Why I don't like Mulk Raj Anand's "Untouchable" (and a few examples of novels dealing intelligently with caste)

When asked to suggest a novel that describes the caste system in India, the first one that comes to mind for many people, especially outside of India, is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable. But turning to that novel always feels like a cop-out to me, and I wish it weren't quite so 'canonical' as it is. It's not simply that Anand isn't himself from an 'untouchable' caste (or as we would say now, a Dalit) -- in fact, most well-known Indian writers who have addressed caste in their works have come from upper caste backgrounds. The problem with Untouchable is that it doesn't really come close to being convincing in its attempt to approximate the perspective of Bakha. A passage that is a case in point might be the following:

The blood in Bakha's veins tingled with the heat as he stood before it. His dark face, round and solid and exquisitely well defined, lit with a queer sort of beauty. The toil of the body had built up for him a very fine physique. It seemed to suit him,to give a homogeneity, a wonderful wholeness to his body, so that you could turn round and say: 'Here is a man.' And it seemed to give him a nobility, strangely in contrast with his filthy profession and with the sub-human status to which he was condemned from birth.

The strength of this passage might be in Anand's interest in depicting the physicality of Bakha's body -- he was clearly reading modernists like Joyce and Lawrence as he was writing, and the novel is strongly marked by that. But the weaknesses are also evident, starting with phrases like "a queer sort of beauty," which is effectively a kind of exoticism (purely exteriorized), rather than an observed description. Another phrase that troubles me is "a wonderful wholeness to his body," which sounds like Lawrence or maybe Hardy -- and again, it's an ideological descriptor; what it says is hard work makes Bakha beautiful. Anand does not really show us here anything that is particular or unique about Bakha himself, as an individuated character.

And this kind of problem recurs throughout the book. Bakha's actual caste is never named; he is simply described as an "untouchable." The book, in the end, works better as a work of Gandhian agit-prop by proxy than it does as a novel.

There are actually much better novels that deal with caste issues in one way or another. I mentioned Godaan in some recent blog posts -- and that might be one place to start. Another book that comes to mind for me is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, which is a really closely observed look at the experience of a group of characters from the Chamaar caste in Bombay after independence. And yet another novel that comes to mind might be The God of Small Things, though Roy's novel is so over-loaded with themes (including also incest, the separation anxiety of twins Estha and Rahel, the Communist party, etc.) that it's sometimes hard to say what the novel is primarily about.

One book dealing with caste I would unreservedly recommend is U.R. Anantha Murthy's novel, Samskara. This is a novel published in 1965, originally in the Kannada language. It was translated into English in 1978, and is pretty widely available in the west (it's currently still in print at Amazon). The power of Anantha Murthy's novel lies in its close attention to the specifics of Brahminic rituals, and the sometimes convoluted logic of 'pollution' in a village Brahmin society. The limitation, perhaps, is that Samskara is so narrowly focused on Brahmins; the other caste groups are present as potential threats (or objects of desire).

Finally, when I raised a question on Twitter ("what are your favorite novels dealing with caste?"), Jasdeep of the Punjabi translation blog Parchanve had this answer: "Anne ghorhe da daan by gurdiaal singh(novel), Kutti vehda by maninder singh, Kaang (punjabi short story)". I must admit I've read none of these, though I've heard others (specifically, Prof. Rana Nayar Punjab University) speak quite highly of Gurdial Singh -- stay tuned.

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A novel I discovered for the first time recently, Bhabani Bhattacharya's He Who Rides a Tiger (1954) also does a pretty good job dealing with caste. It is also one of the few novels I know of that attempts to directly deal with the impact of the 1943 famine in Bengal, which may have killed as many as 3 million people. (This was one of several Indian famines that, in retrospect, appears entirely preventable; Amartya Sen's 1981 book Poverty and Famines might be a good complement to He Who Rides a Tiger, if one were to teach this novel. See Wikipedia here: link).

I discovered Bhabani Bhattacharya while reading through Priyamvada Gopal's The Indian English Novel (2009). Here is how Gopal introduces Bhattacharya:

Bhattacharya's second novel, He Who Rides a Tiger (1954), offers a more complex exploration of social transformation in the context of the freedom struggle. How, beyond rousing calls to action, will transformation in a deeply hierarchical society actually take place? Despite its ultimate, somewhat contrived, fidelity to Gandhian nationalism and an oddly schematic resolution, this novel raises some troubled questions about nationalism, spirituality, and reform. Like Guide, it does so through the figure of the trickster/charlatan and by examining the role of language in shaping both oppression and resistance. The novel tells the story of Kalo, a low-caste villager who, along with his daughter, Lekha, is forced into penury and petty criminality during the Famine. Having migrated to the city, Kalo is frustrated in his attempts to make an honest living and repelled by the trade in women's bodies in which he briefly participates. He decides to hit back by defrauding the establishment that exploits him. Pretending to be a Brahmin holy man, Kalo flouts pollution laws with a mixture of fear and glee. He becomes the powerful and admired custodian of a new temple, built with vast donations even as millions starve on the streets of Calcutta.

