Top Literary Cats review Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand
Our small book club was very excited to be asked to review this book. It is not a book that any of us would ordinarily have chosen. As a literary classic it is not well known, which is a shame because as E.M Forster’s brilliant review shows, the author has real talent. The language he uses is rich and vividly transports the reader to the sadness and dirt surrounding the life of an Untouchable, through Bakha, the main character’s life.
Reading this book sparked a very interesting and lively debate. Our book club is made up of women who are part of the Indian diaspora and as such, half of us felt ashamed about not knowing the shocking extent to which Hindu society had stooped in its treatment of lower caste people who worked in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations. The other half recognised that attitudes towards the untouchables were bad but they did not feel personally ashamed by it. However, the insight into Hindu customs was fascinating and in some places irksome that Hindus caused such misery, humiliation and injustices.
The fact that within his own caste system there were further sub divisions which made Bakha's life extra hard was an eye opener i.e. one way of coping with adversity is to see someone else worse off. One member was not as appalled as others about the way the Untouchables were treated because she had experienced apartheid growing up in South Africa. But for the rest of the group the question was: isn’t it worse when it is Hindus being prejudiced towards Hindus?
All societies are stratified, therefore, should we be surprised by the caste system especially where everyone has a job and a place in society? Justifying the caste system in functional terms i.e. the need for sweepers etc has masked the disgusting prejudices that prevailed and still prevail. Karma, is the word that has been used by Hindus to describe the phenomenon of duty and work, it is the essence of functionalist reasoning, justifying the need for a caste system that includes Untouchables, to ensure a fully operational system.
Towards the end of the novel, the poet, when discussing a speech by Gandhi explains how caste has undergone structural changes because of "the legal and sociological basis of caste having been broken down by the British-Indian penal code, which recognises the rights of every man before a court, caste is now mainly governed by profession. When the sweepers change their profession, they will no longer remain Untouchables". However, this is a challenge that cannot easily be met.
After reading the novel one member of our book club researched the subject and found that despite the fact that India constitutionally abolished the practice of “untouchablility” in 1950, the practice still continues today and in some cases these people are violently abused. In 1989 India enacted the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to prevent and punish either state or private abuses against Dalits (the proper caste name but previously only known as “untouchables”), to establish special courts for the trial of such offences, and to provide for the rehabilitation and relief of the victims. Human Rights organisations have observed that without a serious and sustained commitment to implementing these constitutional safeguards and other national and international legal protections, human rights abuses in their most degrading forms will continue against scheduled-caste community members.
The sad part is that prejudice, feelings of inferiority and superiority, are absorbed and shared by all Hindus, including the Untouchables. This is evident by Bakha's description of the clothes he chose to wear, a sign of his own status, distinguishing himself from his peers, wanting to emulate the British Tommies. Was Gandhi misguided in telling the Untouchables to stop drinking and gambling and take responsibility for changing? The Jury’s out on that one. Bakha could choose salvation through Christianity, Gandhi or plumbing. The reference to emancipation through sanitation makes this a truly public health novel.
This book is highly recommended. It engages the reader from beginning to end. Being short the book appealed to us because it contained the harrowing subject matter. It is well written with a long, bitter, after taste about the indignities that Untouchables have endured.