Bakha and His Family
Hurrying home to his family, Bakha feels the drama and fatigue from the day taking its toll on his body. He’s starving and thinks about the measly two pieces of bread he’s bringing home to his family. He also fears his father’s response when he hears of the day’s events because he knows his father will side with the high-caste people. Still, there’s nothing he can do but hurry home and hope for the best.
At home, it’s only Sohini and Lakha. Rahka has gone off to collect food from the English barracks. Sohini is quiet but Lahka is in a pleasant mood and well rested because of his morning spent at home instead of working like his children. He asks Bakha what he’s brought to eat, naming several luxurious foods he’s in the mood to eat. When Bakha reveals his hoard of two pieces of bread, Lakha is not pleased. He thinks back to the feasts following weddings and his mouth begins to water.
Bakha tries to defend himself by saying he doesn’t know all the people in town well enough to beg them for food. His father counters by saying Bakha should begin to know them well, for he will work for them all his life. Bakha sees his future years of life flash before his eyes and feels horrified. He pictures himself working at the British barracks cleaning their toilets and calms down. Lakha notices his son’s strange behavior and asks what’s wrong. At first Bakha tries to keep the truth from his father, but Lakha is so persistent that he finally confesses what happened to him earlier in the day with the touched man.
Lakha reacts to his son’s story of degradation with a mixture of anger and pity. Mostly he is angry with Bakha for forgetting the untouchables' call, but can see his son is upset and so tries to temper the emotion. He asks Bakha if he tried to retaliate. When Bakha confesses he did not seek revenge but wanted to, Lakha fears for his son. A part of him recoils at the idea of challenging high-caste men. He tells his son that the high-caste men are their superiors and they must respect them. Seeing that Bakha is still grieved and upset, Lakha shares with him an anecdote from his own dealings with high-caste men.
It was some years ago when Bakha was a young child. He was deathly ill with fever and Lakha went to a high-caste doctor in town for his help. Because of his untouchability he could enter the doctor’s home, and so beseeched every high-caste person that passed by to help him. They all ignored him, too concerned about their own affairs to help a sweeper. Lakha waited for an hour outside feeling as if a scorpion was stinging him. He had enough money for the medicine that could heal his son, and yet was barred from accessing it because of his class.
Instead of futilely waiting Lakha ran back home to check if Bakha was still alive. His son was still breathing, but only barely. Lakha sprinted back to the doctor’s house, ran straight into the patient reception, and threw himself at the doctor’s feet. The other patients began to scream and leave the doctor’s house in droves because of Lakha’s contaminating presence. The doctor of course was furious, but as Lakha began to explain the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his appearance in the clinic, the doctor’s heart began to melt. The doctor started to write a prescription for Bakha, but then Lakha’s brother ran into the room and announced that Bakha is dying. Lakha rushed home to say goodbye to his son. As Bakha’s parents cried over their son, there was a knock at the door. The doctor had followed Lahka. He “graced” their house by entering it and saving Bakha’s life.
Bakha is deeply moved by Lakha’s harrowing tale, though he tries hard to mask his true feelings. The conversation shifts to Rakha’s whereabouts and everyone’s hunger. Bakha resents his father’s hunger complaints because he stayed at home all morning while his children were laboring and working up appetites. Before long, Rakha appears looking disheveled and haggard. He deposits his food haul and immediately begins to eat. Bakha needles him for looking so dirty and unkempt. Lakha, who loves Rakha more than Bakha, comes to his youngest son’s defense and tells Bakha to leave him alone. Sohini steps in and tries to get Bakha to calm down by offering him some bread.
When Bakha reaches into the basket they are all eating from, his hand touches a piece of sticky, wet bread. The texture of the bread brings to his mind an image of a sepoy washing his hands over the scraps of his meal before giving it to Rakha. At this mental image Bakha grows nauseous and loses his appetite. He stands up quickly from his place around the basket, so quickly that Lakha asks him what the problem is. Thinking quickly, Bakha says he must go to the wedding of Ram Charan’s sister so he can receive his share of the sweets. This placates his greedy father and so Bakha makes his escape.
