‘Old Bapu’ by Mulk Raj Anand: Short Story Analysis
‘Old Bapu’ is a realistic short story highlighting the plight of untouchables in early twentieth-century India penned by the well-known Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand. Mulk Raj Anand was a famous writer and journalist of the twentieth century who, through his ethereal, almost lyrical prose and narrative style, brings out the plight of the untouchables, lower castes, downtrodden women, and the labor classes in India. In this short story titled ‘Old Bapu’, Mulk Raj Anand highlights the terrible gnawing hunger and poverty of a fifty-year-old untouchable urban laborer. Certain sentences in the story are similar or echo the narration of Anand’s most celebrated work, Untouchable, which stemmed from the writer’s private life. In this short story titled ‘Old Bapu’, an untouchable walks the hot summer road on a hungry stomach to Shikohpur, which was a long seventy miles walk to seek employment from a Sikh contractor. The untouchable is elderly and tired but wishes to live and not die. He needs work to fill the gnawing pangs in his stomach. As he makes his way towards the contractor’s residence, we notice how the bleak, hot, and searing heated atmosphere burns our own skin through the lyrical quality of Mulk Raj Anand’s prose.
R. K. Narayan was a contemporary writer of Mulk Raj Anand. R. K. Narayan’s short story ‘A Horse and Two Goats’ has a line which is similar to Mulk Raj Anand’s line in this short story; that is the line where the untouchable thinks his age to be fifty years until the Sikh contractor mocks him saying that he looked like he was seventy years old instead of fifty. One can feel the terrible heat of the Indian urban landscape, especially through the vivid descriptions of Mulk Raj Anand and his use of Punjabi and Hindustani words and idioms in his text. While the untouchable or rather Old Bapu walks towards the Sikh contractor’s house, his head feels woolly, and he is ready to faint because of the hunger and thirst his body was undergoing. While he walks in a half-delirious state, we learn:
- The untouchable’s name is ‘Old Bapu’, which echoes the comparison between him and Mahatma Gandhi, lovingly called ‘Bapu’ by India’s people, the British Colonial Powers, and the rest of the world. This short story was penned and published in the 1930’s when India was fighting non-violently for her freedom through the work and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was very much affected by the terrible poverty experienced by the lower castes, especially the untouchables. He, therefore, called them ‘Harijans’ or ‘God’s own people’ and did social work for them. However, this was not an effective method to emancipate the lower castes of India. It would only be after the rise of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar that the sad plight of the untouchables, now mostly called ‘Dalits’, would be slightly alleviated. I have reviewed a very moving book about Ambedkar titled No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956, edited and selected by Unnamati Syama Sundar, which you can check out here.
- As we see in this story, despite Mahatma Gandhi doing so much to alleviate the untouchables’ status, there were untouchable men like the elderly gentleman in this short story who were still very much in the depths of poverty. While India’s non-violent battle for Independence was being fought, several lower castes were only bothered about where their next meal would come from. This is quite a play on the word ‘Old Bapu’.
- While the untouchable walked towards the contractor’s residence, images of his youth flashed before him in a dream-like manner. He remembers his mother, who spun cotton wool for a living but was so poor that she could not even afford unleavened bread or, as Indians call it, ‘roti’ for her son, the protagonist of this short story. She would have to borrow food from an upper caste mother’s place. This is remarkably similar to R. K. Narayan’s short story ‘A Horse and Two Goats’, where the main character’s wife has to do some menial work to get money to buy food for him.
- The old untouchable ‘Old Bapu’ remembers how the upper caste boys used to harass him and once threw him into a well where he almost died. This is like the Biblical incident of the Patriarch Joseph of the Old Testament being thrown into the well by his brothers. Here too, the younger untouchable who was a ‘brother of sorts’ to the upper caste Hindu boys by the bonds of religion, still faces the same kind of peril as the Biblical character, because he claimed to be different. Let us not forget Mulk Raj Anand did his PhD in Philosophy before he started writing full time, which is reflected in his writings.
- Old Bapu remembers his mother’s death and how, because he wanted to work that day, he left her side, and when he returned, she was dead. He had gone to seek independence but came back to the realization that he was more isolated and lonelier now than he could ever have been. The plight of a young untouchable was not enviable in India then and even now, for that matter. The untouchable, the main protagonist of this short story, was abused by his uncle Dandu Ram, who found the protagonist to be too tiny, too weak, an inauspicious personage, a weakling who could not work on the farm or tend the cattle and was unable to look after his own half bigha of land; so much so that Dandu even took away or robbed the protagonist’s little land from him forcing him to seek work in the city.
