A handbook on understanding casteism...
Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand is a literary classic set in India’s pre-Independence era, revolving around the day of a lower-caste sweeper. Casteism is the social hierarchization of people, an Indian tradition that continues informally. Occupations and job positions were, for a long time, decided based on caste. For example, Dalits or Shudras were called the lower caste and their occupations involved serving the upper caste (Bharmins⏤Priests and Khastriyas). The Dalits and Shudras were denied education and called "Untouchables."
Anand’s book has amazingly well-crafted characters who all touch your heart due to their complex personalities and being the slaves of their circumstances. The protagonist of this story is Bakha, a sweeper and son to Lakha. His sister Sohini and brother Rakha play a pivotal role too; Losing his mother very young and having an older father, Bakha's young shoulders bear all of his family burdens. He braves inhumane working conditions, abuses, and slurs on a day to day basis. These instances are depicted at length throughout the novel.
The story is narrated in third-person by Anand himself, who’s an upper caste Indian. His deep connection to India’s rampant casteism and his privileged education to read and write in English⏤a gift bestowed only to the upper caste⏤allows him to narrate the story movingly by painting pictures of the lower caste's living conditions, their poor housings condition, the lack of hygiene, the latrines Bakha worked at, and how strenuous his job was everyday. Because readers "experience" these conditions alongside Anand's characters, we empathize with the lower caste.
Through Anand's third-person narration, the book acts like a handbook to understanding the extent of casteism in India’s pre-Independence era when jobs were designated to individuals at birth. Lower caste individuals, by virtue of the birth lottery, were denied any form of education. Only upper caste individuals, namely the Kshatriyas and Brahmins, were afforded this privilege.
Lower caste individuals were called "Untouchables." This practice of untouchability is described at several instances in the book;
As Bakha walks into town to sweep the temple’s courtyard (mind you, he wasn’t allowed inside the temple) and road, he craves sweets. However, when he does buy sweets using the money he earned from cleaning early that morning, the money is "purified." The shopkeeper, a member of the upper caste, refuses to accept Bakha's money without pouring water on it. Bakha treats this with a matter of fact attitude, signifying how casteism was ingrained in the day-to-day lives of the lower caste. But then, when he accidentally brushes against an upper caste member, they hurl abuses at him. Soon, bystanders join in and Bakha is slapped. He does not resist the blow—not because he isn't able to win a physical fight, but because centuries of oppression hold him back from so much as looking eye-to-eye with his abuser. He is saved from further abuse by a Muslim whose social position isn’t much better than the "Untouchables."
Apart from descriptions of casteism, a noteworthy feature of the book is Anand's excellent crafting of characters. Bakha’s love for his sister, his devotion to his job, the sense of fear he has when he eventually enters the forbidden temple, his sister’s undying affection for her brother, the relationship between Muslims and untouchables, and the conditioning of younger upper castes by their parents about casteism is all portrayed intricately in the book. The relationships portrayed allow us to take a deeper look at the story. It strikes a chord of empathy to the characters for readers. This in turn makes us empathetic to the horrors of casteism.
Though set in India’s pre-Indepence era, the book strikes an extent of relatability to a modern Indian reader. Casteism is still very prevalent in today’s Indian society; the social stigma associated with the lower caste has been ingrained and passed on from generation to generation. This stigma can only be overpowered by formal education of all castes, all genders, and all sects of our society. Anand contributes to this education.
Today, untouchability has been abolished and criminalized. India follows policies of affirmative action and huge efforts to lessen the gap have been undertaken. Though our society doesn’t have an equitable ground yet, hopes are high that we’ll get there.
One thing which sadly hasn’t changed since the pre-Indepence era is the unaccountability of sexual offenders in power. Though the pathway to gaining power today may differ, the lack of accountability for offenders once there hasn’t massively changed. India has a huge number of unreported sexual abuses and a culture of victim blaming. Just like in the book, today’s powerful Indian men get off scot free when faced with accusations, and many people like Sohini do not receive the justice they deserve.
The book dons the prestigious title of being a timeless Indian classic, and rightly so. Its excellent writing strikes a chord: It’s hard hitting and emotional and the theme, the struggles of the lower caste, is brutally and shamelessly portrayed through Bakha's story. The book acts as a reference to understand the casteism of Indian society, both present and past.