Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable: Escaping Through Mimicry and Mimesis

July 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

Untouchable describes a day in the life of a young sweeper boy, Bakha, who has been denied even a chance for a free and open-air walk because of his occupation. The novel introduces the caste system of rural India as the setting, and portrays a series of significant images that make up a comprehensive composite of the life of an Untouchable. The concept of mimicry has an added dimension for Bakha. He is not merely copying the colonial masters because he wants to be like them. While copying them he also recognizes the Western ideals as separate and superior to those of his people, and simultaneously tries to reconstruct his given identity of sub-human within the Indian caste system. Though the novel lacks a colonial discourse as there is a marked physical absence of the colonial masters, Bakha as well as other Indians’ worship of the West constructs one that allows the reinvention of Bakha’s identity. This essay borrows Homi K. Bhabha’s discussion of colonial discourse and mimicry in his seminal book, The Location of Culture. Through his ideas, mimicry becomes a vehicle for colonial discourse and Untouchable is not simply a critique of the divisive caste system, but transcends that and becomes a colonial discourse that allows the negotiation of the Untouchable’s identity. In Colonialism as Civilizing Mission, Melitta Waligora reveals that “the image of India as dominated by a fixed hierarchical ‘caste’ society is a product of cooperation between colonial officials and certain Indian social groups. (143)” This knowledge is particularly important because the novel deals ostensibly with the caste system. The neat division of the castes as well as Bakha’s position as an Untouchable introduces colonial presence immediately because we have to bear in mind that “the objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction. (Bhabha 101)” Instead of the physical presence of colonizers, the stream-of-consciousness narration into the thoughts of Bakha introduces them. We understand that he yearns to be like the “sahibs, superior people (11)” through his exterior- that if he “put on their clothes (11)” he will “look like a sahib. (11)” In particular, it is the presence of the hat that establishes a binary opposition between the colonizers and the colonized Indians. The hat is fetishized by the Indians as a “symbol of authority. (100)” Anand’s narrative technique, as well as the metaphorical presence of the colonizers emphasized through clothes, establishes the place of the colonizers within the narrative space. Bakha’s obsession does not lie solely on wearing their clothes, but also on their lifestyle and way of living. He notes that, “the Tommies lived, sleeping on strange, low canvas beds covered tightly with blankets, eating eggs, drinking tea and wine in tin mugs, going to parade and then walking down to the bazaar with cigarettes in their mouths and small silver-mounted canes in their hands. (11)” I quote in length because this consciousness of a different way of life becomes Bakha’s ideal way of life in his “English-apeing mind” (55) and he gradually shows disdain towards his people’s way of life and even adopts some of their habits, one of them being smoking. He becomes “ashamed of the Indian way of performing ablutions […] because he knew the Tommies disliked it. (18, emphasis mine)” In the end, Bakha even imitates the way the colonizers think. His adoration towards and mimicry of the colonizers shift from blindly copying to denunciation of his culture. Graham Huggan explains the difference between mimicry and mimesis very clearly. He explains, “In mimicry, the dominant function is that of mischievous imitation-the kind of imitation that pays an ironic homage to its object. Mimesis usually refers to a wider process of representation that involves the mediation between different worlds and people-in essence, between different symbolic systems. (94)” In other words, mimicry is disruptive imitation while mimesis is symbolic representation. I would use his definition in my essay when I refer to either term. Bakha’s mimicry reveals the identity crisis of the colonizers. Mimicry assumes a static representation of a subject so that there is an unchanging and definite aspect to be aped. The colonizers are simplified and reduced to one-dimensional characters where “identity becomes nothing but props and costume. (Fuchs 1)” In this instance, the hat that “adorns the noblest part of the body (101)” becomes a metaphor for the colonizers, and Bakha’s longing for it represents his belief that wearing it would make him more like them. His mimesis undermines the colonizers by showing how easily they can be reproduced and exposes their “ambivalence” as they are “transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a ‘partial’ presence. (Bhabha 123)” Bakha’s understanding of identity is synonymous with outward appearance, that he becomes what he wears, and wearing the clothes of the colonizers would make him more like them and in turn lose his untouchability. However, this potentially unhinges the colonizer’s identity and