- The protagonist was tricked out of his share of land. Upper caste relatives of Indian villagers are fond of oppressing their untouchable progeny, and Dandu Ram was no different. Note that though untouchability is found in the Hindu religion it has percolated in all the other major religions and races in India. Probably the young protagonist was unaware of how to fight for his rights since he was an orphan after his mother’s death and so was cheated by Dandu Ram out of his half bigha of land. Note the significance that one acre is equal to 1.6 Bigha.
These were the old memories that flitted like mists of hot air in the cranium or skull of Old Bapu as he trudged the long hot walk towards the contractor’s house. In the text, there are several mentions of the plight of the untouchables. In one scene, an upper-caste cyclist almost dashes into the half-fainting and weary Old Bapu. The cyclist manages to escape a fall by brushing past Old Bapu. It is then that Old Bapu realizes that he had better be careful despite his weary state; otherwise, he would be killed. This is significant because it is a custom of old that an untouchable should not dash or walk past or touch an upper caste person. If he does, he does so under the threat of being beaten up and even lynched. There is another reference to the lower caste status of Old Bapu when the pan-biri stall owner does not give Old Bapu a tumbler of water to drink but instead takes a brass jug and pours the water into the hands of Old Bapu to quench Bapu’s thirst. In Bapu’s time, untouchables were not allowed to drink from a jar or cup directly, especially a cup used by an upper-caste person. The water had to be taken from his own cupped hands to his mouth.
More instances of the lower castes’ plight are mentioned in the text, especially the part where Old Bapu feels pity towards the prolonged burbling of a beetle from the slime in a gutter or nearby drain. It is an offensive but accurate depiction of most of the lower caste laborers’ plight in Mulk Raj Anand’s time. Also, there is mention of the ruts in the roads of the city. Ironically, the roads should have been cemented to a great extent to prevent ruts from being formed. However, on a sadistic note, to the luck of the lower castes, with every heavy rainfall that comes to India during the monsoon season, the ruts appear again, thus creating an annual form of road labor or work for the lower castes. Old Bapu, who was called old, weak, and useless, knew in his heart that he was strong enough to do road work. He knows this because of the hard, corned, blunted, and rough flesh on his fingers due to the heavy work of breaking stones.
After Old Bapu arrives at the Sikh contractor’s house, we realize the following:
- It is the summer season; we are more than aware of that. Yet Old Bapu has come to ask for the monsoon work to eat some corn and quench his thirst. This is because there was apparently, as Old Bapu says, ‘no land and no harvests’. This indicates the vital fact that Old Bapu was a tenant farmer who worked as a temporary farmer on the land in his village when he was not working in the city on the rutted roads. He certainly would not earn much from it, and both jobs paid poorly, not even enough to keep body and soul together. This also indicates that probably there was a drought going on at that time. That was why there was no land left to till and harvest.
- The Sikh contractor complains about the lazy-shiftless poor while he appears to our eyes lazier than Old Bapu, who has walked so many miles to get work even for half-pay. The Sikh contractor even grudges Old Bapu this measly earning. This brings out the upper castes’ apathy towards the poor, especially the lower castes like Old Bapu.
- The Sikh gentleman, in the name of pity, throws a nickel towards Old Bapu, who then goes away gratefully. One cannot help but feel compassion and pain when one reads this half-hearted treatment received by Old Bapu.
- Old Bapu is told by the Sikh gentleman that he looked seventy years of age when he probably was fifty years old. Old Bapu did not know his age. He counted it from the time of the earthquake in Kangra. The birthdays of untouchables were never celebrated. The 1905 Kangra earthquake occurred in the Kangra Valley and the Kangra region of the Punjab Province, modern-day Himachal Pradesh in India, on April 4, 1905.
- Old Bapu sees his reflection in the pan-biri stall in a mottled mirror. Just as the mirror was mottled or aged, even the face and body of Old Bapu was mottled with age. He had not realized the changes his face had undergone during all the years of his life. Therefore, he was shocked at his appearance and could not turn his face away from the mottled mirror. He wanted to live in the illusion of youth.
The story ends with Old Bapu seeking four annas worth of corn to make a meal of. He is tougher than he thinks, as despite walking at his age on an empty stomach, he was ready to walk further to eat his first meal, probably for that week. Thus, Mulk Raj Anand’s story brings out the sad plight of the untouchables during his time and how dispassionately they were treated even during tough times like a drought.
I was enlightened to read and review this short story penned by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand. I have always loved his social issue-based realistic fiction. I have written two social issue-based realistic fiction novels that have garnered many awards: NIRMALA: The Mud Blossom, a novella, and Amina: The Silent One, which is a full-length novel. Both are stories about the lives of slum-dwelling young women. I hope to read more of Mulk Raj Anand’s works soon.
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