Review of Rabindranath Tagore: Ghare Baire [The Home and the World] by Mohammad Quayum
Published in Mukto-Mona on February 13, 2007
Ghare Baire [The Home and the World] (1915) Author: Tagore, Rabindranath. Domain: Literature. Genre: Novel. Country: India, South Asia.
Set against the backdrop of the swadeshi (home rule) movement in Bengal, following its sudden and arbitrary partition by the then British viceroy in India, Lord Curzon, in 1905, The Home and the World was originally published in Bengali (as Ghare Baire) in 1915. Later, it was translated and published in English by the author’s nephew, Surendranath Tagore (with active cooperation from the author himself), in 1919. The Bengali original was published two years after the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and the same year in which he received a knighthood from King George V of England – an accolade he came to renounce in 1919 in protest against the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in Punjab, by the notorious General Dyer. It is perhaps the best known of Tagore’s novels outside Bengal, and received a lot of attention in Europe, particularly following the publication of its English translation, mainly due to the wide readership Tagore had gained in the wake of his Nobel award. The controversial nature of the subject matter, in which Tagore takes the opportunity to launch his fiercest attack yet against the ideology of nationalism, contrary to its rising popularity both in India and the West, was also a reason it drew much attention, mostly in the form of reprobation and scorn, from readers both in and outside Bengal. A third reason for the novel’s reputation is the successful movie made of it, in 1984, by another gifted scion of Bengal, and a student of Tagore’s university, Visva-Bharati, Satyajit Ray.
Upon its publication, the novel was praised by Tagore’s friends William Rothenstein and W.B. Yeats, and a friend of Einstein’s advised him in an upbeat tone, “You must read [it] – the finest novel I’ve read for a long time” (italics in original). Hermann Hesse, reviewing it, spoke of its “purity and grandeur”, and Bertolt Brecht observed in his diary, “A wonderful book, strong and gentle.” However, E.M. Forster and George Lukács did not find much positive in the novel. In a condescending tone, Forster dismissed the book as a “tragedy… about nothing”; “a ‘roman à trios’ with all the hackneyed situations from which novelists are trying to emancipate themselves in the West.” Lukács proved more vitriolic; he condemned the novel as a “libellous pamphlet” and “petty bourgeoisie yarn of the shoddiest kind.” He added that Tagore was but an “intellectual agent [of the empire, acting] against the Indian freedom movement” in the novel – a view that a Russian scholar of Tagore, Alexander P. Danielschuk, later spurned as an example of vulgar Marxism.
Tagore never had a political temperament and found politics wasteful and morally debilitating; it is politics, he said, “which in every country has lowered the standard of morality, [and] given rise to a perpetual contest of lies and deception, cruelties and hypocrisies.” A poet, he sought to keep his mind above politics. However his destiny determined otherwise: “I have been chosen by destiny to ply my boat there where the current is against me”; “Politics is wholly against my nature; and yet, belonging to an unfortunate country, born to an abnormal situation, we find it so difficult to avoid their [sic] outbursts.” When the swadeshi movement broke out in Bengal, in the wake of its partition in 1905, Tagore soon found himself at its vortex: writing songs, giving speeches, and taking part in mass rallies. He also set up a match factory, a local bank, and a weaving centre as his way of giving leadership to the movement. Ironically, he even set the movement’s theme song, Bande Mataram, or “Hail to thee Mother”, to music himself. The song was composed by another Bengali writer, Bankim Chatterjee, and is used as a potent fetish by the manipulative Sandip in the novel.