takes away some of their authority as colonial masters. To quote Bhabha, “the menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. (126)”Similarly, the ease at which Bakha sheds his Indian-ness uncovers the ambivalent identity of the colonized subject, thus subverting their collective identity as well. Through the narrative, there is an emphasis on Bakha as a social abject, and we are constantly reminded that he is a source of pollution to his community. The treatment of Bakha by his community reflects their anxiety over their ambiguous position within colonial India as a caste Hindu and a colonized subject. The caste villagers treat him like a “Dirty dog! Son of a bitch! The offspring of a pig! (47)” yet, as Bakha already realizes, they depend on him to clear their wastes because “they hate dung (52)” too. As an Untouchable, he is positioned out of the caste, yet inextricably linked to it. Though the caste villagers are superior to Bakha, they do not forget that they are also subjects of the colonial rule. Their anxiety is performed when they repeatedly highlight Bakha’s inferior position, because by doing so, they are asserting a place for themselves within colonial India. By verbally and physically abusing Bakha, the villagers also remind themselves that they are not positioned in the lowest hierarchy within colonial India. Repetition of Bakha as an Untouchable imprisons him in his title so that mimesis becomes a solution. The most significant encounter he has is when he steps into town and caste Hindu brushes against him accidently. The man immediately berates Bakha as he did not “shout and warn me of your approach. (47)” Initially, there were moments when Bakha felt indignant and berates himself for not retaliating (51). However, this is immediately followed by him realizing that this was “his lot dawned upon him. (52)” He internalizes the treatment and reasserts his untouchability by reminding himself that “Untouchable! I am an Untouchable! (52)” Unlike the caste Hindus, the sahibs “don’t mind touching us. (52)” For the untouchable Bakha, the colonizers are not only respected as a colonial ruler, they are further recognized as people who did not specifically ostracize him. Becoming like the sahib is thus seen as an escape from his current situation. Not only is he fixated on the idea of dressing like them, he wanted to go to school when his uncle told him that sahibs were educated (39) and was even willing to pay for his education out of his own pocket (40). By appropriating the ways of the colonizers, Bakha represents a hybrid of both cultures. However, this hybridization is problematic because it is based on a simplification of the colonized identity which is as Bhabha purports, “simultaneously alienating. (110)” It is alienating because Bakha does not fully become like the colonizers, yet he remains out of his caste and by extension, of the Hindu community. To borrow a term from Fanon, he becomes a “dislocated subject” because he does not even occupy the overlapping space between the colonizers and the rest of the colonized caste Hindus. While he resists his own people by aping the colonizers, he does not successfully “disappear in him” (Memmi) because as Macaulay puts it, “Indians can mimic but never exactly reproduce English values, and that their recognition of the perpetual gap between themselves and the ‘real thing’ will ensure their subjection. (qtd in Loomba 173)” For Bakha, this subjection is two-fold: first by his Hindu community, and second by his colonizers. Through mimicry, Bakha unwittingly presents the colonizers as one-dimensional because the underlying assumption is a fixed colonial identity that is at once disempowering and reductive. It is untrue of Memmi to say that the colonizers do not suffer because mimicry exposes their ambivalent position within India as they can be easily imitated, especially through attire. Bakha’s mimicry also portrays the ambivalent positions that the caste villagers occupy in colonial India because it shows their insecurity as colonized subjects when they constantly have to remind themselves that they are not completely inferior. His mimesis is crucial in his desire to escape from subjugation by the caste villagers. As a result, mimicry and mimesis allows Bakha to negotiate a place for himself within colonial India, but because he is inherently differently, he continues to be ultimately subjugated by the colonizers and imprisoned by the caste Hindus. Works CitedAnand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1940.Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge Classics, 1994.Fuchs, Barbara. Mimesis and Empire. Cambridge: University Press, 2001.Huggan, Graham. “(Post)Colonialism, Anthropology, and the Magic of Mimesis.” Cultural Critique. No. 38. (Winter, 1997-1998), pp. 91-106. JSTOR. 4 Oct. 2007. Looma, Ania. Colonial/Postcoloniaism. New York: Routledge, 1998.Waligora, Melitta. “What Is Your ‘Caste’? The Classification of Indian Society as Part of the British Civilising Mission”. Colonialism as Civilising Mission. Ed. Harold Fischer-Tiné and Michael Mann. London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2004. Pp. 141-162.

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