From my experience reading the novel, that summary seems pretty apt. Gopal goes on to read the novel in the vein of other major works from mid-century (including Narayan's The Guide and Waiting for the Mahatma) under the influence of Gandhianism. While that may be true, it might be just as possible to see the rather shocking religious fraud in Bhattacharya's novel as in the same irreverent vein as something like All About H. Hatterr, a book that Gopal doesn't mention in this context (she does refer to Hatterr as a prelude to Midnight's Children).

My favorite passages in He Who Rides a Tiger relate to Kalo's transformation from a suffering (indeed, starving) blacksmith from the Kamar caste (his caste is at least named in Bhattacharya's novel), to a pseudo-Pandit. One of the key scenes is his trial for stealing three bananas from a passenger in the first-class cabin of a train. Here is the dialogue between the judge and Kalo:

'Why did you do it?'

'I was hungry, sir. A madness came upon me. It was because I thought I had to eat or I would die. A madness came upon me. I had to live.'

The three bananas, on the table as an exhibit, were over-ripe and rotting.

'Why?' asked the man of justice in his sombre English clothes. 'Why did you have to live?'

There was no mockery in his voice, and his smooth round face was cold and impassive.

It was a plain question, with no metaphysical implication. The magistrate loved the good things of life and was afraid to die. But the life of a coolie--that was a different matter.

Kalo was taken aback. 'I--' he faltered, 'I--"

'Why did you have to live?' the magistrate repeated, not sternly but in a cold and offhand way, bending over the table. His eyes were fixed on a gold-capped pen which he held between his fingers as though assessing its weight or the weight of the sentence the pen would spill in a moment.

The explicit, unironic callousness of the judge is just at the edge of believability, though in some ways I also like it as a depiction of what many people think about India's millions of poor, but can't actually bring themselves to say. I also like the details in the passage -- about the gold-capped pen, and the rotting bananas on display as evidence in a trial, a fact especially troubling given the fact that the novel is set during 1943, a time when famine conditions widely prevalent in Bengal.

Kalo's key decision is of course to pass as a Brahmin holy man, which he only considers after discovering that his daughter has nearly been forced into prostitution. Caste is deeply felt in the Indian tradition -- on and in the body -- as we saw in the post last week about Godaan (where a Brahmin character who has been sleeping with a Chamar woman is forced by her male family members to swallow a bit of animal bone). Here is how Bhattacharya depicts Kalo's embodied moment of transformation:

On the crossroads of his life Kalo had sat in bewildered brooding. How keep up the awful masquerade without stumbling, without betraying himself?

What other way? The voice of the rebel in him was grim with the desperation which came out of the bowels of Bengal.

He had closed his eyes. He had held his breath. Clutching the sacred thread in his hands he had passed it swiftly over his shoulder and across his bare chest. The daring of that gesture made him tremble. With that gesture he had thrown off the heavy yoke of his past and flouted the three thousand years of his yesterdays. Putting on the sacred thread he had made himself rootless.

The terror of that act was followed by a deep sense of release. He had transcended the station that birth and blood had assigned him. Exhilaration and new courage filled him.

He had devised the Coming [a fraudulent 'darshan' of Lord Shiva], aware of the blasphemy he was committing, aware that his abiding faith was ancestral, ingrained. Let him pass a shrine and his folded palms would lift involuntarily to his brow.

As a Sikh raised in the U.S. in a social setting where caste was deemphasized (though of course caste is still in the minds of many Sikhs, as a quick glance at a Sikh matrimonials page will immediately show), I do not have much personal experience of the "ingrained" idea of ritual deference that Kalo is here transgressing as he first decides to don a fake Brahmin's sacred thread. (Though perhaps I do have some inkling of all of this -- as someone who deals with the tension between religious and secular symbolic meanings of the Sikh turban and beard every time I'm in a public place, whether in the west, or in India.)

In short, Bhabani Bhattacharya's He Who Rides a Tiger is recommended as an obscure -- one might say, forgotten -- novel in the Indian-English tradition from mid-century. It's a compelling story about caste transgression, and a revealing look at rural and urban poverty in Bengal during a famine. And above all, though it's not without its own occasional flaws, it's a much more compelling account of these kinds of things than is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable.