The underdogs in Mulk Raj Anand’s “The Coolie”


The poorer castes of pre-independent Indian society interested Mulk Raj Anand as a writer. He depicted the plight of the downtrodden with realism to demonstrate that social evils like the caste system perpetuated in the name of religion and tradition were dehumanizing and they stood in the way of progress. He won the Padma Bhushan and the Sahitya Akademi Award. Born in 1905, he died in 2004. He remains a prominent figure in Anglo-Indian Literature.

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In “The Coolie” (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1936), 14-year-old Munoo is grazing cattle, playing with friends, and sharing mangoes when his aunt calls him hoarsely, “Where have you died? Where have you gone, you ominous orphan?” (p 11) His uncle Daya Ram has got him a job in the house of the Babu of the bank where he is a chaprasi (peon). He will earn three rupees a month. On the way to the town, he scolds him, “Walk quickly! You son of a bitch!” The boy has problems walking barefoot. The uncle berates him: “You illegally begotten! You have been the bringer of disgrace to me!” (p 17) The Babu and his brother, a young doctor, are sympathetic but the mistress is constantly rude.

Her daughter is used to scrubbing the utensils but the mistress tells her to “let that good-for-nothing pig do it” (p 33). It is impossible to satisfy her. In her eyes he is “a thick-headed boy” (p 38). At every opportunity she reminds him that he is a villager from the valley, a dirty boy, a savage. She orders him to wash the utensils with the ashes but immediately changes her mind: “Leave it! You’re no good!” She gives him two chapatis and a spoonful of lentils and vegetables. He eats on his hand, “being considered too low in status to be allowed to eat off the utensils” (p 48). He is grinding spices and spills some juice over. A storm of anger follows from Bibiji. He does not wash his hands before handling a saucepan, a hurricane of abuse follows. Tired, he falls asleep, a typhoon bursts over his head.

She is always making him feel inferior. She serves him turnip curry “from the remainders of her husband’s plate” (p 64). His master questions him why he is not eating what he is given: “Are you the son of a Nabab?” (p 65) He receives the ironies, taunts and recriminations like arrows in his heart. He plays with the Babu’s daughters and mistakenly bites one of them. “May you die! May the vessel of your life never float in the sea of existence!” yells the mistress. He is treated as a scoundrel. She asks: “What is your status that you should mix with the children of your superiors?” (p 77) He is compared to a snake that is treacherous after feeding on their milk. “Didn’t I tell you my children are not your class?” she asks.

The house is charged with “unending complaints and incessant bullying” (p 64). Bibiji’s words do hurt. Life is “the routine of domestic slavery” (p 50). He has no choice but to accept his position as a slave. He even promises he will be “the perfect model of a servant”. If this is what is written in his fate, what can he do? But one day he escapes to wake up near a railway platform. Two well-wishers take him to Daulatpur to work in a primitive pickles-and-jam factory. Here the coolies work in the heat of burning furnaces. Munoo has to carry heavy copper flasks of essence on his head to retail shops. The atmosphere is oppressive: clouds of fumes, particles of ash, flame arising from coal in the oven, pungent smoke. They work “for long hours, from dawn to past midnight” (p 117). Hot-tempered Ganpat picks up a log of fuel wood and beats a servant for late rising. The place is potentially risky. It almost amounts to child labour.

The low-class

The author paints a grim picture of the low-class: due to bankruptcy the factory closes down. Munoo and his friend Tulsi desperately search for a job. Walking in darkness, they come across coolies sleeping in a row at the mercy of mosquitoes on the footpath, with their heads on the wooden beams of doorsteps. At dawn the coolies wait for shops to open. They beg for a job but are beaten away with a bamboo stick. Merchants often take advantage of the “swarms of coolies” (p 157). The competition for a job provokes the labourers to accept low wages for more work. To the shopkeepers all coolies are “a nuisance – rude, uncouth, dirty people to be rebuked, abused or beaten like the donkeys” (p 158).

Coolies carry trunks, beddings, luggage for passengers. Munoo arrives in Bombay finally, believing that here there is money but he will be disillusioned. Bombay’s streets are crowded at night with people sleeping “curled up in knots” with “heads on bundles or boxes”. It is difficult to find a place to sleep. The coolies converse softly to charm away all misfortunes. Munoo sees lepers, beggars, the handicapped, the destitute and the homeless. He discovers that Bombay is heaps of dead coal, pits and puddles of mud. He witnesses men relieving themselves in the open. He is astonished by the contrast, for in Bombay, there are rich people too.

Munoo, by chance, befriends a man, Hari, who is going to a cotton factory to seek a job. After an exhausting journey, they reach their destination. Hari reminds the foreman, a white man, that he used to work here and that he went home to bring his family. You could have brought the whole village, retorts the white man in a typically arrogant and haughty tone. He addresses the poor man as “You son of a dog!”, “You stupid bullock!”. However, after much persuasion, he accepts to take them but they will be underpaid. He is business-minded: he charges every worker a price for the gift of a job. He owns hundreds of straw huts and rents them at a profit. He proposes a hut to Hari. Respectfully and humbly, Hari says, “You are my father and mother.”

Apart from thematic richness, one remarkable aspect is the author blending Indian words, including swear words, with the English Language to make the narrative fresh and authentic.

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