Swadeshi literally means “of our own country”. It was a nationalist movement meant to boycott British goods and buy homemade products, so that the British would suffer economically for their dark designs of divide and rule policy, while the local industries grew, with less competition from imported goods. But what was conceived as a non-violent non-cooperation movement soon turned violent and ugly, owing to the heavy handed policies of the government, and wilful meddling by self-seeking and sinister bhadroloks. Tagore felt mortified by many of the nationalist leaders behaving like terrorists and traumatising innocent people for their indifference to the cause, and impassioned youths turning to the cult of the bomb to liberate their homeland from the foreign yoke. Thus, especially after Khudiram Bose, a radical youth who is still widely regarded as a hero in the annals of Bengal, hurled a bomb in 1908, killing two innocent British civilians, Tagore decided not to participate in the movement any more, nor associate with a nationalist uprising again, in spite of the recurrent charges of pusillanimity and insincerity by his detractors. His response came, instead, in the form of The Home and the World, seven years later.
The novel deals with the experiences of three characters during the volatile period of swadeshi: Nikhil (whose name means “free”), a benevolent, enlightened and progressive zamindar (landlord); his childhood friend and a voluble, selfish but charismatic nationalist leader, Sandip; and Nikhil’s wife, Bimala (“pristine”), who is happy at the outset in her traditional role as a zamindar’s wife but who, encouraged by her husband, steps out of home to better acquaint herself with the world and find a new identity for the Indian woman. At the sight of Sandip, she emotionally trips, vacillates between him and her husband, until she returns home bruised and humiliated but with a more mature understanding of both the home/self and the world. The narrative is structured in the form of diary entries written by the three characters. This technique allows the reader to see the events in multiple perspectives, and comprehend their relative effects on the mind of these characters, but the psychological probing in these extended diary monologues also slows down the novel’s progress, making it somewhat repetitive and static, with fewer real incidents and dramatic actions featuring in the narrative. This method of telling also gives rise to long, confessional/descriptive passages, often effusive, sentimental and strung on a high moral key, which might sound false and tedious to the western ear but which was an integral part of the Bengali style, particularly for Tagore who was at once a poet, philosopher and novelist. As his biographer, Krishna Kripalani has aptly pointed out, “Tagore was no Tolstoy or Balzac… [a myriad-minded writer] the poet, the singer and the teacher constantly meddled with the novelist.”
The novel has a certain allegorical quality in that Nikhil and Sandip seem to represent two opposing visions for the nation – with Bimala, torn between the two, not knowing for sure what should be her guiding principle – signifying Bengal tottering between the two possibilities. Nikhil’s vision is one of enlightened humanitarian and global perspective, based on a true equality and harmony of individuals and nations. On the other hand, Sandip’s radical, parochial and belligerent nationalism, which cultivates an intense sense of patriotism in individuals, threatenes to replace their moral sensibility with national bigotry and blind fanaticism. Seen from this perspective, Nikhil’s death at the end of the novel, just when Bimala is turning the corner and returning to her senses after a prolonged infatuation with Sandip and his views, also signals Tagore’s pessimism about the future of Bengal. In the absence of truly benevolent leaders like Nikhil, she would be mutilated, divided in two (currently Bangladesh and West Bengal), with millions of her children paying with their lives to meet the apocalyptic wishes of self-seeking, immoral, power-hungry politicians, determined to carve out her body on religious communal lines. By extension, it also shows Tagore’s despondent thoughts about the future of humanity at large, who, forgetting their human potential for truth, equality, fellowship and justice, would espouse a vision that would lock them in a binary of self and other. The consequences of such thinking, Tagore warns, is a recurrent logic of greed, selfishness, violence, hatred and war – a dark prediction also made in an earlier poem, “The Sunset of the Century,” written on the last day of the nineteenth century:
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food.
And licking it, crunching it and swallowing it in big morsels,
It swells and swells
Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden shaft of heaven piercing its heart of grossness.
