Untouchable Literary Elements


Realist Fiction, Historical Fiction, Social Commentary, Investigative Journalism

Setting and Context

The mythical yet realistic town of Bulashah in early 20th-century India prior to India’s independence from Britain. At this time in the novel, Mahatma Gandhi is actively campaigning for India’s independence and for an end to untouchability.

Narrator and Point of View

The book is written in the third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters in the book. Also, the narrator’s thinking and commentary is far more insightful and nuanced than the novel’s characters. The differences between the characters and narrator results in a novel that is part “day in the life” story and part critical, anthropological analysis of the Hindu caste system, an analysis most untouchables are ill equipped to provide.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood are comedic yet depressing, and tragic yet hopeful. Many times in the novel, Anand handles the unsavory job of the sweepers with a comedic touch. The “chronic piles” of Charat Singh is one example of this humor. The man yells at Bakha to hurry and prepare a latrine for him because he has chronic diarrhea and can’t “hold it in.” This instance of bathroom humor illustrates Anand’s at times comedic tone towards the untouchable’s life (Srivastava 184). However, the mood of the novel at this point is tragic as the reader feels Bakha’s caution and resentment in the face of Singh’s ire and demands. The tone of the novel slips into depressing when Bakha contemplates his lot in life. However, the mood ends on a hopeful note after Sarshar and Bashir speculate about the fall of untouchability with the advent of the flush toilet. Life for the untouchables may not improve within Bakha’s lifetime, but there is hope on the horizon.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist of the novel is Bakha, a young male sweeper. While there are several antagonistic characters in the novel, including Gulabo and Pundit Kali Nath, the major antagonist of the novel is the Hindu caste system that allows for the unjust treatment levelled at untouchables.

Major Conflict

The major conflict of the novel is the daily struggle of the untouchables and other outcastes within the oppressive and unjust society the Hindu caste system created and maintains.


The climax is the moment when the high-caste man strikes Bakha for brushing against him in the Bulashah town square. Though we are given glimpses of the inequality and suffering of outcaste life, this event is the crowning moment of injustice. The rest of Bakha’s day (and hence the rest of novel) is spent coping with and analyzing this moment of senseless violence.


After the Mahatma’s speech, Iqbal Nath Sarshar and R.N. Bashir have a heated debate about the topics the Mahatma mentions. During their discussion, Sarshar speculates about a time when the untouchables can leave behind their unsavory professions and lives of drudgery. He mentions the flush toilet and foreshadows that it will be a revolutionary machine for untouchables as it negates the need for human contact with waste. Furthermore, the arrival of the flush toilet would mean the arrival of industrialization and machines in other aspects of Indian life. Thus, Sarshar alluding to the flush toilet foreshadows the sweeping economic, political, and social changes about to overtake India.


After Gulabo verbally abuses Sohini, Bakha’s sister thinks to herself, “but I haven’t done anything to annoy her” (Anand 47). This reflection is a gross understatement, as all Sohini did was sit down with the other outcastes by the well before Gulabo began her attack.


As a work of realist, historical fiction Untouchable is saturated with historical, social, and literary allusions. The novel is about the actual Hindu caste system and the life of drudgery and oppression it creates for outcastes and untouchables. Allusions abound to aspects of Hinduism, including Rama, the God of Hindus (Anand 244). Bakha refers to famous Hindi and Punjab novels when thinking about his desire to learn how to read (Anand 74). And finally, several real figures make appearances in the novel, including Mahatma Gandhi, one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement and a staunch supporter of ending untouchability.


See “Imagery” section of the guide.


It is paradoxical that Lakha defends the Brahmins and Kshatriyas when Bakha tells him about the Brahmin man that slapped him in the street. As a father, Lakha should have taken his son’s side, and yet Lakha tells his son to relax and that the Brahmins are their superiors and masters (Anand 154). Clearly the caste system has indoctrinated Lakha into believing it is the natural ordering of the world.


The two sons of Lakha lead parallel, mirror-image lives from one another. They both entered life as untouchables and will most likely leave it as untouchables. And yet, the paths they take in their untouchable lives are diametrically opposed. Bakha is obsessed with mimicking British aesthetics and ways of life. He is preoccupied with his appearance, particularly cleanliness. These quirks illustrate Bakha’s attempts to escape the harsh realities of his outcaste life. Rakha is the polar opposite of his older brother. He is “a true child of the outcaste colony, where there are no drains, no light, no water… where people live among the latrines of the townspeople and in the stink of their own dung scattered about here, there, and everywhere” (Anand 162). From this excerpt, it’s clear that Rakha does not give special attention to staying clean or adhering to British ways of life. Unlike his brother he is an inhabitant of the outcaste colony through and through.

Metonymy and Synecdoche



Chance, luck, and fate are treated as living entities and given the pronoun “he” when Sohini and the other outcastes are waiting for someone to draw water from the well. Because outcastes are forbidden from using the public well they must wait “for chance to bring some caste Hindu to the well, for luck to decide that he was kind, for Fate to ordain that he had time—to get their pitchers filled with water” (Anand 43).