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A NOVELIST IN THE ASHRAM
- Between Gandhi and Ambedkar

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Salt March — his second major campaign against British colonial rule. Although it generated a wide swathe of support, his movement was vigorously opposed by two groups of Indians — those who thought Gandhi and his Congress party represented Hindus but not Muslims, and those who thought that in fact they represented only the upper-caste interest among Hindus.

Gandhi was stung by these criticisms. He worked to build bridges with Muslim leaders, and intensified his struggle to abolish Untouchability. Castes whose traditional occupations were regarded as ‘unclean’ — such as leather-working and scavenging — had historically been denied access to temples, schools, hospitals and sources of clean water. In 1932 and 1933, Gandhi went on several fasts to compel Hindus to treat these oppressed castes as spiritual and social equals. He refused to use the term, “Untouchable”, replacing it with “Harijan” (or child of God). On a tour of southern and eastern India, he spoke of how “the shame of caste Hindus will continue so long as these disabilities are practiced in the name of religion, no matter to how little or great an extent. It is the clear duty of sanatanists so called to denounce the disabilities in the severest possible language and join hands with the reformers in protecting Harijans from humiliation heaped upon them under the sanction of religious custom”.

Gandhi’s campaign created ripples in politics and society, and in literature too. I have recently been reading Mulk Raj Anand’s short, sharp novel, Untouchable. This was first published in 1935, and the impact of Gandhi and his ideas is marked. The Mahatma himself makes a cameo appearance in the novel, while some other characters work (and think) under a recognizably Gandhian influence. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway before it and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day after it, Untouchable concentrates its narrative in a single day, as experienced in the life (and labours) of its main character, a boy from a sweeper caste, named Bakha.

In the novel, Bakha is placed in relation to other members of his family, other children of his age, and strangers of upper-caste, Muslim and European backgrounds. His everyday encounters in the cantonment town in which he lives help us understand the enduring legacies of caste. Everyone he meets — the temple priest, the sweet vendor, the teacher, the soldier, the bullock-cart driver — sees him in relation to the ritually polluting profession that he has inherited from his forefathers. There is little possibility of Bakha being viewed or understood as an individual in his own right.

But Bakha dares to hope, nonetheless. His chosen route to emancipation lies in the sphere of dress. He will remake himself by clothing himself differently. He has, from a very young age, an intense fascination with the dress and gait of the British soldiers. An early passage speaks of how “ever since he was a child he had walked past the wooden stall on which lay heaped the scarlet and khaki uniforms discarded or pawned by the Tommies, pith solar topees, peak caps, … and other oddments of Anglo-Indian life. And he had hungered for the touch of them. … “I will look like a sahib”, he had secretly told himself. “And I shall walk like them. … But I have no money to buy things.” Anand told one of his biographers that he had spent several weeks in Gandhi’s ashram, where he read out an early draft of Untouchable to the Mahatma, a chapter a day. Gandhi thought the language used by the characters was too intellectual, and asked Anand to travel through the Indian countryside, with his ears wide open, and then rewrite the novel. It is an appealing story, even if there is no contemporary verification in the record of Gandhi’s activities kept by his secretaries and his chroniclers.

As a modern-minded man, Anand recognizes the limits of Gandhism. One route to the abolition of Untouchability lay in awakening the guilty conscience of the oppressor; another, perhaps surer and swifter route, in the adoption of the Western, or modern, technology of the flush toilet, this offered as a solution to the problem of Untouchability in the novel’s closing pages, by a modernist poet who admires Gandhi but yet cannot follow him all the way.

Gandhi is a significant presence in Untouchable. An absent presence is the Mahatma’s younger contemporary and political rival, B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar is not mentioned in the novel, yet one cannot read it now, in 2013,without a powerful sense of him and his battles with Gandhi. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Ambedkar engaged in fierce, angry polemics with Gandhi. He thought the older man too gentle in his criticisms of caste orthodoxy. He deplored his glorification of the Indian village, which he dismissed as a “den of iniquity”. He did not think that many caste Hindus had a conscience, urging the Untouchables, instead, to organize militantly for their rights. And whereas Gandhi sought to purify Hinduism by purging it of the sin of Untouchability, Ambedkar thought social discrimination was of the essence in Hinduism. The only hope for him, and his people, was to opt for another religion altogether, and to press meanwhile for rapid urbanization and industrialization, thereby taking Untouchables out of the village and into modern and non-degrading occupations.

It is not clear whether Mulk Raj Anand knew much about Ambedkar when he wrote Untouchable. However, in later years he came to greatly admire the man. He may have met him in Bombay in the early 1950s; much later, in 1980, he wrote a foreword to a reprint of Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, first published in 1936, and perhaps the most searing of all Ambedkar’s attacks on his ancestral religion.

Anand’s novel was originally published a year before Ambedkar’s tract. It anticipates some of its themes, and also anticipates, perhaps more notably, the symbolism of the politics that Ambedkar inaugurated. In his lifetime, Ambedkar had continuously to play second fiddle to Gandhi; not only was the latter the “Father of the Nation”, most Harijans chose to follow him rather than one of their own. Gandhi died in 1948, Ambedkar in 1956; their rivalry has persisted after their death, with the younger man gaining more admirers in India every year, perhaps every day. Activists thus now disavow the term, “Harijan”; preferring “Dalit”, a term Ambedkar also used, meaning “of the oppressed”. Dalits all across India now dismiss Gandhi as a patronizing upper-caste reformer, while venerating Ambedkar as the Great Emancipator, whose thought and practice opened up an alternate route of self-assertion.

Whereas portraits of Gandhi usually show him in his loin-cloth, Ambedkar is always represented by his admirers as wearing a suit and tie. For the upper-caste Gandhi, the loin-cloth signifies sacrifice; were Ambedkar to wear a loin-cloth, however, it would attract no notice, since by custom and tradition he was permitted only to wear the scantiest of garments. It is his wearing of Western dress that signifies the successful storming of the upper-caste citadel. That, despite the disadvantages of birth, Ambedkar could yet make himself into a successful lawyer and economist, and even help write the Indian Constitution, are astonishing, heroic, achievements, captured in a symbolic sense by the wearing of a suit.

Anand’s novel still speaks to the India of today. In October 2012, the minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh, noted that less than 40 per cent of Indians have access to flush-toilets. The rest defecate in the open, leaving nature and, more often, manual scavengers like Bakha, to clean up after them. Flagging this as a problem of enormous social and environmental significance, Ramesh insisted that “toilets are more important than temples. No matter how many temples we go to, we are not going to get salvation. We need to give priority to the toilets and cleanliness.”

Right-wing Hindus came down on Ramesh like a ton of bricks. They accused him of wounding the deep religious sentiments of the majority of Indians. But those who have read Ambedkar and Gandhi — as this particular minister certainly had — recognize that despite the rapid economic growth of recent years, despite the holding of regular elections, despite the promise of equal citizenship held out by the Constitution, India still remains in many respects a deeply unequal society. Untouchability has been challenged, but by no means ended. Scavengers, sweepers, barbers, washermen, leather-workers still face stigma and discrimination across the country. Locked into their degrading occupations, they are often denied access to the schools, colleges, factories and offices that might help finally emancipate them.

One hesitates to attach labels to works of art; but if one must, then Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable is both Gandhian and Ambedkarite. It is a classic that is also contemporary, since the battles that Gandhi and Ambedkar inaugurated have still not been completely won.