The embodiment of ideas by the characters is a weakness in the novel, but perhaps a necessary compromise by the writer. It makes the characters flat and one-dimensional: Nikhil, who has too much of Tagore in him, is emblematic of all good; and Sandip, who is Nikhil’s polar opposite, is all unscrupulousness and evil. Neither of these characters seems to change in the course of the narrative. Nikhil remains calm, gentle, understanding, forgiving, liberal, rational and altruistic throughout the novel, while Sandip is selfish, manipulative, irrational, oppressive, and tyrannical. Nikhil is so tranquil that he does not lose his poise even when his wife flirts with his friend in his own house, in front of his very eyes. His logic is: “Perfect gain is the best of all; but if that is impossible, then the next best gain is perfect losing” (24). This is extraordinary indeed considering that, in the Indian patriarchal system, men take their wives for granted, hardly allowing any complex emotions to occur in their relationships with women, especially in marriage.
Nikhil loves Bimala wholeheartedly, but Bimala must appraise that on her own and reciprocate his love voluntarily. If she decides otherwise, it will be devastating for Nikhil, but he must allow her free choice, especially since he loves her: in love there is no place for tyranny. He hopes that Bimala’s sexual and ideological obsession with Sandip is a passing phase in her process of maturing and coming to grips with the larger world; the spell will break soon and she will return to her senses again. Meanwhile he should wait and not lose faith. If she considers otherwise, that is of course his fate. Nikhil argues:
The passage from the narrow to the larger world is stormy. When she is familiar with this freedom, then I shall know where my place is. If I discover that I do not fit in with the arrangement of the outer world, then I shall not quarrel with my fate, but silently take my leave… Use force? But for what? Can force prevail against Truth? (45)
This is no doubt Tagore’s way of dismantling the age-old role model of Sita – the all-sacrificing and faithful wife of Rama. In the epic Ramayana, Sita clings to her husband in spite of the latter’s dishonourable behaviour toward her by repeatedly questioning her integrity and innocence, whilst he accuses her of having lost her chastity with Ravana, notwithstanding her several agniparikshas to prove her righteousness. Discarding this ideal of complete submission, Tagore instead presents an alternative model for Indian women, the empowering ideal of Durga, the warrior goddess and embodiment of Shakti (the primal feminine power, indispensable to creation). Although Durga, the wife of Shiva, is calm, domestic and restrained, most importantly she is strong, courageous and independent. Thus, throughout the novel, Bimala is associated with Durga, Kali and Shakti, instead of Sita or Savitri (another model of feminine virtue and devotion in the Mahabharata). By allowing Bimala freedom of choice, Tagore has highlighted the potential of Indian women and their right to emancipation.
Nikhil’s honesty, altruism and idealism is, however, matched by his friend’s cunning, cupidity and flagrant narcissism. Nikhil appears divine, while Sandip is diabolic; Nikhil is endowed with all the traits of a sattvic as described in the Bhagavad Gita: his dominant element is light and therefore he is wise, intelligent, progressive and pure, while Sandip is a rajasik, a personality framed with fire and therefore greedy, violent and destructive. His philosophy is as simple as it can be for a Machiavellian: “There is not the time for nice scruples. We must be unswervingly, unreasoningly brutal. We must sin” (39), he admonishes Nikhil, and adds matter-of-factly, “Every man has a natural right to possess, and therefore greed is natural…. What my mind covets, my surrounding must supply” (45). Elsewhere he argues, “We are the flesh-eaters of the world; we have teeth and nails; we pursue and grab and tear. We are not satisfied with chewing in the evening the cud of grass we have eaten in the morning…. In that case we shall steal or rob, for we must live” (47). This sounds like the morality of Swift’s Yahoos, but it is also the morality of the modern materialist-capitalist West that Sandip essentially emulates, vis-à-vis Nikhil’s home grown Indian wisdom mediated by the wholesome and humane values of the Judaeo-Christian civilization.
