Bakha at the Temple
Paused in the street, Bakha observes an old brahminee bull meandering by. He watches as an old Hindu man passes the bull and touches it, a Hindu custom Bakha is familiar with, though he is ignorant of its meaning. By the by, he continues on his trek towards the temple. He turns down a narrow street and passes various shops, including one selling cheap jewelry. He remembers how as a child he wanted to wear rings, but now that he knows the British don’t like jewelry he finds such accoutrements garish. As he walks, he cries out the untouchables warning every so often.
Finally, Bakha reaches the temple. Devoid of humans, the quiet and tranquility of the temple courtyard seems to soothe him. Setting down his tools, he begins to work. After a time he notices worshipers entering the courtyard. Afraid of repeating the morning’s disaster, he shouts his presence. He peers furtively at these people as they enter the temple. He, of course, is not allowed to enter into the actual temple itself, and so is immensely curious about the proceedings.
At length the sound of singing emerges from the open doorway of the temple, which answers his queries in part. Still, he wonders about the things mentioned in the song. Who is Shanti Deva? Who is Hari, Narayan? His curiosity overcomes his fear and he approaches the stairs leading to the temple entrance. Just as he begins to climb the stairs his courage leaves him. He retreats and resumes sweeping.
After sweeping up all the garbage, Bakha gathers his will together again and rushes up the stairs to the very top. Peering into the temple doorway he gazes upon “the sanctuary which had so far been a secret, a hidden mystery to him” (Anand 115). He observes the priests leading the worshipers in song and is deeply moved by the sound of the hymns. Unfortunately, the peace and tranquility of the moment is shattered by the cry of “polluted, polluted!” (Anand 116).
Paralyzed by fear, Bakha collapses prostrate on the stairs. However, this scream about pollution isn’t about him. Instead, it is his sister Sohini that is the cause of a high caste’s contamination this time. Sohini and Pundit Kali Nath, the man that filled Sohini’s water bucket earlier in the morning, stand at the foot of the stairs. Nath continues to accuse Sohini of contaminating him while she stands silently. The sound of the commotion causes the worshipers to rush out of the temple. They see Bakha’s proximity to the holy building and throw fits. They chase Bakha off the stairs, and he and his sister run to the courtyard door.
There, a sobbing Sohini tells Bakha that Nath touched her inappropriately. Nearly blinded by rage Bakha drags Sohini back to the center of the courtyard and looks for the priest. He is nowhere to be found. The worshipers recoil in the face of Bakha’s fury. He feels as if he can kill them all. He fumes at the audacity of the priest, assaulting his sister and them accusing her of willfully contaminating him. It seems as if Bakha will stay and rage in the courtyard indefinitely, but Sohini convinces him to leave.
As the brother and sister walk, Bakha’s thoughts are in a frenzied state. He contemplates getting revenge. However, he cannot “overstep the barriers which the conventions of his superiors had built up to protect their weakness against him” (Anand 125). And so he curbs his anger and bites his tongue. Watching Sohini as she walks along, Bakha switches between wishing she was never born so such disgrace and embarrassment could have been avoided to feeling tenderness and sadness for her. Taking pity on Sohini, Bakha tells her to go home because he can collect their food for the day in her stead. Ashamed and crestfallen, Sohini leaves her brother standing in the town proper.
Bakha Takes a Nap
Bakha walks aimlessly through Bulashah, periodically calling out “Posh, posh sweeper coming.” He comes to an alley and turns down it, planning on begging its inhabitants for food. Stray animals and rubbish clutter the street. He approaches the first house and calls out “Bread for the sweeper, mother. Bread for the sweeper.” But no one comes out. All of the homes on the block seem deserted, their occupants either out in town or ignoring him. Feeling defeated, Bakha sits down on a house doorstep and drifts into a half sleep. He has a slew of fantastical dreams, including a vision of himself boarding a train and at a school observing a lesson.
A sadhu who is making his own food circuit jerks Bakha awake. The cries of the sadhu bring a housewife to the door Bakha was napping under. The woman has come for the sadhu, but recoils when she sees Bakha sitting in front of her door. She calls him an “eater of masters” and says he should perish and die for defiling her house by sitting in front of it. Bakha apologizes but asks the woman for food. The woman ignores him and goes back into her house for the sadhu’s food.
