What purpose does Sohini’s assault serve in Untouchable? Why did Anand think it important to include her assault in the novel?
Anand has included Sohini’s assault in his novel for a specific purpose. He was trying to give his audience a clear and open picture of the pain an untouchable went through in his life in pre-Independence India. The stigma of being born an untouchable does not get over with death. The Varna or cast system in India is a kind of caste hierarchy that has the Brahmins at the top and the dalits or the untouchables at the bottom (also called Achhoot in Hindi, meaning those who must not be touched). Even a touch of an achhoot (an untouchable) meant violation for an upper caste Hindu and required ablution. Bakha and his sister Sohini are untouchables. The main purpose of including this episode was to bring the orthodox face of the Indian society before the readers. It was not that India they knew, famous for its natural resources and diversity. It was the India where Sati and untouchability were practiced and where being born in a lower caste meant living an entire life under others’ heels. Both the practices have been deemed illegal in modern India but the orthodoxy that breeds these practices always raises its hood in one or the other form.
The Brahmin that tries to assault Sohini sexually, is an upper caste Hindu. He tries to molest her but afraid of getting caught when she raises her voice, he leaves her. He shouts ‘polluted, polluted’ trying to lay the blame on Sohini. Bakha wants to take revenge but he cannot touch the Pandit (the brahmin priest who tried to assault Sohini) or even enter the temple since this would turn the entire society against him. Being untouchables, neither Bakha and nor Sohini are allowed to enter the temple premises as they will violate its sanctity. Bakha is bound to lead the life of an underdog. The incident is just a reflection of the reality of Anand’s times when Orthodoxy was the way of life in India. The novel was published in 1935 when India was still not independent. Life was an ugly reality for the poor and downtrodden untouchables who could not dare to revolt against their oppression by the upper class Hindus. Being born an untouchable was like living a curse.
The assault on Sohini portrays the ugliness of the caste system in India. The upper castes would not touch the untouchables or sit with them. Even if a man from an upper caste assaulted or violated the dignity of a lower caste woman, no one would sympathize with her or help her. Bakha, despite being from the untouchable class is a proud man at heart. He cannot bear someone casting a dirty glance at his sister but he has to keep all that anger in his heart because his caste has set his boundaries and the Pandit lives beyond those boundaries far from his reach. He has to bear all the frustration as he is just a poor underdog. There were millions of untouchables in the British India who had to bear the same oppression. The Pandit who would not touch a lower caste girl in daylight becomes a lustful dog, finding her alone. Had Bakha not been the son of a latrine cleaner, he would have killed the priest. He could contain his fury with much difficulty. Bakha was also a man but then standing against an orthodox society would have invited the kind of punishment, he could not have imagined for himself or his sister and rest of the family.
The incident intensifies the pain in the novel and makes the audience’s sympathy for Bakha grow. The caste system in India is an anathema. The assault on Sohini was a part of Anand’s attempt to expose the ugly reality of the caste system. Being treated worse than animals is a part of Bakha and Sohini’s daily life but this incident was something worse. Bakha felt the most intense pain of his life. Untouchability reduced the lower class people to the position of animals. They had no rights in the society and their existence was a burden upon others. Anand has brought out this pain very well through the characters of Bakha and Sohini. The two siblings cannot do anything but feel helpless over their status and console each other. Anand has portrayed the assault on Sohini to pull the mask off the face of the Hindu society at whose top are the Brahmins, who call themselves descendants of Gods and serve as priests in temples. Bakha and Sohini are living the same curse every untouchable lives. However, this is the limit for Bakha beyond which the pain becomes unbearable. He cannot touch the priest and nobody will believe him if he tries to complain.