Bakha Goes to Charat Singh
The barracks where Charat Singh lives are deserted except for two sentries guarding an infamous solar topee. Many rumors and urban legends circulate about the solar topee and whom it belongs to. A popular story says it belonged to a white man that shot a sepoy. He was court-marshaled but because he was white and could not be put behind bars to wait for his sentencing, his hat, belt, and sword were confiscated as collateral. The man fled in the night anyways and supposedly left behind his belongings.
The popularity of the solar topee is rooted in the desire of Indian youths to wear Western dress. And since the boys of the area are all the sons of sweepers, leather workers, washermen, shopkeepers, etc. buying a complete European outfit is not possible. But to them, having something European is better than having nothing European. And so the idolatry of the unclaimed solar topee persists.
Bakha, of course, is one of its most fervent worshipers. During the time he worked at the English barracks he dreamed up a plethora of plans to get the hat. His schemes ranged from stealing the hat to outright asking someone to give it to him. As the years passed, however, his plans lost their forthright and bold elements. Bakha wonders to himself why he lost his dauntlessness and courage as he grew older. Even now, he struggles with asking the sepoys on guard about the hat. He fears they will abuse him for asking and so hastens on his way to Charat Singh’s quarters in the barracks. As he goes Bakha pictures himself wearing the solar topee while playing hockey, the idol of all the other boys. Then he realizes that you cannot wear a solar topee while playing such a high contact sport and is embarrassed by his predilection for English dress.
Reaching Singh’s house he sees that the door is closed. There is no way for him to know if his benefactor is at home, away, sleeping, etc. because his untouchability bars him from approaching Singh’s door. He is fearful of shouting for Singh because he might disturb the other sepoys on the block. With no other option Bakha settles down to wait. Before long, Charat Singh comes out onto the veranda of his house with his brass jug. He begins to wash his face and is too absorbed in his ablutions to notice Bakha. Half-embarrassed but half-daring, Bakha calls out to him.
Singh greets Bakha enthusiastically and asks him why he’s been absent from the official regimental hockey games lately. Bakha tells him that work has kept him busy, to which Singh replies “Oh work, work, blow work” (Anand 204). Bakha notes the contradiction between Singh yelling at him earlier in the day for neglecting the latrines and his dismissal of Bakha’s work commitments now, but keeps his opinions to himself. Despite this anomaly, he is a big fan of Charat Singh and thinks “for this man I wouldn’t mind being a sweeper all my life” (Anand 205).
Taking out his hookah, Charat Singh instructs Bakha to fetch him two pieces of coal from his kitchen so he can light up. Bakha is awestruck. For a Hindu to be fine with an untouchable handling something he was about to put near his mouth was unprecedented. He feels a thrill of pleasure run through him and jumps to do Singh’s bidding. As Bakha bustles to the kitchen, Singh calls after him, “and tell [the cook] to bring my tea” (Anand 206). As he walks, Bakha swings between disbelief and joy. He wonders if Charat Singh has forgotten he’s a sweeper and untouchable, but quickly rules that out since they were just talking about his work schedule. Thus reassured, he walks with a happy step, his soul full of love, adoration, and worship for the hockey player.
At the kitchen, Bakha gets the coal from the cook, who looks at him strangely but cannot remember where he’s seen Bakha before. Since the young man is holding Singh’s smoke pot the cook concludes he must at least be of the grass-cutter caste, a low caste but not an untouchable one. He gives Bakha the coal and Bakha tells him that Singh wants his tea now. Hastening back to Singh, Bakha gives him the pot and watches as he lights up his hookah and begins to gurgle away. Soon the cook comes with a brass tumbler and a jug of tea. Singh points at a pan that the sparrows drink water from, tells Bakha to grab it and to pour the water out. Then, the hockey player pours tea from his tumbler into the pan for Bakha to drink. Bakha protests in the typical way of Indian guests, but Singh insists, saying that Bakha works very hard and deserves the drink.
