The main theme of Coolie is the exploitation of the poor by the rich in early twentieth century India and the human suffering that this brings about. In his descriptions of Munoo’s experiences after leaving his village, Mulk Raj Anand offers the reader a vivid portrayal of the shocking treatment meted out to those who are socio-economically disadvantaged by those in positions of power and privilege.
One could also see Anand as offering a critique of the kind of labor that robs a life of all its joy and its dignity. Munoo’s childhood effectively ends when he becomes a servant.
Furthermore, “Munoo” is but one of many “Munoos”; he is but one coolie among many coolies — there is a kind of fatalism in that he had few options but to follow this particular path of servitude from the moment he was born. In this book, Anand uses his characteristic realism to expose the stark reality of a country where one’s position at birth guarantees one’s trajectory in life. This arguably makes the suffering even deeper because there is absolutely no hope of a better future.
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.
The novel has been described as a Naturalist portrayal of life at its darkest moments, that being a central theme throughout it. Mulk Raj Anand tells the story of Munno, an orphan boy from India who wants to venture out into the world and consequently goes through a series of jobs and experiences. Yet, the heart of the novel is Anand's analysis of the boy's fears, thoughts, and emotions and the description of the boy's darkest moments of life up until the moment of his death.
Its a Naturalist rendition of a life story where darkness is perennial and where the bad gets worst. Yet, it is a masterpiece of a story given Anand's natural talent for storytelling and the richness of his description and his exploration of humanity.