Meanwhile, another woman comes out of her house with food. She gives the sadhu some rice and kindly gives Bakha a chapatti. The other woman comes back. She gives the sadhu food, but makes Bakha sweep the gutter in front of her house before she’ll give him anything. As Bakha cleans the gutter the woman’s young son comes and says he needs to use the bathroom. She directs him to relieve himself in the gutter because Bakha can clean it up. She then throws Bakha a piece of bread. He tries to catch it but it lands on the ground. Disgusted by it all, Bakha picks up the bread, throws his broom aside, and walks off. As he goes the woman remarks to herself that the sweepers are getting more and more uppity. The scene closes with the woman instructing her son to wipe his bottom on the ground once he finishes his bathroom business.
In “Bakha at the Temple” and “Bakha Takes a Nap” Bakha wallows in the feelings sparked by his incident with the high caste man in addition to grappling with two new traumatic events. The first of these events is Pundit Kali Nath, one of the priests of Bulashah’s temple, sexually assaulting his sister. The other is a high caste woman treating him like scum when he goes to beg for food. Between his public shaming, Sohini’s assault, and the rudeness of the high-caste woman, this is shaping into a horrendous, inauspicious day for Bakha. Because these events occurred in such close temporal proximity to one another he hasn’t had much time to process them. It feels as if he is wandering the streets of Bulashah listlessly, flitting from one catastrophe to the next.
Before he learns of Sohini’s assault Bakha does manage to have a moment of reflection while cleaning the temple courtyard. Surrounded by all the religious iconography and the noise from the temple service he begins to wonder what it all means. As he approaches the temple door to spy on the worshipers we witness the internal battle between his curiosity and his fear of discovery, a fear cultivated by “the dead weight of years of habitual bending cast on him.” This is a direct reference to the generational trauma and burdens Bakha must grapple with as someone descending from a long line of sweepers. When he creeps slowly up the stairs he is a “humble, oppressed under-dog that he was by birth, afraid of everything” (Anand 112). This is another reference to the cyclical oppression theme. Not only does society condition Bakha to be a “humble dog,” he already is one by default when he is born. Anand uses a simile about the fixed, flowing nature of water to further elucidate the connection between Bakha and his ancestors and how their continued degradation across centuries is considered natural and perpetual in Hindu society.
When he finds the courage to watch the worshipers and later when he contemplates getting revenge on Nath for assaulting his sister, Bakha is clearly pushing back against the conditioning and teachings forced upon the untouchables. Sadly, rarely does his strength and courage to fight back crescendo and manifest into action. For example, when he plots to confront the priest it is all for naught because he cannot bring himself to overstep the barriers of caste and class that separate the untouchables from everyone else in society. The inability of Bakha to avenge his sister’s honor and Sohini’s inability to defend herself against Pundit Nath’s accusations are examples of the class struggles and social disparities between untouchables and the rest of Hindu society. This is especially true for Sohini. Though she was the priest’s victim she has become the accused because no one would believe the word of an untouchable over a high-caste person. This is true of both pedestrian people and members of the judicial system and allows for an array of crimes to be committed against untouchables with little to no consequences for the perpetrators of those crimes.
The differential treatment untouchables receive extend to the realm of charity as well. When Bakha and the sadhu beg the high-caste woman for food, she is verbally abusive and unkind to Bakha but the picture of generosity and politeness to the sadhu. This exposes how many Hindus view untouchables as lesser humans. Both the sadhu and Bakha were beggars at that moment, but the woman saw one as deserving of her charity and the other as undeserving. Some of her deference to the sadhu can be attributed to the sadhu’s ability to give her a religious blessing in return for the food she gifts him. As an untouchable, Bakha of course doesn’t have this ability. However, according to Hinduism, by giving him alms the woman is ensuring she maintains her high-caste position in the next life. So in a way she is also receiving something from Bakha. Clearly, she does not interpret the situation through that lens though.
To close, the two steps forward, one step back routine Bakha did at the steps of the temple parallel his overall character development. Earlier with the touched man and Pundti Kali Nath, Bakha could not find the courage to stand up for himself or his sister. Given the circumstances, including his tenuous place in his society, Bakha cannot be blamed for his unwillingness to defend himself. However, he does manage to find the courage to take a stand later with the high-caste woman. When the woman instructs her son to defecate in the gutter next to Bakha so he can clean it up, Bakha lets his disgust and anger over the situation rise to the surface. Rather than following the woman’s orders and providing his sweeper services, he throws down the woman’s broom and leaves. This type of civil disobedience can be powerful and shows how Bakha is coming into his personhood. His refusal to clean up after the woman’s son is a step forward. Time will tell if he takes a step back.