To put on their clothes made one a sahib too: Mimicry and the Carnivalesque in Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable
The character of Bakha, in Anand’s Untouchable, is drawn from the lowest caste in Indian society, that of sweeper, or cleaner of human ordure. Despite his unpromising station in life, the central figure in the novel operates at a variety of levels in order to critique the status quo of caste in India. Well aware of his position at the nadir of Indian society, Bakha is able-via his untouchability-to interrogate issues well above his station in life, such as caste and its inequities, economics and the role of the colonizer. Due to the very characteristics of the character's position, Anand is able to examine issues such as society’s revulsion at untouchablility; some local, innate societal sympathy for Bakha's plight, and the fact that in the 1930s Gandhi used his Harijans-untouchables-as a symbol for change in Indian society. This essay examines the modes by which Anand deploys mimicry and the carnivalesque to critique Indian society in the 1930s.
The author has constructed a mimic-man, fundamentally carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense, who is simultaneously parodic and subversive. Indeed, the linguistic similarity Bakha/Bakhtin is in itself superficial yet tempting. For Bakhtin, "Carnivalesque literature uses elements of parody, mimicry, bodily humour and grotesque display to achieve the ends of carnival, that is, to jostle ‘from below’ the univocal, elevated language of high art and decorous society".
During the course of his day, Bakha causes widespread unease, not merely at his physical presence. Although he is aware of the "six thousand years of racial and class superiority"(16) that bears down on him, as he wanders the alleys of Bulashah, he repeatedly and emphatically "jostles ‘from below’". Although he knows that it is "a presumption on the part of the poor to smoke like the rich people"(42) he nevertheless is seen as "a happy, carefree man as he sauntered along, drawing the smoke and breathing it out"(43). Firmly placed by caste at the bottom of society, he is aware of its taboos, and yet cheerfully breaks out of these strictures. Later, when attacked by the crowd for inadvertently touching a man in the street, the insecurities of caste are exposed. One old man says, "These swine are getting more and more uppish!" (48). This theme is developed when Bakha is in the silversmiths’ alley, and the lady observes that "they are a superior lot these days!… They are getting more and more uppish."(74). This is no less than Hamlet’s lament that "the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe"(Act V Sc I). The parallels between the carnivalesque gravedigger scene from Hamlet and the episode in the alley are irresistible, with both the Prince of Denmark and the housewife bemoaning a perceived threat to the social order from punning, articulate, discourteous persons of...