India is without a doubt one of the most exciting, life-affirming places I have ever visited; a country whose food, fabrics and music has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. From my teenage years spent in bindis, elephant print culottes (yes, this was the 90s) and listening to bhangra, when the opportunity came to pick somewhere a bit different for our hols back in 2011, India was right at the top of the list.
Although we’ve been back since, an experience that came a lot easier second time around, I will never forget that first blast of complete shock and awe. Staying in Shahjahanabad or ‘Old Delhi’ as it’s more commonly known, we experienced the full hit of monkeys, dogs, bikes, cows, sewage, wiring, spices, incense and EVERYTHING in the whole world jammed into one tiny space. This tiny space also included some of the millions of folk right at the bottom of the Indian caste system; the ‘Untouchables‘; a term that is still, disgustingly, widely used today (as we learnt from one flippant taxi driver).
Mulk Raj Anand is a bit of a hero. Dubbed the ‘Indian Charles Dickens’, Anand was a man particularly preoccupied with the condition of the bottom rungs of Indian society. His first novel follows the day in the life of Bakha; a ‘sweeper’ living in an outcasts’ colony on the edges of an Indian city. Living in a mud hut with his family and idealising the western ‘Tommies’ who live in the barracks nearby, Bakha spends his days picking up other people’s filth. After accidentally bumping into an outraged Brahmin (‘high-caste’) man and being subsequently harangued and humiliated by the entire street, Bakha’s day unravels in a series of mishaps, all starkly demonstrating, in one way or another, the plight of the downtrodden classes of Indian society.
Be it on television or in real life, we have all witnessed the face of poverty to some degree. Whether I appreciated this novella and social commentary from Anand all the more for having visited the country previously and having had a fraction of that poverty thrust before my eyes I don’t know. An important point, albeit a laboured one, is being made here and is one that many would do well to listen to nowadays, with the problem of caste discrimination still rife.
Although both the characters and setting of Bakha’s day is at times so vivid you can smell the dung steaming off the streets, linguistically speaking this classic of Indo-Anglian literature felt a little clunky at times (though the odd turn of phrase arguably makes the story feel all the more authentic – as if Bakha were telling it himself.)
As a naive symbol of hope Bakha is, however, perfect, and as a writer Anand balances an instinct to philosophise with a very necessary anger and fervour. Definitely an imperfect book (e.g. the bizarre final paragraphs where some rather camp students debate the benefits of flushing toilets….) yet doubtlessly terribly important.
Ever read any ‘Indo-Anglian’ fiction?