The two drink their tea in silence. Once Bakha finishes, Singh gets up from his seat and goes into his house. He comes out with an almost brand-new hockey stick that looks as if it were only used once. He holds it out for Bakha to take. Bakha protests at being given such a gift. Singh tells him to accept the gift and run along. Bakha takes the stick and, overcome with gratitude, flees the scene. Walking aimlessly, he marvels at this change in his kismet, at his good fortune. He struts like a proud soldier then realizes what a foolish sight he must be and stops. Uncomfortable now, he wishes someone would come and relieve his loneliness. He wonders where his friends and the babu’s sons are. The older one promised him an English lesson. Perhaps they can have the lesson before the boys' hockey game. And so Bakha’s thoughts drift, as directionless as his body.
Bakha Leaves Home
Eventually Bakha comes across the younger son of the babu. He has just finished his meal and is going to fetch the sticks and balls for the hockey game. Bakha feels pity for the little boy, because he knows the others will not allow him to play. As the babu’s son runs off for the equipment, Chota, Ram Charan, and other boys that will play arrive. Chota whispers to Bakha that he has told the other boys he is not an untouchable, so they won’t forbid him from playing. Bakha agrees that this is sensible and shows off his new stick to Chota. Chota congratulates Bakha on his good fortune and tells the other boys to get ready. When the babu’s younger son comes back with the gear, he is devastated to hear he won’t get to play. Bakha tries to comfort him by entrusting the boy with the care of his prized overcoat.
The game begins. Bakha is a superior player, dribbling, ducking, and dodging between the bodies of the other boys. He makes it around the opposing team’s line of defense and scores a point. Upset, the opposing goalkeeper hits Bakha in the leg with his stick. At this, the members of Bakha’s team all attack the offending goalkeeper. An all out brawl ensues between all the boys. Chota tells their team to throw stones at the opposing side. In all the pandemonium no one notices the babu’s youngest son standing in the line of fire. Though most of the rocks sail over his head, one thrown by Ram Charan hits him square on the head. The little boy falls to the ground, hits his head, and falls into unconsciousness. All of the other boys rush up to him and see streams of blood pouring from his head. Bakha picks him up and rushes him home.
Unfortunately the child’s mother, having heard all the commotion, is outside waiting for them. At the sight of her bloodied, unresponsive son in the arms of Bakha, she goes berserk. She calls him an “eater of his masters” and accuses him of killing her son. The older son of the babu tries to tell her it was Ram Charan’s fault, but the woman refuses to listen. She condemns Bakha for defiling her house, in addition to wounding her son.
Silent throughout this whole display, Bakha hands the woman her child and withdraws. He wonders miserably why the happiness from Charat Singh’s generosity could only last for half an hour and why the babu’s wife abused him even though he was helping her son. Similar to his conclusion following the altercation with the touched man, he realizes the answer to his questions is his untouchability.
Suddenly, Bakha realizes that he’s been walking alone. All of the other boys have disappeared. Weary, he clutches his new stick tighter in his hand and turns onto the path leading to his house. Before he comes into sight of his house he looks for a place to hide his stick because if his father sees it there will be another abusive argument about laziness. He hides his stick under a cactus bush and walks into his house. At his entrance, Lakha immediately starts spewing vitrol. He calls Bakha a son of a pig, a son of a dog, and illegally begotten for being away for so long. He says the sepoys and sahibs have been shouting and calling for someone to clean the latrines. He accuses Bakha of being ungrateful and not giving his father some rest in his old age.
Bakha remains cool in the face of his father’s fury, too weary over the day’s events to summon up the energy for a response. He goes to pick up his tools and clean the latrines, but sees that Rakha is holding them. Now Rakha is shouting at him as well, asking self-righteously where Bakha has been while he slaved the afternoon away. Bakha doesn’t resent his little brother for his preening and posturing, but cannot stand his impudence and his father’s abuse much longer. He starts to walk toward the latrines, but Lakha calls after him, “Go away! Get out of my house. And don’t come back! Don’t let us see your face again” (Anand 229). Normally, Bakha would bear such abuse quietly and calmly. Today, however, he’d had more than enough. Anger over the day’s calamities, combined with the endless flow of verbal violence from his father, fires up his soul. He tears off running across the plain without looking back.
