12 August 2008

Clothing and Identity in "Untouchable"

Throughout Untouchable, Anand includes descriptions of clothing -- what the clothes look like, where they come from, what they mean to the wearer, what they mean to others. For this reason, clothing seems to play a major role in characterization. We learn early on that Bakha "apes" the English by wearing their hand-me-down boots, etc. as a way to elevate himself (at least in his own eyes) above his peers. The English soldiers treat him like a human being, and for the first time, he is able to look at his situation and resent it. So, he begins to reject certain aspects of his culture (whenever possible) and to take on those of the English -- sleeping under a thin blanket, though it causes him great discomfort, wearing their clothes, smoking cigarettes. "He had been told that they were sahibs, superior people. He had felt that to put on their clothes made one a sahib too. So he tried to copy them in everything, to copy them as well as he could in the exigencies of his peculiarly Indian circumstances" (11).

Also, there is the scene in which Bakha remembers pretending to marry Ram Charan's sister when they were children -- "Ram Charan's little sister was made to act the wife because she wore a skirt. Bakha was chosen to play the husband because he was wearing the gold-embroidered cap" (86-87). And yet, the clothing does not make the marriage real, nor does it make Bakha an Enlgishman or a sahib. It almost seems as if the characters seek to identify themselves through their choices of clothing, but it ends up being more of a disguise.

This extreme preoccupation with clothing and outward appearance is also present in all of Jean Rhys's novels. In Wide Sargasso Sea, for instance, Antoinette believes that Richard would have recognized her if she had been wearing her red dress, and she spends a great deal of time obsessing over the garment. Is this a common characteristic of British modernism?

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