Indeed, Sandip is so recklessly selfish and unscrupulous that he does not hesitate to woo his friend’s wife while living under his roof, or to incite her to rob her own husband. He provokes the youths of Nikhil’s village to calculated violence against their poor, innocent neighbours just so as to terrorise them into accepting his viewpoint, and arouses Nikhil’s subjects into a bloody religious riot, of which Nikhil himself becomes a deadly victim at the end, thus paying with his life for the benevolence done to a friend who seems every bit a scoundrel. Anita Desai is right in pointing out that in his vanity, arrogance, greed and nihilism, Sandip “resembles nothing so much as the conventional blackguard of the Indian stage or the Bombay cinema, stroking his handlebar moustache as he gloats over a bag of gold and a cowering maiden.”
This reductive approach of Tagore in creating “a simple box of figures – not more than a Punch and Judy showman uses for his own little drama,” as his friend Rothenstein incisively pointed out (though ironically meaning this as a tribute to the writer), is certainly an artistic blemish in the work. Tagore has no doubt failed to achieve creative detachment in The Home and the World, owing to his overwhelming sympathy for Nikhil’s liberal, global ideology against Sandip’s commercial-capitalistic-nationalistic worldview, which he completely rejects. Perhaps this artistic compromise was made deliberately by the writer, considering the significance of his message. After all, Tagore was working against the mainstream ideas of Indian and world politics. Therefore he had to keep his characters simple and one-dimensional, so that his statement would emerge firmly and clearly. Besides, this four-square approach of pitting good against evil can be seen as a part of the Indian imagination, as we see in the struggles between the sons of Pandavas and the sons of Kauravas in the Mahabharata, or Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana, or the mythical stories of Lakhsmi and Alakhsmi, Durga and Mahesa and Kali and Raktabija (or those ever predictable Bollywood movies that Desai mentions). As R.K. Narayan has put it succinctly, the underlying objective of every Indian story is to create a “distinction between good and evil” and show that “goodness triumphs in the end… if not immediately, at least in a thousand years; if not in this world, at least in other worlds.” Despite Tagore’s apparent cynicism in the novel, that hope that eventually everything will come out right is also somehow expressed by the writer, since he never lost hope in the infinitude of the human soul and the Upanishadic idea of human being’s divine inheritance.
Tagore and Nikhil share the view that we are all part and parcel of a self-luminous Brahman, that we are various strings of the universal supreme self; that what is in the macrocosm is also in the microcosm; that, like the petals of a rose, we are all attached to the stem of humanity by the bond of love. Thus, it is incumbent upon humankind to work towards a global society, built upon the principles of inclusivity, equality and mutuality of all human beings, instead of indulging in the ideal of nationalism, which cultivates parochialism, binarism and xenophobia, trapping people in a logic of egoism, exclusivism and ignoble triumphalism. In his “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech”, Tagore advocates how India’s and the world’s sole objective should be to attain global unity and shun the politics of nationalism, which violates man’s inherent bond by generating hatred between nations and locking each in a separate geographical cage:
I do not think that it is the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, reject any culture. The spirit of India has always proclaimed the ideal of unity…. Now, when in the present time of political unrest the children of the same great India cry for rejection of the West I feel hurt…. We must discover the most profound unity, the spiritual unity between the different races. We must go deeper down to the spirit of man and find out the great bond of unity, which is to be found in all human races…. Man is not to fight with other human races, other human individuals, but his work is to bring about reconciliation and Peace and restore the bonds of friendship and love.
Nikhil expresses a similar global sentiment throughout the novel and this comes to a head in an altercation that he has with Sandip. Sandip arbitrarily equates god with nation, while Nikhil establishes how it is imperative to bring together the entire human community to find god, and how the cult of nationalism, through a cultivation of national egoism and chauvinism, only thwarts that purpose:
[Sandip] “I truly believe my country to be my God. I worship Humanity. God manifests Himself in man and in his country.”
[Nikhil] “If that is what you really believe, there should be no difference for you between man and man, and so between country and country.”
[Sandip] “Quite true. But my powers are limited, so my worship of Humanity is continued in the worship of my country.”
