The Home And The World: A Review

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By Dee Rayolia:

I will not be doing complete justice to Tagore’s poetic novel ‘The Home and the World’ because I read it in translation. And to say that it was a faulty translation would be an understatement. My version of the novel was translated by his nephew, Surendranath Tagore. It is surprising that Rabindranath himself edited the version, because, among other faults, two similar characters have been merged into one. Large sections have been omitted and many dialogues and lines have been added by the translator with no corresponding lines in the Bengali text.

But, although faulty, the translated version at least gives us a gist of the story. And even in this improper translation, Tagore’s poetic power shines through. I sensed three themes running throughout the novel – the theme of nationalism, women’s emancipation and the attainment of freedom or ‘moksha’.

Set against the background of the Swadeshi Movement, in the peak of the Indian freedom struggle, Tagore explores the different kinds of nationalisms which were contending to take control of the movement through the novel’s hero and antagonist.

Nikhil, the hero of ‘The Home and the World’, is an idealistic zamindar who is the harmonious mix of the traditional and the modern, the Indian and the European. He believes in a nationalism that is humanistic, which puts people above the abstraction called nation. He believes in uplifting the society and reforming the people who are held back by traditions such as the caste system rather than blindly fighting for some empty freedom. At the height of the nationalist Swadeshi Movement, he even dares to keep a European lady as the teacher for his wife, indicating that he has transcended even the race barrier.

Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, is a traditional housewife, insecure about her dark colour, having the luck of a princess who marries a zamindar of noble descent. The level of her gullibility is stretched to the extreme, almost caricaturing her character in the novel. Tagore makes her mind akin to an empty jar, to be filled by any man with whom she comes into contact. Initially, it is her husband and his rational ideas which dominate her mind, but later it is Sandip, the outsider friend of Nikhil, who controls her.

Sandip is this brash, selfish, greedy mole of a man whose life’s aim is to dominate everyone around him and prove his superiority. Ready to steal, kill and sell his soul to get what he desires, he wears the mask of Swadeshi Nationalism to gain his throne over the people.

Using his passion, which Nikhil lacks, and his fiery, manipulative rhetoric, he also sweeps Bimala off her feet, thus starting an extramarital affair with her. But eventually, the truth about his ‘love’, both for the country and Bimala is exposed. It is made clear that Sandip doesn’t mind harming or even killing his own people in the name of the nation and as for Bimala, he makes her steal in her very own house, making her lose all her dignity.

It is after this point that Sandip’s mind control starts losing its effect on Bimala and she sees through the fakeness of both his love and his ‘nationalism’. Earlier intoxicated with Sandip’ passion, the sense of power and importance he gave her, and his obnoxious brashness which she perceived as male confidence, she now sees the real him. And from here starts her journey towards freedom, which I interpret as a metaphor for moksha, through two people: Amulya and Nikhil.

Amulya, literally meaning ‘priceless’, is a follower of Sandip who is like this son-like figure to the childless Bimala and who later help her return the gold she stole back to the treasury. It is in order to protect Amulya from the destructive clutches of Sandip that Bimala turns from being a mistress to a protective mother. And lastly, she returns to being a wife, clutching Nikhil’s feet close to her bosom, attaining redemption and freedom from her worship of him.

Unlike Bimala, Nikhil attains his freedom from foregoing the worship of his wife and going out in the world, getting to know the problem of his estate’s people and being immersed in the outside world. Contrary to Bimala’s path to moksha, the path of worship or ‘Bhakti’, Nikhil’s path to moksha is the path of knowledge or ‘Gyaan’.

Nikhil finds his freedom from going outside the home, while Bimala find her destruction when she goes out, lured by Sandip, and is redeemed only when she returns back to her home, the domestic realm which she ignored burning with the nationalistic fervour. I find the presence of this orthodox dichotomy – of the woman belonging to the house and the man belonging to the outside – quite disturbing especially in the work of a progressive thinker such as Tagore.

Although I applaud the ideas regarding nationalism present in the text, but the representation of women in the character of Bimala – her extreme gullibility, her path of freedom and the form of redemption she got – they border on being anti-feminist.

But all in all, Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Ghaire Baire’ or ‘The Home and the World’ is a novel which will definitely touch your heart, open your eyes to the reality of the Swadeshi Movement, expose the ugly truth about the fanatic nationalism which is still dominant today, and will leave you deeply connected with the realistic characters of the poetic story.

