This semester, I’m teaching a course on global anglophone literature, i.e. literature written in English that’s neither British, Irish, nor American. (Nor, for that matter, Canadian, Australian, or New Zealander, much as I wanted them! And not quite postcolonial fiction, since our first three novels are still within the late colonial period.) Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, originally published in 1935, was the first novel we covered for the class (it narrowly edged out Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi), and what a beautiful entry into the subject it afforded us.
Anand was born in 1905 in Peshawar, which was then part of British India and which is now part of Pakistan. His family was, however, Punjabi, and moved back to Punjab when he was a child, where he was raised and educated until, by his account, making a break for England in 1924 after a bitter falling-out with his father. He studied first at University College London as an undergrad, and then completed a PhD at Cambridge in philosophy, focusing on Bertrand Russell and the British Empiricists. While living in London, he was able to build connections with members of the Bloomsbury Group, of whom E. M. Forster and Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia) were among his favorites, in part because they were, shall we say, less racist than many of their colleagues, and had actually spent time in British India, which left them critical of the British colonial apparatus. Anand wound up doing work for both Woolf’s Hogarth Press, correcting proofs, as well as for T. S. Eliot’s magazine The Criterion, where he reviewed books having to do with India and the Orient.
All of this preamble is helpful for encountering Anand’s debut novel, Untouchable, in part because it follows the “one day in the life” structure of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, albeit focusing on an eighteen-year-old man, a sweeper and latrine-cleaner, from the Dalit caste, rather than a wealthy white London woman. Also, like E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, Anand is trying to offer a British audience a more complex picture of India than has been afforded by, say, Rudyard Kipling, who was still much beloved by the reading public of the day.
Bakha, the protagonist, chafes against the arbitrary limitations placed upon him by his accident of birth, as he goes about his day, at times encouraged (by his friends, by a member of the native regiment stationed in town, by a local missionary) and at other times castigated (nearly always by Brahmins, whose pettiness and selfishness belies their high social rank, but also by his father, who has internalized the unjust caste structure). The narrative structure refuses us the release of tension that the climax of a traditional novel will offer, but following the smaller peaks and valleys of Bakha’s daily experience offers a truer picture of his experience; Anand’s use of a modernist form here helps him stress that this story of one of the lowliest people is worthy of high art, and also to acknowledge that Bakha’s struggle will not be resolved in a single day, either, given that it is a deeply-entrenched social issue dating back millennia.
It’s a slim novel, easily read in a couple of sittings, and aided by Anand’s lush prose, which not only includes various Punjabi and Hindi idioms (an innovation in English-language fiction), but also gorgeous packages like this:
The hand of nature was stretching itself out towards him, for the tall grass on the slopes of the Bulashah Hills was in sight, and he had opened his heart to it, lifted by the cool breeze that wafted him away from the crowds, the ugliness and the noise of the outcastes’ street. He looked across at the swaying loveliness before him and the little hillocks over which it spread under a sunny sky, so transcendingly blue and beautiful that he felt like standing dumb and motionless before it. He listened to the incoherent whistling of the shrubs. They were the voices he knew so well. He was glad that his friends were ahead of him and that the thrum was not broken, for the curve of his soul seemed to bend over the heights, straining to woo nature in solitude and silence. It seemed to him he would be unhappy if he heard even one human voice. His inside seemed to know that it wouldn’t be soothed if there were the slightest obstruction between him and the outer world.
Bakha’s interiority is complex, albeit stunted by his lack of education, and readers can easily grasp Anand’s aim here: to demonstrate that those most despised in his own society are not, in fact, relegated to their place by karma, but are held down by the accumulated weight of centuries of injustice, and the fullness of their humanity is truly a thing to behold. To this end, Anand also goes to pains to describe Bakha as a beautiful physical specimen, with an exterior as strong and admirable as his interior that yearns so powerfully for more.
What more is there for him, though? As noted, Anand offers no immediate solution. But toward the end of the novel, Bakha climbs up into a tree among a crowd of people listening to a speech from Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi’s insistence upon the injustice of how the Dalits are treated offers Bakha a flicker of hope–as does the conversation he overhears between two educated Indians after, in which they debate whether Gandhi goes too far, or not far enough: one of the two argues that not just fine words, but technology, are necessary to solve this social injustice. In sum, he argues passionately for flush toilets as a means of social uplift, and truly, you will perhaps never care as much about plumbing as you will at this novel’s end.
If you’re looking to diversity your reading list and have a fondness for the fiction of days gone by, Anand’s debut novel is a fine place to start; Anand renders a difficult life with extraordinary tenderness and beauty, neither caving fully to sentimentality nor damning his protagonist to tragedy.