[Nikhil] “I have nothing against your worship as such, but how is it you propose to conduct your worship of God by hating other countries in which He is equally manifest?” (37)
Nikhil’s teacher Chandranath Babu, who acts as Nikhil’s moral guide and a wellspring for many of his ideas, is even more pointed in his articulation of the Tagoresque global vision, when he explains to his pupil:
I tell you, Nikhil, man’s history has to be built by the united effort of all the races in the world, and therefore this selling of conscience for political reasons – this making a fetish of one’s country won’t do…. Here, in this land of India, amid the mocking laughter of Satan piercing the sky, may the feeling for this truth become real! What a terrible epidemic of sin has been brought into our country from foreign lands. (224-25)
Induced by such a noble, sublime, and enlightened outlook, Nikhil acts as a true humanitarian in the novel. A zamindar, he never indulges in his office or wealth, but rather as a benevolent patriarch he offers his utmost services to uplift the condition of his people. He believes in the value of education and has been instrumental in educating many of his subjects, some even accessing the facilities in Calcutta owing to the generous scholarships provided by him. This is his way of building the country; he believes that India can come out of its social and cultural doldrums by reactivating the minds of its people, and by redeeming itself from its decadent moral and religious values. It is with this idea that he urges his wife to get modern education from an English tutor he has appointed for her, Miss Gilby. Bimala, in order to imaginatively comprehend the world and establish a healthy interactive relationship between home/self/country and the world, ought to step beyond the borders of her cultural tradition and dismantle her previously monolithic sensibility with a more vibrant, symbiotic and synergic mode of thought.
August at heart, Nikhil knows no racial, religious, class or sexual prejudice. When Miss Gilby is humiliated by Sandip’s men, who have been indoctrinated into nationalist lunacy, it is Nikhil who extends his love and support to her. To him, Miss Gilby is another flesh-and-blood human being like himself, not just a European to be perceived through a mist of abstraction, or an enemy of Bengal, simply because she happens to be an English woman. The same applies to Panchu, a downtrodden villager insulted and humiliated by the neighbouring zamindar, and evicted by him for not heeding the call of swadeshi, who is saved by Nikhil’s humanitarian intervention and offer of protection. Swadeshi is supposed to liberate these people from the shackles of British oppression but has somehow, ironically, become repressive of the same defenceless mass. The Muslims are also looked upon with ire because they refuse to share Sandip’s enthusiasm, which they see basically as a Hindu agenda, counteractive to their cause. Thus, when Sandip engages in wicked plots against them, to make them to submit to his purpose, considering them as religious minorities not strong enough to withstand his pressures, Nikhil steps in on their behalf knowing that as his subjects they deserve his protection, and that, as individuals, they have the same right to a choice as Sandip and his followers.
Nikhil loves his country as much as, if not more than, Sandip, but he will not allow his love for the country to overtake his conscience. “I am willing,” he says, “to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as god is to bring curse upon it” (29). Sandip, on the other hand, believes that “country’s needs must be made into a god” (122), and one ought to set “aside conscience [by] putting the country in its place” (165). This reckless deification of the nation and his belief that any action, no matter how heinous or unscrupulous, is justifiable if undertaken for the nation’s sake, eventually turns him into a frightful terrorist and appalling criminal. He does not mind using intrigue or violence to accomplish his mission, even if it means harm to his own followers. As long as the mission is accomplished, the end justifies his means. Thus, when Bimala is innocently intoxicated by his nationalist call, he adroitly persuades her to give all her jewellery to him to finance the movement, and steal money belonging to Bara Rani (Bimala’s elder sister-in-law and a widow who Nikhil loves as his own sister) from the family safe. He also uses Amulya, an impassioned but idealistic youth (emblematic of the many adolescents who were influenced by the movement), exploitatively. When Mirjan, a Muslim boatman, refuses to stop carrying foreign goods, as it will take away his livelihood, Sandip arranges to sink his boat in midstream. Instead of showing any compunction for his hideous deed, he advises his followers:
If they go to law, we must retaliate by burning down their granaries! What startles you, Amulya?... You must remember, this is war. If you are afraid of causing suffering, go in for love-making, you will never do for this work! (113)
Post-colonial critics such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn have pointed out how nationalism cultivates the sentiments of irrationality, prejudice and hatred in people, and Leela Gandhi has spoken of its attendant racism and loathing, and the alacrity with which citizens are willing to both kill and die for it. Frantz Fanon has explained that although the objective of nationalism is to create a horizontal relationship and fraternity within its people, in reality the nation never speaks of the hopes and aspirations of the entire “imagined community”, and hierarchy, factional hegemony, inequality and exploitation remain a daily occurrence in its body. In Sandip’s actions, Tagore has insightfully and shrewdly anticipated all these pitfalls of nationalism pointed out by later literary-cultural critics.