Bakha and the Wedding of Ram Charan’s Sister
As he walks toward the home of Ram Charan, Bakha reminiscences about his relationship Ram Charan’s sister. As children they once play-acted a wedding together, and the pair of them got married. Since then Bakha has looked at her fondly and has “always felt proud of having once acted as her husband.” He thinks about the moment he heard of her engagement, and how his regret over the news felt as “as if a spring of water had burst like a doleful lyric melody in the hard rock of his body” (Anand 168). He also recalls various fantasies he’s had about her, fantasies that put his reputation as a docile, respectable young man at stake.
After a while Bakha comes across a group of washermen working. He watches them for a moment while thinking about how to find Ram Charan. He is too shy to approach the house where the festivities were being held. Gulabo’s hatred and meanness is infamous among the colony dwellers. He walks within ten yards of Ram Charan’s house and stops short at the sight of his other friend, Chota. The two boys great each other amicably and then stare at the wedding celebrations. Chota is unafraid and goes to call Ram Charan, who is surrounded by revelers. At first Ram Charan is too busy stuffing his face with sugarplums to notice them, but eventually they successfully get his attention. Unfortunately they also attract Gulabo’s attention. The boys escape to the grassy knoll north of the colony, Gulabo’s furious cries of “illegally begotten” and “little dogs” echoing in the wind behind them.
As the boys reach the Bulashah Hills, Bakha falls behind and takes in the beauty of the nature surrounding him. The peace and loveliness of his environment, far from the crowds of town and the ugliness of the outcaste colony, soothe his soul. At first he is relieved his friends have gone ahead so he doesn’t have to hear a single human voice. However as he rambles along he begins to desire some companionship to “humanize the solitary excursion of the stoic in him” (Anand 179). And yet, he doesn’t want to call Ram Charan or Chota to him. So he continues on alone, stopping to drink from a natural spring nestled in a valley between two of the hills. He lies down next to the pool and dozes off.
Bakha has barely dozed off when Chota comes up and begins to tickle his nose. Bakha jumps out of his light doze with a violent sneeze. His friends begin to laugh at his reaction. Sleep disrupted and peaceful mood destroyed, Bakha laughs along tensely, the stress from the morning’s events taking its toil on his typical good sense of humor. Noticing his false cheer, Chota asks what’s wrong. Bakha brushes aside his concern and asks Ram Charan for his share of the sugarplums. Ram Charan holds them in a handkerchief and tells Bakha to take one, but Bakha refuses to take it directly from his hands. He tells Ram Charan to throw one to him.
Both Ram Charan and Chota are aghast. Though they are of different hierarchical levels within the outcaste group, they had long since abandoned the rules and regulations of caste amongst their little trio. They ate together, and drank from the some soda bottles during hockey games. Hence, Bakha’s refusal to touch them directly sends up red flags. At first Bakha tries to deny anything is wrong but at Chota’s prodding he confesses the events around his slap in the morning, Sohini’s assault, and the uncharitable woman in town. To each tale of degradation Chota reacts in anger and sympathy, while Ram Charan remains silent, embarrassed by Bakha’s narrative. Chota does his best to soothe Bakha’s heart, telling him to be brave and that these things will happen as they are outcastes. He tries to cheer Bakha up by reminding him of their hockey game later in the day. Ram Charan chimes in that he must go home briefly if he wants to be allowed out later for the game. The boys begin to troop back.
As they walk the atmosphere is melancholic and tense. The sympathy and understanding of his friends relights Bakha’s self-righteous indignation from earlier. He imagines his friends helping him teach Pundit Kali Nath a lesson for his assault of Sohini. When Chota offers to help catch “the swine of a priest” one day, Bakha realizes his friend shares his thirst for retribution. However, he feels as “unequal to [Chota’s] suggestion as he [feels] unequal to his own desire” (Anand 190). He wonders what would be the use of revenge.
Ram Charan has snuck off while Chota and Bakha were preoccupied with thoughts of revenge. Chota and Bakha plan to meet up in time for the hockey game, as Chota must go home and Bakah will go receive the hockey stick Charat Singh promised him. The two boys part ways.
