The Beginning of Bakha’s Day
Bakha, son of Lakha, begins his day in his family’s one-room mud-walled house. He lives with his father, who is the leader of their town’s sweepers, his sister Sohini, and his brother Rakha. Their house is located in the outcastes' colony, a collection of decrepit buildings situated on the outskirts of Bulashah. The proximity of the colony to the town latrines makes it an “uncongenial” place to live in Bakha’s eyes.
Before he must get up and begin his day, Bakha lies awake and muses about his friends and the Englishmen occupying his town. Bakha and his friends are obsessed with the “Tommies” and try to emulate them in both dress and behavior. The Tommies amazed Bakha in particular after he worked as a sweeper in their barracks. Lakha however is not impressed by his son’s interests and abuses him for it, often calling Bakha derogatory names like “son of a pig.” There is no love lost between the father and son.
And so Bakha lies in bed in between sleep and wakefulness. Before long, the dreaded call ordering him to get up and clean the latrines comes from his father. Sullen and annoyed, Bakha annoys his father and remains in bed. His thoughts shift to his dead mother, who doted on him. Her passing marks the beginning of his father’s early morning wake-up calls and abusive behavior. As Bakha contemplates if his mother would have a place in his current world populated by all things English, his father orders him again to get up. And once again, Bakha ignores him. He dozes off.
Suddenly a new voice demands Bakha to come and clean a latrine. It is Havilar Charat Singh, a famous hockey player. He calls Bakha a rogue and admonishes him for neglecting his duties. Bakha apologizes and attacks his job with alacrity. He cleans the latrines swiftly and easily, without soiling himself in the process. When Singh emerges from his toilet business, the sight of a clean Bakha contradicts the stereotypes of untouchables as dirty and smelly. Forgetting his earlier annoyance with Bakha, he promises to gift the young man with a hockey stick later in the afternoon.
Overcome with gratitude and happiness, Bakha throws himself into his work. Around him, Hindu and Muslim men come and go to the latrines. They are distinct from one another because of the particular clothes they wear.
After working without pause for an untold period of time, Bakha stops and takes in his surroundings. He looks at his fellow Indians performing their morning ablutions and judges them for their ostentatious and noisy conduct. He bases his opinions on the Tommie perspective regarding Indian ways of cleansing. Generally the Tommies condemn the Indian ways and so Bakha follows suit.
Ramanand, a moneylender, jerks Bakha out of his reverie and demands a latrine be cleaned for him. Bakha complies and finishes cleaning all of the latrines in the area. Then, he begins his least favorite part of his job. He shoves all of the collected refuse into a chimney near his house. This takes around 20 minutes, and yet Bakha does not feel the strain from his toil. The fire of the chimney seems to give him a sense of power and energy.
After finishing his morning shift, Bakha goes back home and looks for water. He finds his brother has left to go play, his father is still sleeping, and his sister is trying to start a fire. He helps her and then discovers there is no water in the house. Sohini, sensing her brother’s exhaustion and frustration, volunteers to fetch some water from the well.
Sohini Fetches Water
Sohini leaves the house with the water pitcher and heads to the well to fill it. When Sohini reaches the well she sees outcastes crowded around it, none of whom are drawing water. If any of the outcastes were to draw water from the well, the high castes would consider the water polluted. The outcastes cannot afford to have their own well built. Therefore, they must wait at the foot of the high-caste well for a high caste to come along, take pity on them, and pour water into their pitchers for them. Unfortunately when Sohini approaches there are ten outcastes waiting in front of her and not a high caste in sight. Depressed but not discouraged Sohini settles with the others in to wait.
Among those already waiting is Gulabo, a washerwoman and the mother of Ram Charan, Bakha’s friend. Jealous of Sohini, even though as a sweeper the young woman is the lowest of the low within the caste hierarchy, Gulabo begins to bully Sohini. She calls Bakha’s sister a bitch, a prostitute, and other derogatory names. Sohini, oblivious to Gulabo’s jealousy, laughs at the abruptness of the older woman’s attack, thinking it a joke. At this Gulabo’s ire increases and her verbal attacks increase in frequency and vitriol. Soon Sohini realizes that Gulabo’s anger is very real and wonders what she did to spark the washerwoman’s fury.
Suddenly, Gulabo moves to strike Sohini but is stopped by Waziro, the weaver’s wife. She calms Gulabo down. Shocked silent, Sohini sits still and thinks about Bakha waiting at home for the water.
