Untouchable Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Clothing (Symbol)

Bakha’s obsession with European dress is deeply rooted in the "you are what you wear" theme and proof of the symbolic role clothing plays in Untouchable. The clothing of Europeans and Indians are often juxtaposed, with the former symbolizing modernity and progress, and the latter symbolizing tradition and backwardness. Bakha supports this conclusion when he describes “the clear-cut styles of European dress… [with their] stark simplicity [as] furrowing his old Indian consciousness” (Anand 19). The simple, clear-cut styles of Europe are dichotomous to the ostentatious, loosely flowing saris and dhotis of Indian dress.

Bakha’s Tools (Symbol)

The relationship between the worker, the products of his labor, and his tools of production has long been a topic of interest for philosophers and writers. Anand is no different. Bakha’s status as an untouchable hinges on his handling of other people’s refuse. He is considered dirty because the product of his labor, the removal of feces, makes him dirty. The tools he uses to clear dung are paradoxically the means of his livelihood and his suffering. While the tools allow Bakha to make a living for himself and his family, they simultaneously make living extremely difficult for them. The paradoxical nature of Bakha’s tools is symbolic of the contradictions of untouchability and the overall Hindu caste system.

Violent Language (Motif)

Anand uses violent language in Untouchable for comedic yet ironic effects. The violent language also reveals the brutality of Bakha’s society. For example, it is both funny and tragic that Bakha’s father calls Bakha the “son of a pig” (Anand 23). Evidently Lakha is so possessed by ire that he doesn’t mind calling himself a pig. This is funny, but also sad because it illustrates the strained father-son relationship between the two men.

The brutal nature of the violent language is depicted during Gulabo’s unrelenting haranguing of Sohini. The washerwoman calls Bakha’s sister a bitch, a prostitute, an “eater of dung,” and a “drinker of urine” with no provocation. She attempts to add to her diatribe of Sohini by hitting the young woman, but is stopped by the weaver’s wife. This is a prime example of how violent action quickly escalates to violent actions in the novel. However, besides Gulabo’s attempt to strike Sohini and the slap Bakha receives from the caste man he accidentally touches, physical violence is in short supply in Untouchable. This is a somewhat perplexing when considering the real-life mob violence the untouchables have experienced throughout history. Perhaps the recurring violent language in the book is intended to be a stand-in for real-life tactile violence. In any case, violent language is pervasive throughout Untouchable and used to great rhetorical effect.

Hockey Stick (Symbol)

One of the positive points of Bakha’s day is when Charat Singh gifts him a hockey stick. This stick represents not only the theme of charity, but also Singh’s personal feelings about untouchability. Unlike other Hindus, he does not view Bakha as contaminated, as being worth less than the filth the young man clears away everyday. The hockey stick also symbolizes a life that is beyond Bakha’s reach. Despite being the best in the colony at hockey, Bakha cannot even dream of playing professionally like Charat Singh. His status as an untouchable bars him from many avenues, many paths. The hockey stick, while uplifting for Bakha, is a tacit reminder of his constrained life trajectory.

Escapism (Motif)

The desire to escape the harsh realities of life is a major motif of Untouchable. Many of Bakha’s quirks and character traits, such as his obsession with the English and their culture, are grounded in his fervent wish to escape his own life and circumstances for a time. Though he knows he is untouchable and will be his entire life, a part of him seeks to escape that life by dressing like the English and adopting their social mores. Still, Bakha’s escapist tendencies aren’t limited to his adoration of the English. His fixation with hockey and his desire to learn to read can also be interpreted as attempts at avoiding his reality.

Lakha, Bakha’s father, is another example of escapism in the novel. To Bakha’s chagrin, he often “foxes” out of his sweeper work and sends his children in his stead. Instead of being confronted daily with his life as an untouchable and a sweeper, Lakha prefers to stay at home so he can receive “salaams” from people. If he avoids contact with the world outside of the outcaste’s colony he can escape the trappings of his actual life and live in a fantasy world of his own creation.