In these sections of the book, the focus of the novel extends past just Bakha to include others, including Lakha, Rakha, Bakha’s friends, and the narrator. Through a flashback we learn in part why the binds of oppression don’t chafe at Lakha as much as they do his children. The eleventh-hour kindness of the doctor that purportedly saved Bakha’s life is, to Lakha, an example of the generosity and charity of the higher castes. The rich food the high castes give to the outcastes during weddings and other special events is another testament to their generosity in Lakha’s eyes. That’s why Lakha brushes his son aside when Bakha points out the system of cyclical oppression the sweepers are trapped in (“they think we are mere dirt because we clean their dirt” [Anand 153]). Rather than hating a system that establishes barriers to healthcare for certain classes, Lakha curries favors and panders to the main beneficiaries of that system. This was not always the case. In his anecdote, Lakha says that when he was turned away from the doctor’s clinic, even though he had enough money to buy the medicine Bakha needed, he felt as if a scorpion was stinging him. Clearly, he recognized the injustice of the situation and was tormented by it. Lakha is not blind to the class struggles between the untouchables and the rest of Hindu society. Nowadays, he simply ignores them.
Like father, like son is a platitude that comes to mind when considering the character of Rakha. Like Lakha, Rakha seems complacent with his lot in life. He does not share his brother’s obsession with British culture and does not understand Bakha’s desire to escape the realities of their lives. Furthermore, he doesn’t have his brother’s propensity for cleanliness, something Bakha is derisive of. In this way Rakha is a foil to Bakha. As sons of the head sweeper the brothers lead parallel lives, but because of their personal decisions and preferences these lives are mirror images of each other.
Some depth is added to the characters of Ram Charan and Chota as well. When Ram Charan ignores his mother’s ire and runs off with Bakha and Chota anyways he shows his loyalty to his friends, even though they are beneath him in the class hierarchy. Neither Ram Charan nor Chota think nothing of breaking bread with Bakha, which is why they are nonplussed when Bakha refuses to take the sugar plums directly from Ram Charan’s hands. The boys had all but eradicated the intra-class barriers amongst their small circle, but Bakha’s traumatic experiences earlier in the day had erected those barriers anew. Chota demonstrates his sensitive, attentive side when he wheedles Bakha’s tale of woe out of the recalcitrant sweeper. Despite Bakha’s protestations Chota intuitively knows there is something his friend needs to confess.
As the book progresses so does Bakha’s character development. For example, some light is shed on the origins of his obsession with the British. When he “interned” with his uncle at the British barracks the Tommies treated Bakha like a human being. He was still “the help” and still an “Indian black man”, but they did not treat him as if he was the scum of the earth like orthodox Hindus do. They didn’t view him as untouchable or as a corrupting, polluting presence. This fact helps elucidate why British culture is so important to Bakha. For someone that has been treated as sub-human for his entire life, it is no wonder Bakha began to idolize the British after they treated him as a full human being. Thus Bakha’s fascination with and love of British clothes, social mores, and mannerisms can be interpreted as him seeking out a culture that acknowledges his humanity. He is rejecting his Indian roots because in some ways they deny him his personhood. Though on the surface his obsession may appear to be the superficial whimsies of a vain young man, there is something poignant at work here.
These revelations about Bakha, his family, and his friends are facilitated by the observations and analyses of Untouchable’s third person omniscient narrator. Though he is intelligent, Bakha simply lacks the worldview and critical thinking skills required to critically interpret many of the things happening to him. For a book so deeply imbedded with sociocultural and sociopolitical meaning this is kind of critical analysis is vital. The narrator of Untouchable fills that void. A pivotal example of this is the narrator’s breakdown of Bakha’s “hatred for his own town and [his] love for the world to which he looked out” (Anand 150). The narrator explains Bakha’s feelings as a type of “the grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. He argues that for people the familiar becomes stale and the unknown becomes fascinating and exotic. In Bakha’s case the familiar isn’t stale inasmuch as it’s unbearable. It’s unbearable for him to continue living as a fourth class citizen.
Bakha doesn’t explicitly articulate these feelings. Rather, his dissatisfaction with his life is related in more subliminal ways. He has hyperbolic ideas such as “he would be unhappy if he heard even one human voice” which show he doesn’t even want the company of his friends. Before he shares the day’s events with Ram Charan and Chota he takes refuge in an anthropomorphized nature that “stretches [it’s hands] out towards him” (Anand 178), a nature composed of silence and solitude. His discontent causes him to seek out isolation and escape from the trappings of his life. His gut instinct is still to escape from reality. Only time will tell if Bakha reaches a point where he can confront his problems head on.