At long last, a sepoy walks by but he pays no heed to the begging outcastes. Luckily for Sohini and the others, shortly after the sepoy is Pundit Kali Nath, one of the priests in charge of the town temples. They successfully prevail upon Nath to draw for them. As he draws the water, Nath is absorbed in thoughts about the source of his constipated bowels. Therefore, when Gulabo shouts loudly that she has been waiting the longest, he is annoyed. At her words all the other outcastes besides Sohini claim they were first and jostle amongst each other for the best position to receive water. Sohini catches Nath’s eye because of her pretty face and her refusal to join the melee. He tells her to come closer and orders the others to back away. After Nath fills Sohini’s pitcher he tells her to come clean the temple later in the day. Sohini agrees and leaves to take the water back to her family.
Back at home, Lakha shouts at Sohini for taking so long. He calls her a daughter of a pig and commands her to call her brothers into the house. Only Bakha comes inside, as Rakha escaped from the house earlier in the morning and went playing. Lakha fakes an illness and tells Bakha to take over his sweeping duties in the temple courtyard and on the main road of Bulashah. Bakha knows his father is lying about his illness but cannot protest. The work must get done. He drinks the tea his sister prepares for him, takes up his tools, and leaves his house in the direction of town.
Untouchable eschews the typical chapter-by-chapter division. Instead the book is divided into vignette-like sections. In these two introductory sections, we learn the book is set in the fictional Indian town of Bulashah. Because Untouchable is a work of historical realistic fiction, we can assume Bulashah is modeled after actual Indian towns and society. The allusions to the Hindu caste system, different Indian habits, and the British occupation of India all serve to place the book in a specific historical time and place.
The novel opens in the outcaste’s colony located on the outskirts of Bulashah, where our protagonist and his family live. The omniscient third-person narrator of Untouchable describes the colony using a combination of the five senses with special emphasis on smell. For example, the narrator says that the air around the colony is “biting, choking, and pungent.” The narrator ends their description of Bulashah by pronouncing it an “uncongenial” place to live, a conclusion shared by the protagonist of Untouchable, Bakha.
The eldest son of Lakha, leader of all of Bulashah’s sweepers, Bakha is an 18-years-old untouchable. Intelligent and vain, he is obsessed with the habits and dress of the British. This obsession often leads him to reject his own country’s customs and clothes in favor of those of the Tommies. The rejection of his Indian heritage is one source of the discord between Bakha and his father. The other is Bakha’s resentment over his father’s laziness with regards to their jobs as sweepers. Ever since Bakha’s mother passed away his father has grown increasingly lazy. As a result, Bakha stepped into the role of head of household, often taking the brunt of the sweeping work.
Although several circumstances of Bakha’s life (like his complicated relationship to his father and the fourth-class citizen life he leads because he is a sweeper) make him a sympathetic character, he is oftentimes difficult to relate to. His naïve, non-nuanced adoration of India’s British colonizers can seem paradoxical and offensive to modern-day readers. It is important to keep in mind the escapism motif when considering Bakha’s absorption in British ways. His obsession becomes more relatable when we understand he does it to escape the harsh realities of his own life.
A far more sympathetic character is Sohini, Bakha’s younger sister. A patient, composed, and peaceful young woman, Sohini does her best to help Bakha with his burdens as the de facto head of their household. Sohini does a better job than her brother in terms of accepting the harsh realities of their lives as untouchables, even in the face of Gulabo’s hatred. Although one would hope Gulabo’s behavior towards Sohini was a caricature of the actual treatment untouchables receive, at this point there is no evidence to say either way.
Though it is early in the novel, several of Untouchables' major themes and motifs have already made an appearance. Bakha uses the clothing of the Hindu and Muslim men to differentiate between them. This is a clear allusion to the "you are what you wear" theme. That theme and the "rejection of Indian roots" theme are also invoked when Bakha muses about his love for British “fashun” and habiliments. He enjoys wearing British clothing instead of Indian clothing because it distinguishes him from his countrymen and creates (in his eyes) a link between himself and what he imagines the clothes represent. That is, modernity and sophistication. "Charity," "cyclical oppression," and "class struggle" are also present. In an act of charity, Charat Singh promises to give Bakha a hockey stick. Bakha’s family is a great example of oppression that is cyclical and generational. His father was born an untouchable and so he and his siblings are also untouchables. And finally, class struggle is present in almost every interaction in this first section of the novel, from Bakha’s and Charat Singh’s to Sohini’s and Gulabo’s.
Other literary elements used in these two episodes from Bakha’s life are flashback, anthropomorphism, and hyperbole. When he is lying awake waiting for his day to begin Bakha’s thoughts flashback to his mother and how she cared for him when she was alive. During Gulabo’s verbal assault of Sohini, she directs several hyperbolic attacks towards the younger woman, such as calling her a slut for laughing and “showing her teeth” in the presence of men. And finally, after Sohini’s conflict with Gulabo, she feels something in her heart “asking for mercy.” Here Sohini’s heart is anthropomorphized and given the ability to speak.