The story picks up at the barracks where Charat Singh lives. The story of the solar topee is a testament to the deferential treatment white colonizers received on the Indian subcontinent. It also makes Bakha aware of the ridiculousness of his English clothing obsession. Even he realizes that desiring to wear a solar topee while playing hockey is absurd. Bakha’s ability to be self-critical and self-reflective show how much he’s grown in this long, arduous day.
The meeting with Charat Singh is perhaps the high point of that day thus far. From the hockey player, Bakha receives one of the things he’s starved for in his life—humane treatment from his fellow Hindus. When Singh shows no qualms about allowing Bakha to touch his personal items or sharing libations with Bakha, it fills the young sweeper’s soul with “love and adoration and worship” for Singh. He thinks that he would gladly be a sweeper for Singh for the rest of his life. The fact that Singh simply treating Bakha as a person sparked this hard and fast devotion illustrates how harshly being treated as a pollutant has impacted Bakha. He would happily remain swept along by the cyclical tide of a sweeper’s life in exchange for better treatment from the higher castes. This revelation supports the claim that beneath his vanity and superficiality Bakha really just wants to be treated as a human being by other members of his society.
Besides alluding to the themes of "charity," "class struggle," and "cyclical oppression," Bakha’s interaction with Charat Singh also makes use of the "religion" theme and paradox. Through the way Singh treats Bakha, from allowing the sweeper to touch an item he’ll eventually put near his mouth to gifting Bakha a hockey stick for a babu’s son, he shows that though he is Hindu, he does not adhere to every facet of the religion’s beliefs. In this way, Charat Singh opens the door for a debate about how truly necessary untouchability and the entire caste system are to Hinduism. The paradoxical element of Singh’s and Bakha’s exchange occurs when Singh brushes aside Bakha’s sweeping duties, telling him to “blow” his work, when Singh himself shouted at Bakha earlier in the morning for not cleaning the latrines quickly enough. Bakha too is perplexed by his idol’s contradictory behavior but takes it in stride. For the reader this is an example of Anand’s comedic touch.
Unfortunately for Bakha his glee from his meeting with Charat Singh and his happiness while playing hockey do not last long. Even before the game starts, Chota dents Bakha’s felicity by telling him the other boys believe he is a sahib’s bearer, and thus not an untouchable. Bakha understands the necessity of masking his real identity, but nonetheless feels a pang at the news. His class level will always be a factor in everything he does. Still, during the game Bakha is an all-star, scoring the first, and, as it turns out, only goal. When the son of the babu is caught in the crossfire of the hockey fight, Bakha forgets the caste rules, so eager to help the little boy. His reward for his compassion is a sound verbal thrashing from the little boy’s mother, who jumps to conclusions and blames Bakha for her son’s injuries. Even when her other son tells her Ram Charan is the culprit, the woman’s prejudice against untouchables renders her deaf and blind to the truth. This is an example of the untouchable’s burden—they must lead lives above reproach lest people accuse them of crimes. And even then, as we see in Bakha’s (and Sohini’s) case, they may still be condemned as criminals, as menaces to society. The accusations of the babu’s wife completely destroyed Bakha’s high after meeting with Charat Singh. The screaming of his father and holier-than-thou behavior of his brother bring him even lower.
The highs and lows of Bakha’s day have cracked Untouchable’s protagonist wide open in these two vignettes. The kindness and decency he receives from Charat Singh build him up, but the anger and accusations of the babu’s wife send him tumbling down again. These two polarizing incidents, coupled with his father’s eviction and Rakha’s conceitedness, cause Bakha to flee from his life, both metaphorically and literally. Throughout the book Bakha takes mental flights of fancy, often daydreaming and falling into trance-like musings. He escapes what’s happening all around him by blocking it out with his own thoughts. Oftentimes when he’s preoccupied by his internal self dialogues his body just drifts aimlessly and directionless. In “Bakha Leaves Home” we see Bakha actively, physically running away from his life. Normally he remains calm in the face of his father’s fury and insults. The calamities of the day, however, depleted his quota of patience and placidity. His father screaming at him and “evicting” him is the last straw. Before, the escapism motif appeared only in metaphorical iterations. Now, Bakha is attempting to escape his world by literally running away from it. The question now is where (or what, or who) will he run to?