Tagore is not perhaps entirely historically accurate in his portrait of the swaraj. He has not, for example, incorporated in his narrative the extreme policies of brutality adopted by the Raj to crack the movement. Minto’s mischievous manifesto that “the strong hand carries more respect in India than even the recognition of British justice” led to widespread atrocities against the participants of the movement; university students were “harassed, persecuted and oppressed”, while those at lower levels were “flogged, fined and expelled.” Police were advised to beat up marchers with their long, metal-tipped lathis, and leaders who were found guilty were sentenced to “rigorous imprisonment”. After the Khudiram incident, the British reaction was predictably strident, declaring that “ten of them would be shot for every life sacrificed.” However, although the writer has advertently left out this side of the story, his portrait of Sandip seems typical of the activities of the New Party, the revolutionary wing of Congress, under the leadership of Bipin Chandra Pal, who led a group of radical youths and edited a popular journal called Bande Mataram, and of Aurobindo Ghosh’s younger brother, Barindra Kumar, who was the leader of a group of young terrorists who were inspired by Russian anarchist activities and apotheosised violence.
Tagore was so deeply frustrated by swadeshi turning into a terrorist movement that he would spurn even Gandhi’s swaraj in later years. He was not to participate in a nationalist movement again because he came to believe that radical nationalism, like religious orthodoxy, breeds divisiveness and blind fanaticism: “Formalism in religion is like nationalism in politics: it breeds sectarian arrogance, mutual misunderstanding and a spirit of persecution”, he wrote in a letter to his friend C.F. Andrews. In another letter, he explained how nationalism, a cult of devil worship, was inherently destructive to the spirit of global unity and the creative bond of wholeness:
The nations love their own countries; and that national love has only given rise to hatred and suspicion of one another…. When we hear “Bande Mataram” from the house-tops, we shout to our neighbours: ‘You are not our brothers’…. Whatever may be its use for the present, it is like the house being set on fire simply for roasting the pig! Love of self, whether national or individual, can have no other destination except suicide.
If asked about the future of India under the colonial rule, Tagore’s unequivocal reply was, “Let us… set our house in order. Do not mind the waves in the sea, but mind the leaks in your vessel.” He believed in constructive social work and education as the principle ways for liberating India from political and cultural tyranny from within and outside, and not a blind revolution built upon the quicksand of mob psychology.
This anti-nationalitarian sentiment, conceived against a backdrop of a larger ideology of love, creation and global human fellowship, is what occupies Tagore’s The Home and the World. This is a message he pursues in several of his other works, including his lectures on Nationalism and his novel Four Chapters. It emphasizes the significance to the novel’s title: humanity ought to overcome all thorny hedges of exclusion and readjust its moral imagination. Love and fellowship, like commodities, do not have to stop at a geographical border, and in spite of the ostensible spatial demarcation between the home and the world, the two remain fundamentally united as integral aspects of one organic whole.
Mohammad Quayum, International Islamic University Malaysia. The article was published 22 April 2005, and available at : http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=16758 ; This article is forwarded to MM by Prof. Asim K. Duttaroy [message # 27297], one of our regular member of MM.
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