‘BAKHA’ the Untouchable Hero in Anand’s Novel: A War against Stigma
Mulkraj Anand gives an insider’s view of Indian society and its orthodox and superstitious mindset in his novel ‘Untouchable’. He was an Indian who had observed the Indian orthodox way of life and knew well how detrimental it was to the Gandhian view of equality and unity. An outsider would not feel the same empathy for a downtrodden Indian as Anand does. He is able to illicit the same from his readers who cannot help sympathizing with Bakha – Anand’s hero to stand against the curse of untouchability and discrimination. Caste system is a curse and millions like Bakha in India have to bear it for their entire lives. No person is born inferior; it is the society and the people that impose limits by assigning roles and status. All are equal in His eyes, but for some people life is Hell for they were born in the wrong caste and the wrong class. Indian society is marked by caste and class divisions. The people from the lower class have been marginalized and poor since days before the British Raaj.
Anand’s fury and dissatisfaction over an ugly caste system that brews nothing but hatred and discrimination is more than evident in his work. His frustration at the existence of lines tearing the Indian social and cultural fabric is unmissable. Anand has focused at the end of the society where souls are clean but lives dirty and suffocating amid piles of filth. His novel was criticized for being dirty but then it is difficult to help it when you are writing about a class whose job is to clean people’s toilets. You cannot coat shit with sugar to make it enjoyable. Bakha is a cleaner who cleans the society’s dirt, for it is his caste’s obligation. Anand serves everything before his readers just as it is and without any coating or make up – a raw and naked portrayal of the caste system in Indian society.
Bakha does not clean toilets of his own choice but because he is born in a cast that has been assigned to do an unclean job so the Hindu society can remain clean. One who washes other’s sins is considered and treated like a sinner. No liberty from this weight that burdened Bakha’s soul comes to sight, except that Gandhi and Anand try to cure his and his people’s wounds. Gandhi’s efforts in this direction were valuable but few people remained after him that could carry on his legacy. Being born in a lower caste in the pre-Independence era could be devastating because you did not have the rights same as every ordinary human.
The Hindu caste system had drawn a line between the upper and lower castes. This line was caste in stone and to erase it has remained impossible. The upper castes were allowed certain privileges that the lower castes never had. In this caste system, the cleaners belonged to the lowest of the lower classes. Even a lower class man that was higher in hierarchy than Bakha would not let him touch himself. Anand’s book strikes hard at core of the Hindu caste system and the meaningless divisions it has created in the society to highlight how difficult and impossible life is on the lowest rungs of the Indian society where Bakha is fighting to survive with so little self respect to call his own. Every day he bears many blows on his heart and his esteem but as every honest being has, he too has strong will. He will keep fighting.
“Posh keep away, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming!”
This is how Bakha announced his entry into populated areas every morning so that people were alarmed and no one knocked against him accidentally. Things have changed since Independence but some of that rotten and primitive mindset has prevailed. Anand, when he wrote the novel had highlighted that untouchability was a curse on Indian society and something worse than racism. A cleaner was not allowed to enter the temple and touch his Lord’s feet. Untouchability was a punishment for sins committed in the previous life. Anand successfully brings out the hero in Bakha, who sees some hope in Gandhi who speaks of Ahimsa and kindness for all. For people like Bakha, Gandhi had brought some hope. He was a barrister educated in South Africa who left everything to free India from the British rule. Bakha’s town is blessed when Gandhi visits it with his wife Kasturba. Gandhi had named the untouchables ‘Harijans’ or people of God to raise their status and bring them out of dirt on an equal footing with the rest of the society. Only God knows how much it has worked in the favor of the poor cleaners because for the Indian society it is difficult to shake off the rules its ancestors had created. Many of them have grown quite primitive and casteism was a similar law whose barbaric and humiliating effect Gandhi’s conscience had felt deeply.
Bakha is looked down upon by all castes, even the lower ones. He is as untouchable as the human dung he cleans. Alienated from all, he finds peace in his hut on the fringes of the town and with his sister Sohini. In Anand’s novel, the situation grows intensely painful when he shows how the lower caste people discriminate against the cleaners who clean human dung. Gulabo, the mother of Ramcharan and a washerwoman by caste, dislikes Sohini because despite being born in an inferior caste, she has superior features and physical appeal. She does not like her son being friends with Bakha either. Jealous of Sohini, Gulabo tries to strike her at the well where Waziro stops and calms her.
In Anand’s novel, Bakha is the protagonist and the next important role is played by Sohini who understands her brother’s pain and stands with him. Religion and culture are two important forces in the context of society and Bakha exists on the wrong side of both. For him, the only hope lies in Gandhi’s words. At least Gandhi has given him a dream that society would someday stop alienating and ill treating the people on the lower rungs. For Bakha pain can only grow intense but all hope is not lost. When Pandit Kalinath assaults his sister and accuses her of having defiled him and the temple, Bakha feels a pain more intense than he had felt upon being slapped by an upper caste Hindu. Pain does not leave his life; it is cyclical and keeps repeating every day. As if a heavy weight tied to his legs drags him back to the bottom, Bakha has to realize his status of a pariah in the Hindu society everyday. Cornered by the entire humanity, Bakha is not ready to lose his war. At the end, Anand proves that Bakha is doing the Herculean task of carrying the society’s shit. He can clean it but will not bear it. His war against untouchability will continue. However, the question sometimes weighs heavily on his heart when his conscience seeks an answer.
“For them I am a sweeper, sweeper — untouchable! Untouchable! Untouchable! That’s the word! Untouchable! I am an Untouchable!”
However, all is not bad with Bakha’s life. Anand has shown that whatever be the state of casteism in India, Indian people are basically made to be kind. Whether it is the weaver’s wife Waziro, washerman’s son Ramcharan or Havildar Charat Singh, they all cannot help feeling for Bakha. They all know that there is a limit of pain for anyone and sympathize with Bakha. They are not pitying him but instead they all recognize the hero in him who is strong and can bear all he is subjected to without fear. Havildar Charat Singh gets angry at him first but later gifts him a brand new hockey stick, as if Bakha was a younger brother or a disciple.
Bakha is not always on the receiving end. He gets his share of affection from people like Charat Singh and his best friend Ramcharan. His father is the Jemadar (leader) of the cleaners and his family has an important position among the people of his caste. He has young and glamorous dreams of living like an English Babu and worst of all an obsession with English and English lifestyle. Except for his untouchability, Bakha’s heart and soul are just as good, kind and clean as any Indian. He holds the same love and respect for his family and people and has the same desire of rising higher in his life that any other Indian has. An underlying anger and fire flows through the entire novel which is also the underlying strength of Bakha’s character. Anand is just trying to make his point that those who have not sinned must not be made to bear the punishment. If Hindu society cannot treat the demon inside itself, it will continue to lose meaning and importance. Anand knew he could not generate a solution to the anathema that had made life hell for Bakha and his people, but he knew that if he could churn some sympathy in Indian hearts for people like him, it could be a partial cure to Bakha’s wound. Mahatma Gandhi had tried to lift these underdog castes out of the identity crisis they had been living in by giving them a new identity and by calling them Harijan. Combined with the reservation and special status of backward classes, these castes have been able to emerge slightly out of the crisis. However, none of these have proved to be an effective remedy and these castes are still battling the same problems that they faced centuries ago. India has come a full circle but it has not been able to change itself in terms of caste and class.
Society vs. Individual: Analyzing the Character of Bakha in Mulk Raj Ananda’s Untouchable by Md. Mahbubul Alam