had had more than enough (p. 118)…”
He storms out of the house and across the expanse of the outcaste’s village: past mud houses clustered like mushrooms; surrounded by rubbish-heaps, broken bottles, dead cats in the mud. Finally, he drops exhausted and is seated on the ground. He remains here, nursing his head in his hands, given up entirely to despair. A missionary, Colonel Hutchinson, chief of the local Salvation Army, now approaches him. The author presents a satirical portrait of this man and his wife, here to convert the dark-skinned ‘heathen’. After a futile attempt at Christian indoctrination, Bakha bids the Colonel farewell. He encounters a leper and a crowd of beggars on the road before the railway station. In the distance he hears a chorus of voices, and sees a crowd in white tunics approaching:
“The Mahatma has come! Mahatma Gandhi ki-jai!”…there was going to be a meeting…where the Mahatma was going to speak…The word ‘Mahatma’ was like a magical magnet to which he, like all the other people about him, rushed blindly (p. 135, 6)…”
As Bakha moves with the crowd to the place where Gandhi is to speak, he remembers what he has heard about his efforts to aid the lower castes. How he called them harijans (men of God), claimed they were no different from other Hindus, and that their touch did not defile. Then, in the distance he spots the motorcade in which the great man was approaching:
“Behind a screen of flower petals showered by ardent devotees under many-colored flags, with garlands of marigolds, jasmine and molseri around his neck…the great little man came into sight. His body was swathed in a milk-white blanket, and only his dark clean-shaven head was visible, with its protruding ears, its expansive forehead, its long nose, bridged by a pair of glasses…Bakha looked at the Mahatma with a mixed feeling of wonder and fear…’He’s black like me,’ Bakha said to himself (p. 142, 43)...”
The Mahatma ascends the speaker’s platform and assumes the lotus position. He is surrounded by devotees. They come up the steps, join hands in obeisance, touch the dust at his feet and are seated in a circle around him. The Mahatma raises his arm and blesses the crowd. Now he closes his eyes and prays, as a Hindu hymn is sung. Finally his voice emerges from the loudspeaker:
“…The British Government sought to pursue a policy of divide and rule in giving to our brethren of the depressed classes separate electorates in the Councils…I do not believe that the bureaucracy is sincere in its efforts to elaborate the new constitution. But it is one of the conditions under which I have been released from gaol that I shall not carry on any propaganda against the government…I shall only speak about the so-called ‘Untouchables’, whom the government tried to alienate from Hinduism by giving them a separate legal and political status…
‘I regard untouchability,’ the Mahatma was saying, ‘as the greatest blot on Hinduism…I prayed…I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should wish to be reborn as an Untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings…in order that I may endeavor to free…them from their miserable condition (p. 145-47)…”
Bakha is deeply moved that the Mahatma wished to be reborn an outcaste like himself. He is anxious to tell his father: hopes it would convince him to be kind; to take him back into their home:
“The fires of sunset were blazing on the western horizon. As Bakha looked at the magnificent orb…he felt a burning sensation within him…He didn’t know what to do, where to go. He seemed to be smothered by the misery, the anguish of the morning’s memories…Then the last words of the Mahatma’s speech seemed to resound in his ears: ‘May God give you the strength to work out your soul’s salvation...’ ‘What did that mean?’, Bakha asked himself…I shall go and tell father all that Gandhi said (p. 157)…”
So he returned from the city to his home in the outcastes’ colony.
Paul N. Siegel’s excellent, The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World, provides a Marxist framework for our discussion. Caste is not race; it is a social and religious division of people of the same race. And race, itself, is a social construction, not determined by biology. But as we have no equivalent term for discrimination according to caste, I have decided to use the term ‘racism’. It conveys the feeling behind fact: its vile, vicious quality. And rather than discuss the caste system as such (surely a subject for specialists), I will address the more general subject of religion and the ideology of racism.
