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Coolie By Mulk Raj Anand Characterization Essay

Coolie Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Coolieby Mulk Raj Anand.

Coolie, by Mulk Raj Anand, was first published in 1936 and helped to establish Anand as one of the foremost Anglophone Indian writers of his day. Like much of his other work, this novel is concerned with the consequences of British Rule in India and with the rigid caste system that structured Indian society. “Coolie” is a term for an unskilled laborer, though it can also be used as a pejorative. Anand’s novel tells the story of Munoo, a young boy from the Kangra Hills in Bilaspur. He is an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle; however, early in the novel they reveal they can no longer support Munoo and insist that he get a job. This is the beginning of a journey that will take Munoo to Bombay and beyond, but it also marks the end of his childhood.

With his Uncle, Munoo travels to a nearby town where he finds a job as a servant to a bank clerk, Babu Nathoo Ram. Munoo is mistreated by his master’s wife but he admires his master’s younger brother, Prem Chand, who is a doctor. Babu Nathoo Ram himself is something of a caricature; a typical example of a Middle Class Anglophile who has internalized the values of the colonizer and firmly believes in the supremacy of white people. A great fuss is made when the aptly named Mr. English visits the bank where Babu Nathoo Ram works, but Anand uses this episode to undercut the apparent superiority of the English. When Prem Chand enquires about the best place in Britain to further his medical training, it is revealed that Mr. English is uneducated and doesn’t know.

After accidentally injuring Sheila, Babu Nathoo Ram’s daughter, Munoo is beaten and decides to run away. He makes it as far as Daultapur, where he is taken in by Prabha, who runs a pickle factory. Prabha and his wife are kind to Munoo, although the work is hard. Throughout the novel, Anand points to the way the lower classes are exploited by those above them, with Munoo being the ultimate example of this exploitation. Here, he shows how Prabha must appease his neighbor, the Public Prosecutor Sir Todar Mal, with free pickles and jam to prevent him having the factory shut down because the smoke irritates him. Ultimately, however, it is Prabha’s own business partner, Ganpat, who cheats him and leaves him bankrupt, suggesting a lack of class consciousness or solidarity.

When Prabha loses the factory, Munoo is left to fend for himself once again. He meets an elephant driver who is travelling to Bombay with a circus and decides to join them. At first, Munoo is delighted with Bombay, but he soon realizes that, even here, “coolies” must sleep on the streets. He finds work at Sir George White’s cotton mill where he meets Ratan, a man he comes to idolize. Ratan is a wrestler and a member of the worker’s union, a man who has chosen to fight his masters and reject the exploitative conditions in which he labors. The optimistic possibility symbolized by Ratan is short lived for Munoo, however, as a riot breaks out during a workers’ strike and he becomes lost.

While wandering the streets, he is run over by Mrs. Mainwaring’s car. As compensation, she hires him as a servant and takes him to Simla. Mrs. Mainwaring offers insight into another dimension of Indian society. She has English, as well as Indian, ancestry, and longs to be accepted by English society. As a result she travelled to England and married a young English soldier. Her desire to be recognized as English can also be read as a desire to be recognized as white, with all of the privileges that accompany whiteness in colonial India, privileges that Munoo will never enjoy. Despite the kindness that Mrs. Mainwaring shows him, Munoo contracts tuberculosis and dies, aged just fifteen.

Coolie is a devastating account of the poverty and exploitation faced, not just by Munoo, but thousands like him. Anand shows how the racial and class hierarchies imposed by British colonialism have intersected, or overlaid, the existing caste system to make life impossible for “coolies”. Munoo has no real control over his life; over the work he does or where he lives or how he is treated. As he moves from one place to another in search of a job or a home, he moves from one tragedy to another. In his travels and through the various people he meets and is employed by, he is exposed to the multiplicity of life in India which is made vivid by Anand’s prose. If the novel’s portrait of Munoo’s life raises difficult questions about Indian society, Munoo’s death raises the question of whether there can be any future for a “coolie” if nothing changes.

Mulk Raj Anand's 1936 novel Coolie is about a 14-year-old boy, Munoo, who represents the lowest part of India's socioeconomic spectrum, a position identified by various names, including Dalit and, more commonly, "the untouchables." Dalits are destined to remain at the bottom of India's extraordinarily rigid caste system and equally rigid socioeconomic system.  

By presenting as his protagonist, the desperately poor Munoo, a servant in the home of a member of the upper caste,...

Mulk Raj Anand's 1936 novel Coolie is about a 14-year-old boy, Munoo, who represents the lowest part of India's socioeconomic spectrum, a position identified by various names, including Dalit and, more commonly, "the untouchables." Dalits are destined to remain at the bottom of India's extraordinarily rigid caste system and equally rigid socioeconomic system.  

By presenting as his protagonist, the desperately poor Munoo, a servant in the home of a member of the upper caste, Anand has indicted the entire class system and economic system that dominates Indian culture.

Furthermore, by vividly contrasting the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum through the eyes of his perceptive protagonist, the author has illuminated the fundamental injustices inherent in an economic system that has been imposed by an alien power, Great Britain, while also placing blame for this unfortunate situation squarely in the hands of Indians, especially those Indians on the higher levels of the socioeconomic spectrum (one cannot use the phrase "socioeconomic ladder," as that would denote the possibility of upward mobility). The higher levels have benefited from this alien economic system while ignoring its long-term ramifications (the varna caste system, with its fifth caste of Dalits, dates to around the "3rd century A.D." thus is a separate issue from the alien economic system introduced by the British).

In one passage in Coolie that presents this stark contrast between the hopes and expectations of members of different castes with which the individual is raised in Indian society, Anand describes the young boy's thoughts:

"It did not occur to him to ask himself what he was apart from being a servant, and why he was a servant and Babu Rathoo Ram his master.  His identity he took for granted, and the relationship between Babu Rathoo Ram, who wore black boots, and himself, Munoo, who went about barefoot, was to him like sunshine and sunset, inevitable and unquestionable."

The theme of Coolie, therefore, is the hopelessness and despair to which millions of Indians are condemned by virtue of antiquated and inherently unjust social and economic structures.

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