Untouchable Study Guide

Published in 1935, Untouchable is Mulk Raj Anand’s first major novel. The novel’s format is very simple—it follows the day in the life of an “untouchable,” a member of India’s lowest social caste. Despite its simplicity, Untouchable is a powerful work that exposed the “dehumanizing contradictions” and systematic oppressions inherent in India’s stratified society. Though intelligent and handsome, the book’s main character, Bakha, is an outcast and forbidden from improving his life situation because his touch and presence are considered impure and corrupting. Using Bakha's story as a vehicle, Anand challenges the barriers and rules that inhibit the lives of untouchables and argues for the education of untouchables.

Considered revolutionary because of how it champions the cause of the untouchables and exposes India’s social evils, Untouchable was well received and highly regarded both domestically and abroad. Within India, it caused a generation of educated Indians to think about how India’s internal colonialism was preventing the country’s progression to a modern civil society. Outside India, prominent novelists of the age such as E.M. Forster hoisted up Anand’s novel as having both historical and literary significance. Though India’s caste system is still in place today, books like Untouchable raised awareness about the crushing inequalities and injustices the system fosters. This has resulted in the passage of numerous anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action initiatives along caste lines in contemporary India. Furthermore, the appearance of one Mahatma Gandhi in the novel explicitly places the book in a distinctive historical context. Finally, from a literary standpoint, Untouchable stands out because of its inclusion of Punjabi and Hindu idioms in English.