Untouchable (1935) – The Broken People

I have never read Mulk Raj Anand before. ‘Untouchable‘ describes the day in the life of a young untouchable boy, Bakha as he wanders around and outside the outcastes’ colony where he lives and works as a sweeper with his father, in Bulandshahr, North India.

Though Mulk Raj Anand is said to have been deeply influenced by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, his style reminds me of a long-ago reading of D H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’. Bakha’s dumb, inarticulate world of sensations is recreated in an intricate pattern of descriptions. Usually, I am impatient with descriptive prose, jumping over large portions to get to the action and dialogue. But here the description is so delicately interwoven with what Bakha is feeling, seeing, sensing, creating the inner world of Bakha through a myriad of physical impressions – the sun, his flaking dry winter skin, the cells in his body, the burst of sugar syrup in his mouth as he eats jalebis in the market, the angry tingle of the undeserved slap on his face, his spit under the dirty carpet in his hut, the cooking vessels that his sister has not washed in years, and above all the horror of the barracks lavatories he cleans 7 – 8 times a day.I’ve seen one such lavatory in an old house in Amroha, an open pit where you squat. ‘Going’ there was unimaginable, but what of the person who had to clean it everyday? How else but by complete subjugation and exploitation could the upper castes get away with leaving this task to someone else?

The book was written in 1935, but is life for the untouchables any different now? It’s obvious not, check out for yourself here.

Yes, a lot of the Dalit women can fill water from a tap now, and don’t have to wait around a well, hoping for a sympathetic upper caste person to turn up to fill their pots, like Bakha’s sister had to. But like Bakha’s sister Sohini who is mauled by the priest, the Dalit girls today too regularly have to face the threat of rape if they show the smallest signs of raising their heads.

A lot of people can get an education, unlike Bakha who even though he is willing to pay one anna per lesson to the little upper caste boy who plays hockey with them, has to beg to be taught with humility. A lot of people can get other jobs, and don’t have to continue sweeping and scavenging like Bakha, whose life revolves around the latrines. So, yes, perhaps things have changed a little. But how much?

I’ve seen villages in Maharashtra where the untouchables still live in a segregated area. In some villages, the entire untouchable community has converted to Buddhism but even then, they continue to live outside the fold of the village. My Parisian friend, G visits his ‘munh-boli‘ family in Ahmedabad every year. They are rich, the parents retired from government jobs, high posts, the sons and daughters-in-law work in banks. But they live in the untouchable colony, on the ‘other side of the river’.

I have met several young boys in Mumbai, going to school and college, but resigned to the fact that they will be sweepers ultimately, for nothing else but to keep the government jobs and the government quarters, their father have. Never mind, if the government quarters are in a terrible, terrible condition, dirty, without adequate water, falling down in places. The sweepers in Mumbai are called conservancy workers, but that does not change their working conditions which continue to remain unsafe and unhygienic to the extreme, life-threatening in several instances. The only way they can cope with the work is by dulling their senses with alcohol.

Mr. Ramesh Havalkar runs the ‘Safai Kamgar Parivartan Sangh’ in Dadar. He fights a daily battle with his own people’s fatalism and disillusionment, to keep the children of the community motivated enough to stay in school, organizing a space where they can study in the evenings, and do their homework with some help from voluntary tutors. Trying to organize an annual picnic for the children who rarely get a chance to go out and have some fun.With his help, I visited some of the colonies for a few days, wanting to shoot a documentary, 3 or 4 years ago. But I gave up after a while, ashamed. I am no social activist, nor do I know how to get my documentaries telecast. The couple of people I approached with a project proposal including PSBT did not show any interest in the subject. I did not need money to make the film, but I did want it to be telecast, not just seen at film festivals. I just felt that to make the film without that guarantee would be cheating the people who were helping me, with a false hope that their plight would be seen through the film, and would perhaps help to solve some of their problems. Perhaps if I had been blogging then, I wouldn’t have given up the project so easily.

My own responses to them seemed so inane. I could not help but ask questions like ‘Why don’t you clean up this area yourself?’ And felt foolish even in the asking. When garbage trucks come to pick up the garbage only once a month, when you get water only for 10 minutes once in 2-3 days, there’s little anyone can do about cleaning up.

Within the conservancy workers too, there are fiercely protected caste lines based on region and community. Even when they are asked to move from a dilapidated building, about to fall down at any minute, they want to be sent to quarters where people from their own region or community lives, or into a community which is fractionally less lower caste than them (who of course, don’t want them).

