Thursday, 6 September 2012

untouchable [mulk raj anand]

What was it really like to be an untouchable within the Indian caste system? Nowadays, in order to answer that equivalent question, someone  would probably make a documentary. But way back when, the chosen tool for social investigation was the novel. This can be seen in the work of a myriad of authors, from Dickens to Tolstoy. (Have just read, on a side note, that Stoppard's starting point on his adaptation of Karenina was to strip out all the politics and Russian social history.) In the twentieth century an emerging colonial literature emerged, with the novel offering a voice articulating the daily lives of those who society by and large chose to ignore.

Anand's novel belongs to this category. He shows us a day in the life of Bakha, a young untouchable, who job is to clean the loos and suffer the prejudices of the rest of society. In the course of the day he is abused, attacked, witnesses his sister be molested, plays hockey and finally sees Gandhi speak. The book offers a compressed portrait of marginal life. Just as in a documentary, it conveys the colours and textures of Bakha's existence. Perhaps the key difference between film and literature is that the novel allows Anand to probe Bakha's consciousness in greater depth (and in this way the book is also twinned with the emergence of modernism). It explores his attitudes towards the British, religion and caste in detail. The affection the reader garners towards Bakha intensifies as he confronts the slings and arrows of his environment and handles them with what might be described as a humane intelligence. Social realist literature embraces characters whose capacity to employ common sense allows them to see through the farcical diktats of society. Bakha is firmly of this camp as he spends the day questioning and confronting his unhappy birthright.

Untouchable's significance comes from the way in which it fits into the varying literary strands of the day, thereby locating the apparently lowest of the low within the 'narrative' of universal literary fiction. However, it's also significant because it's an artful, engaging read, which hurls the reader into the realities of a society whose codes and cruelties pre-dated the colonials who were squatting on its territory. It's a document which captures in vivid form what it was like to be an Untouchable, but also what it's like to be human. It is another one of those books which, ironically, has perhaps been neglected because, within the subsections or castes of the English language cultural network, it has been perceived as belonging to a lower caste. One thing the pre-colonial India and colonial-and-post-colonial Britain have in common is an obsession with the demeaning and dehumanising prejudices of class. 

No comments: