My Masters starts on Monday, and I’m scurrying through my reading list – so today I’ll mention another one. Would have read more this evening, if it weren’t for a rather exciting interlude when a cat decided to make our house her home. She (I think she) was very reluctant to leave, and I was very reluctant for her to leave, so she stayed for a while. And I fell a little in love…
ANYWAY. The novel I’m going to mention today is the most recent one on my reading list, being published in 1935 (not sure how this gets into Literature and Empire 1880-1930, but no matter) – Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand. Anand takes the position of one of the ‘untouchables’ as the focalisation for his novel – a member of the lowest strand in the caste system. One of the outcastes, in fact: Bahka. He is a latrine-cleaner, but one with aspirations to become a ‘sahib’ – an aristocrat.
Anand’s decision to use Bahka as his protagonist (though not narrator) was controversial at the time, but demonstrates the unfairness and idiocy of the creation of ‘untouchables’ – wherever he goes he must shout out, to alert others to his arrival. If they touch him or are touched by him, they must wash. Imagine people screaming “Polluted! Polluted!” if they come into contact with you – and imagine becoming resigned to the supposed justice of this? Anand writes Untouchable fuelled by the injustice of this system, and his anger at it, but is wise enough to let the narrative do the work, rather than scream and shout. We see Bakha, a kind, sensitive and aspirational boy being gradually worn down by the caste stigma – which also relates to something I read yesterday in E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, about an Adonis-like ‘untouchable’ seen in the street:
‘He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god – not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her.’
Untouchable is quite short, but a powerful narrative which tells me an awful lot about something of which I was almost wholly ignorant. It’s also very readable and interesting, and I definitely recommend it.