This was another reason I abandoned the project. But Bakha’s complete submissiveness to whatever happens to him, his conditioned passiveness despite the turmoil of emotions that rise and subside within him, his unquestioned acceptance that he is an outcaste, is a mindset that cannot be erased so easily. I understand now how naive it was of me to expect those who were outcastes to be above caste considerations themselves.

In Bakha’s life, the caste hierarchy is maintained even with his closest outcaste friends. Ram Charan is the superior, because he is a washerman, Chota comes next because he is a leather worker, and Bakha is the lowest amongst the low.

Today a lot of houses have drainage and the flush system. It is this, ‘the machine’ that the modern poet, Iqbal Nath Sarashar claims will actually change the life of the untouchables, and which seems to Bakha, the silent listener, the true solution to his problems.Earlier, he has rejected the path of conversion, being bored by the Salvation Army minister’s confused rambling about Jesus Christ. Mahatma Gandhi’s speech about the untouchables, and the story of the Brahmin boy at Gandhiji’s ashram, learning to sweep, touch Bakha but he cannot see how they will actually help him, as the Mahatma’s words make it clear to him that he has to continue being a sweeper. The Mahatma wants the untouchables to trust their fate to the flowering of self-awareness and humility in the upper classes. His words inspire Bakha, but Iqbal’s solution is the one that he ponders over as he goes back home at the end of a long day, that is the one that holds out real hope.

Yet today, 73 years later, manual scavenging is still practiced despite a legal ban issued in 1997. Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan says their fight is to eradicate this practice, it is a fight not for higher wages but for the dignity of human labour. Let us hope that they win it soon.

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  1. A very thought-provoking article. In the glory of “India Shining” and the “prosperity” of call centers and lavish malls we tend to forget about the “untouchables”. I wish you would make that documentary. There are more avenues than TV and film festivals to telecast them – the internet being an excellent one. It might highlight to some of us (who dont see or dont want to see) why so many “lower caste” Hindus choose to convert to other religions. Instead of supporting murderous organisations like VHP, Bajrang Dal, etc. people might learn to have some understanding and compassion.

    On a lighter note, its been a while since I heard of Mulk Raj Anand. He seems to have been buried in the sands of time! Havent read his “Untouchable” but I can see where you are coming from when you compare his writing to Tolstoy. I remember crying buckets of tears over Anand’s short story “The Lost Child” as a kid and always needed boxes of tissues to get me through reading even Tolstoy’s short stories!

  2. What a wonderful piece, Batul… you write with so much feeling and yet in a very clear and convincing manner. I haven’t read Mulk Raj Anand’s story but your description of his prose makes me want to get hold of a copy right now. And yes, you should make that documentary!

  3. Dear Batul,
    It is indeed sad that such practises continue. Have you heard of the saint Gadge baba who went from village to village cleaning public toilets?
    Gadge Baba was born in Shedgaon village in Amaravati District of Maharashtra in a washerman’s family. A public teacher, he traveled from one place to another wearing his food pan upturned on his head and carrying his trademark broom. When he entered a village, he would instantly start cleaning the gutters and roads of the village. He also told the citizens of the village that their congratulations would have to wait until his work was done. In return the villagers gave money to Baba. From this money Gadge Baba built educational institutions, dharmasalas, hospitals and animal shelters. He conducted his discourses in the form of “Kirtans” (a form of discourse which includes devotional songs by Saints) in which he would emphasize values like service to humanity and compassion. During his kirtans he would educate people against blind faiths and rituals. He would use Dohas (couplets of a song) by Saint Kabir in his discourses.
    Your writings make me feel that we are still sensitive to our surroundings…Not numb as yet.
    Keep writing…

  4. Yes, Bollyviewer, now one has the option of the internet. So I may pick it up again. Thanks for your comments. Also, Mulk Raj Anand’s critics and I think, he himself claim that he was influenced strongly by Tolstoy. I’m a crybaby myself, but more so when I’m watching silly films!

    Jabeen, Thanks.

    Ravi, Gadge Baba’s name was familiar to me, in a vague sort of way, but I did not know this wonderful story. That’s one of the things about our work that inspires me, and also humbles me, that you meet such dynamic, passionate and self-effacing people across the country bringing about their own change.

  5. Batul,

    Came via your post on Caferati– Read Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable a 5 years ago, as part of a course requirement; forget about the course [because I did!].. but this book has been one of the few that I can recall whole passages from; loved your observations of the author’s craft, because it’s true— there’s nothing “Extra” about the writing in this book.
    Make the movie!!! I know people who would be interested in being a part of that project, and support you in the making of it.
    Thanks for the heads up 🙂

  6. heya, loved ur post! I too have read the book. It was a great book! I loved the way you have interspersed the book’s review with the problem of untouchability still prevailing in India

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