Journey Through Hell: The Theme of Marginality in Mulk Raj Anand's Coolie
Coolie marks a greater self-assurance in the art of Anand and a further deepening description of marginal living .It comprehends greater veriety and deeper levels of degradation than does Untouchable. The Plot of the novel is such as will not readily yield to a plain summary of facts. Here is the story of a hill boy, Munoo, Who moves from the village to the town, from the town to the city, and then up to the mountains. He traverses an experience, and is finally swept away to his doom. He explores the limits of existence before he goes under.
Munoo's life is tragic to the extreme. The poor orphan is cast away by his aunt and uncle who have no love for him. He gets a job as a domestic servant in the house of a bank clerk at Sham Nagar. He imagines that he will henceforth live in peace and comfort but is soon disillusioned.
Munoo thought of the days of his childhood in the hills and recalled how often he had played around the cart roads with the distended- bellied Bishan, the lean Bishambar and that superior little Jay Singh. But the purple hills of Kangra were too close in and there was no railway there to watch. "It was as well, in spite of the pain I have suffered," he said to himself, 'TO have come away from that world.' I am now going to Bombay, and there must be wonderful things there; many more wonderful things than there were in my village or Sham Nagar or Daulatpur. (Coolie 174)The miseries of the past pale in insignificance in the light of his new experience:
He was clever, too. The way he could read the messages of people's hearts and tell what diseases they were suffering from, by mean of that machine with rubber tubes. The end of which he applied to his ears and whose mouth he rested on the chest of a person. He had other machines in velvet boxes. How he would like to handle them, Munoo thought. How he would like to be the Chola Babu, medicines man! He would not even mind being like the burra Babu, an official in the bank, whom all the towns' people saluted. (Coolie 47)
Although Sheila, the teen-aged daughter of the master of the house, is kind to him, her mother treats him shabbily: he realizes finally his position in the world. He is to be a slave, a servant who should do the work, all the odd jobs, someone to be abuse, even beaten, though as yet it had not come to that. He feels sad, lonely.
The ambivalence that torments Bakha in Untouchable torments Munoo as well. He resolves henceforth to be a perfect servant, but the path to perfection is not easy. He is squarely blamed for fiasco, which takes place during the visit of a senior bank official to the radiance of his master. Later, when he picks a right with the neighbour's servant, he is severely injured. During his convalescence, he experiences the birth trauma of desire for Sheila, as he sees her coming out of the bath, a silhouette of pale bronze. At the same time, he is aware of the vast gulf that exists between him and Sheila. He stifles his passion, but no sooner does he return to health than his wanton irrepressible desire asserts itself.
In the feudal town of Daulatpur, he runs into Prabha, a partner in a pickle factory and is instantly hired as a coolie in the warehouse. Prabha's wife soon grows fond of him and gives him motherly warmth. But life in the factory proves as unrelenting as ever. To add to his discomfiture, Prabha is ruined financially and returns to his native village. Munoo is left alone in the world with no art or craft to earn his living .He becomes a self-employed porter, carrying loads on the streets.
Munoo feels the surge of waters in the big metropolis. But he never makes the great with drawal from life. He finds kindred hearts in Hari and Laxmi, with whom he shares his lodgings. They, however, are far too advanced in the scales of suffering, Munoo's hero, however, is Ratan. The wrestler, who faces life with calm confidence. He wants to emulate Ratan and be like him: "I want to live, I want to work, to work this machine. I shall grow up to be a men, a strong man like the wrestler"(Coolie 83). Ratan takes him one night to the house of a prostitute, who excited his pent-up desire. Back in the lodgings he is baptized in the life of flesh by Laxmi.
Soon, crisis overtakes the city, and normal life is paralyzed Munoo finds himself in the midst of the labour strike, followed by an outbreak of communal violence .He is both an actor and a spectator who drifts with the crowd. He senses the futility of rhetoric as also the greater futility of disorganized action. The words of poet Sauda -"there are two kinds of people in the world: the rich and the poor"(Coolie 52) echo in his ears, but soon the anarchy of the ocean drowns him in sleep Even at this hour, he is aware that "the city, the bay, the sea at his feet, had and unearthly beauty"(Coolie 259). Now the feeling of pain seems to tinge everything. He is run over by Mrs.Mainwairing's car and is taken to Simla as her page and rickshaw puller. She takes a fancy to him wants to play the seductress, but Munoo is already broken. The strain of pulling the rickshaw sucks his life blood, and he contracts tuberculosis and dies. The peasant lad sprung up from the hills returns home to his origin.
The coolie touches the pathetic and the sublime areas of human experience. Here, Anand explores the limits of pain central to the existence of the downtrodden. He places Munoo in opposition to a debasing and debased society- a frail, defenseless figure in a predominantly hostile world. Society is the great destroyer that fells Munoo and his like. The tragedy of Munoo is an indictment of the evils of capitalism on the minor segment of society. But the purpose of the novelist is not to present a gloomy picture of life. On the contrary, he wishes to arouse the conscience of humanity against the ruthless exploitation of the weak. He handles in this prose epic the realities of the human situation as he sees and understands them.
The characterization of Munoo is vivid, dramatic, and powerful. Munoo is cast in the mode of the archetypal, ironic, and perfect victim or scapegoat under the sentence of death. But the ironic focus in not sharp enough to be convincing. This is so because Anand attempts a naturalistic reproduction of the vast human landscape and develops and epic mood and scale. Like Balzac and Tolstoy, he draws vast spaces and creates memorable characters. He is not sufficiently detached to maintain the esthetic distance which, properly speaking, yields the ironic stance. Munoo is conceived as a romantic hero, and as such there is no incongruity in the delineation, which is basic to the ironic portrayal. He is first and last, a victim rather than a rebel and, therefore, is capable of rising to a tragic stature.
Structurally, Coolie is less closely knit than Untouchable. It has a different kind of unity, Comparable to a symphony V.S.Pritchett sees in it the glimpse of a Picaresque novel and the emergence of a new type of hero. If Untouchable is a microcosm, Coolie is microcosm that is Indian society is the estimation of K.R.S.Iydengar. Its loose, panoramic structure, with immense variety of characters and incidents, represents a comprehensive picture of life itself. The novelist sees in the formless flux a cycle of recurrence and gives it a meaningful expression. The power of the novel derives from its fidelity to truth, from its capacity to probe beneath the sordid and the banal, and from its ability to touch the tragic, the sublime and the beautiful.
The setting of Coolie merits special attention. The scene of action shifts in space in orderly sequence .So does the centre of gravity. However, the shift in scene of action is by no means arbitrary; it is conditioned by a certain principle of organization to indicate the macrocosmic character of the theme. The action begins in the village of Bilaspur and may be taken as time of pain at birth. In sham Nagar, the hero fined himself in virtual serfdom. In Daulatpur, he loses his job and is thrown out on the streets. In cosmopolitan Bombay, He has the taste of the slum and the fifth; finally, in Simla, his cup of misery full, he goes under. Simla, it may be said prepares the stage for his crucifixion.
Coolie is hardly less poetical than Untouchable. A deep under current of pathos runs through both; "We belong to suffering! We belong to suffering! My love!" (Coolie 207). Sometimes Anand lifts the veil of the world of appearance, lapsing entirely into a kind of poetic trance, freeing language from the confines of plain prose. For the most part, however, the struggle to forge a new indo-English idiom continues, especially when Anand deals with matter- of fact situations and events or hastens the pace of the narrative. Taken as a whole, Coolie is a landmark in indo-Anglian fiction.
- Anand, Mulkraj. Coolie. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1988.