In the Foreword to The Meek and the Militant, Phil Gasper says:
“Far from being unchanging, religious doctrines reflect the historical circumstances and class interests of their adherents, and are shaped and reshaped as those circumstances and interests change…it is necessary to grasp the social relations that underlie religion, together with the development of the productive forces that gave rise to them, in order to understand the complex roles that religion plays in society (p. x, xi)…”
Each ruling class, the class that owns and controls the means of production, constructs an ‘ideology’, a set of ideas representing its interests. The chief role of this ideology is to persuade the working class and poor that they share a common interest with the ruling class. One of earliest forms that ideology takes is religion; but, from a Marxist standpoint, religion addresses more general concerns, as well:
“All religion…is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily lives, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces (p. 39, from Engels’ On Religion, p. 147)…”
Religion accounts for our lack of control over both nature and society:
“Side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active – forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves (p. 41, from Engels’ On Religion, p. 148)…”
Marxism provides us with two basic insights into the nature of religion. First is its ability to serve as a comfort to the oppressed:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by Karl Marx)…”
The second is its function as a weapon. Engels examined the historical case of Christianity in successive historical periods. How it was originally a religion of the oppressed and the poor in Roman times; and how it was later used by the church against them. In Luther’s time it was used by the lower classes against the princes, nobility and clergy; later these same higher authorities used it against the poor. Eugene Genovese, in Roll Jordan, Roll, examined how Christianity was employed as a ‘two-edged sword’. It was used by the slave-owner to pacify the slaves, promising them a future life; and by the slaves, themselves, to preserve their dignity within the cruel slave system.
The ruling class uses this weapon in its strategy of “divide and rule”. It does this both through ideas or ideology, and through the material conditions of competition for employment, housing and social services. The first method is psychological, one of identification. For instance, in the colonial relationship of England to Ireland: “the ordinary English worker…feels himself a member of the ruling nation…” In the American South during slavery, the white farmer was encouraged to believe that he had more in common with the plantation owner than he had with black slaves. And in times of war, this method of identification is extended to the nation through nationalism. Members of the working class and poor are persuaded to identify with their country and its ruling class, rather than with the working class and poor of the “enemy” nation.
The second method forces one group to compete against another for jobs, housing and social services. In India, during the British Raj, a combination of religious and political discrimination determined what jobs were available to each caste, and in which neighborhoods they were allowed to live. Similar discrimination in employment and housing is apparent in the treatment of blacks and immigrants in the United States, today.
Freud’s, The Future of an Illusion, perhaps the greatest essay ever written on the nature of religion, is both compatible and complimentary with Marxism. Freud provides us with a deeper materialist explanation of how the child acquires its parents’ religion. Religion is:
“…born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable…built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. It can be clearly seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions – against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Work, vol. 21, p. 18)…”
Paul N. Siegel also gives us a sketch of the caste system under Hinduism. It was based on a society with a class system of landowners, traders and cultivators. To preserve their wealth and privileges, the ruling class created a religious ideology in which class distinctions became hereditary. Caste determined occupation, and each caste had its own rules of behavior. As Christianity promised the lower classes a future life, so Hinduism – through its doctrine of the transmigration of souls – promised that virtue would lead to a future higher caste life, and sin to a lower caste life. The lower-caste person was not to blame the religion: they were only being punished for their transgressions in their previous life.
Finally, let us bring Anand’s examination of the racism of caste up to date. As in the more familiar case of racism against Afro-Americans in the United State, many laws have been passed and attitudes have changed since the 1930s when Anand wrote Untouchable. But, as in the case of racism in America, much has remained the same. An article from, The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, from March 24, 2012, contains an abundance of statistics concerning the plight of lower-caste Indians. It begins with the law, and like the American laws against racial discrimination, they are extensive. But the gap between law and enforcement is enormous, as it is in the United States. The article presents such a wealth of statistics, that I am forced to include only a few: those relating to the daily humiliations we have encountered in a single day of Bakha’s life. The untouchables are now referred to as ‘Dalits’:
“In more than 48.4% of villages, Dalits are still denied access to common water sources. In 35.8% they are denied entry to village shops…”
“In 10 to 20% of villages, Dalits are not allowed to wear clean, bright or fashionable clothes…smoke or even stand without head bowed…”
“Restrictions on temple entry average as high as 64%...”
“In 25% of the villages, Dalits are paid lower wages than other workers…are often subjected to much longer working hours…”
The author concludes:
“Dalit families are subjected to…extreme forms of humiliation and degradation generation after generation. They are treated worse than animals. So much so, now most of them have internalized discrimination as their fate and they dare not raise voice against their tormentor for fear of punishment. For, they know even if they protest they have no hope of getting justice…The caste system with graded inequality remains popular amongst those whose privileges are associated with it…Caste is meant to divide…”
As in the case of blacks in the United States, the Dalits of India will suffer oppression as long as it helps their rulers to divide them. Only by uniting as members of the working class to end the capitalist system itself, will the oppression of racism finally come to an end.