Untouchable

April 20 2008

It was a surprise to read, in late 2004, that Mulk Raj Anand had died. I’d assumed he was dead. I had read his novel Untouchable many years earlier. He was ninety-eight. Nirad C Chaudhuri had died in 1999 aged 101, RK Narayan in 2001 aged ninety-four.

All three wrote in English. I’ve never got on with Narayan, though he’s the best known in the UK and was the living novelist Graham Greene most admired “in the English language”. He wrote novels about the fictional town of Malgudi, in South India, a few hours’ journey away from Madras, where he was born, and he spent nearly all his time in India.

Chaudhuri, a Bengali, born in Kishoreganj in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, wrote the wonderful Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). He was not a novelist. I am not being patronising when I say wonderful, even though its dedication reads:

TO THE MEMORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN INDIA,
WHICH CONFERRED SUBJECTHOOD ON US,
BUT WITHHELD CITIZENSHIP;
TO WHICH YET
EVERY ONE OF US THREW OUT THE CHALLENGE:
“CIVIS BRITANNICUS SUM”
BECAUSE
ALL THAT WAS GOOD AND LIVING
WITHIN US
WAS MADE, SHAPED AND QUICKENED
BY THE SAME BRITISH RULE

He left India for the first time in his life in 1955, at the age of fifty-seven, visiting England, Paris and Rome. He settled in England in 1970 and died near Oxford. He published A Passage to England in 1971, and his last book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, in 1999. But this is turning into a post on Chaudhuri.

Anand was born in Peshawar, studied in Amritsar, and wrote novels and much else. (The three writers I have mentioned were born at the three points of perhaps the largest triangle that can be drawn on the map of India.)

He spent the pre-war and war years in England and wrote Untouchable there. It deals with an Outcast man or Dalit or member of the Scheduled Castes or Harijan (Gandhi’s name for them) who cleans latrines. “They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt.” That is what the lowest castes often do: they deal with what used to be called night-soil. Dalits are also leather-workers, carcass-handlers, poor farmers, landless labourers, street cleaners. They were and are isolated in their own communities. Even their shadows were avoided by the upper castes.

Discrimination against Dalits was forbidden by the Indian Constitution which came into effect in 1950, but of course continues. A Dalit can remain a Dalit even after his or his community’s occupation has changed.

Film from the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

BBC piece from 2002 about night-soil scavenging in Bangalore.

Slides about those who worked for the upliftment of Dalits.

And see this recent post.

There is a special group in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka called Paraiyar, or Pariahs, a community at the bottom of the caste system that was originally identified with news-bearers or drum-beaters. They are now usually day-labourers.

Japan has its Untouchables: the leather-working community, or rather their descendants, called Eta or Burakumin.

The Indian women who used to clean the lavatories at Heathrow were surely Untouchables.

Untouchable was published in England in 1935. EM Forster wrote a Preface for it. He speculated that its dirty subject-matter would mean that some readers “would not trust themselves to speak”, but

“The book seems to me indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed. Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it.

[…]

“No god is needed to rescue the Untouchables, no vows of self-sacrifice and abnegation on the part of more fortunate Indians, but simply and solely – the flush system. Introduce water-closets and main-drainage throughout India, and all this wicked rubbish about untouchability will disappear.”

He ends:

“[The protagonist’s] Indian day is over and the next day will be like it, but on the surface of the earth if not in the depths of the sky [repetition of a leitmotif of A Passage to India], a change is at hand.”

But change was not at hand for many, because the flush system did not come quickly to India. Is it doing the trick anyway when it comes? Even today, most Indian dwellings do not have a flushing lavatory. Night soil is still removed manually even from many urban flats, or you go outside to defecate.

December 2003 interview with Bindeswar Pathak from India Together.

Penguin ’80s; and The Mulk Raj Anand Omnibus, New Delhi, Viking, 2004

4 Responses to “Untouchable”


  1. […] On dirty as clean, see Untouchable. […]

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The innocence of public sector India’s unpreparedness for what the world was expecting from it in the weeks of the Commonwealth Games is reflected in a sponsored paperback, a 300-page tourist guide with colour on every page, called Discovering India, published in 2004 and circulated in the Middle East as a way to promote tourism in India.

    It begins with page after page from officials: bureaucratic references, self-criticism, exhortation which are the stuff of Indian political life, and speeches given in conferences. KB Valsala Kumari IAS on The Role of Women in Tourism. There is a section about the ideal behaviour of Indian women towards tourists and one about general cleanliness. Then:

    “There is yet another essential thing which tourists look forward to and that is to clean latrines. Even in our urban areas, the lack of latrines has dirtied the roads and pavements. But even if there are toilets, there are people who do not use them. And if they are used, there is no proper maintenance. Once a lady officer, who stayed with me in the Kerala House in Delhi [each of the Indian states has such a “house” in the capital], after using the toilet, when she realized that the flush was not working, just walked away after finishing her business in the toilet. So what to speak of the ordinary Indian who is not highly educated or highly placed!

    “What we need urgently is a toilet culture. For this, the women alone cannot help much. Every house should have a latrine constructed with assistance from government or non-government agencies [agencies!] if necessary, and every person both young and old should be trained to use and maintain toilets cleanly. One area where all those interested in promoting tourism should turn their attention to, is to provide facilities for clean latrines in public places which we sadly lack even in our major cities. And the worst sufferers for this lack of amenity are the women themselves. Women should lobby for more public toilets and should also educate their impressionable children to use and maintain toilets cleanly and also set an example to others by their proper upkeep.”

    Not that Indian personal hygiene is bad, despite all this. Indians still have the world’s whitest teeth.


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