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3 comments

  1. What is Bimala’s devotion in the end? She clearly doesn’t think that husband and wife are equal. Thus, this devotion is voluntary subjugation.
    And one has to ask the roots of this devotion. Did Bimala REALLY have devotion and reverence for Nikhil or was she simply being a good wife. In the beginning we see that Bimala didn’t consider herself beautiful. Her devotion was merely a way to compensate for her lack of beauty.
    Her devotion went out of the window when Sandip came into the picture.
    And after that we see her as an entirely different woman.
    A woman who didn’t like to come out of the Zenana was now a nationalist heroine.
    How did this happen?
    Earlier, her ‘independent’ views made her refuse to come out of the inner chamber when Nikhil gave him the freedom.
    And now she was part of the outside world.
    Earlier, she didn’t come out of the house because
    1) Her conservative mindset told her that women don’t go out of the zenana, especially good wives.
    2) Nikhil never forced her, which he could.
    She went out of the inner chamber after Sandip came because:
    1) Sandip gave her a chance to gain some importance.
    2) She now didn’t need to prove herself to be a ‘good wife’. She now had a bigger role, she was now a nationalist.
    Bimala clearly says that she was unaware of what she was doing, why she was doing it and where it was leading her. This isn’t exactly the hallmark of an independent human being.
    It was only after the destruction caused by Sandip was apparent that Bimala opened her yes.
    All over the novel, it was either the social norms, Nikhil’s ideas or Sandip’s rhetoric which guided her actions.
    The only time she acted independently was when her motherly instincts were activated by Amulya and the danger Sandip put him into.

  2. very reductive reading of Bimla and the cause of women’s emancipation. have to
    strongly disagree with you there.

    She is hardly an “empty jar to be filled by any man with whom she comes into contact”.
    “her husband and his rational ideas” never do dominate her mind. Eg :
    pg 5 (worldview edition) “My husband used to say, that man and wife are equal
    in love… I never argued the point with him but my heart said that ..”
    Also, refer to the dialogue b/w Bimla and Nikhilesh in Section II Chapter I
    (Bimla’s Story) i.e. pg 8 onwards. notice the sentence “Such discussions
    repeatedly occured”. Clearly, Bimla isn’t someone to sit back and let
    herself be dominated by others. intrestingly, her part of the narrative is
    written in retrospect. so despite all that has happened (her possible widowhood etc), she still (as she always did) continues to believe in her own independent views, not bending down to either nikhil’s or sandip’s. You say, that she is shown as this “fallen” woman who finds her true place at her husband’s and while that is true to a certain extent (she is after all very devotional in her love for him) but she’s also always certain that it doesnt make her
    “inferior” in any way. Eg ; pg 5 “… if you had accepted it, you would have done me a real service.” Her devotion to him is by choice, something that she takes a lot of pride in, despite her husband’s protests, and not because she’s a subjugated woman.

    Similarly, her attraction to Sandip is not just to Sandip the charismatic leader, it’s to the
    nationalist cause, to the promises that Sandip makes to her about her role in
    the movement, to the freedom that it promises her. Even though Nikhil is very
    modern and all that, when he says he wants her to “come out” he only
    means outside the zenana, into the outer rooms of the household. he doesnt mean
    actually out of the house, into the street and such. That is something which sandip
    promises her, and this yearning to be of importance, to have some kind of
    influence, to count and have a voice in the outer world is what attracts Bimla
    to sandip. Also, unlike both Nikhil and Sandip, Bimla genuinely believes in the
    movement, and the positive change that it is going to bring about. and while
    the book itself and its end show her to be Naive in this regard, i dont think
    the importance of the Extremist Swadeshi movemnt in the freedom struggle can be
    discounted. it did lead to a lot of communal disharmony but i)it wasnt the Only
    thing which led to communalism so the entire responsibility/blame can’t be put
    on it, ii) while tagore’s critique of the movement is quite astute – and something which needed to be said i suppose – he fails to give any other alternative to oppose the colonial governemnt. and the colonial government, responsible for the division of Bengal (1905)
    which is what led to the extremist movement in the first place is hardly
    something that can be ignored and learnt to be lived with. there has to be a
    movement against it, and if not the extremist swadeshi movt, then what else?
    tagore doesnt answer this question very well. nikhil has zero charisma
    (something which he himself recognizes) and cant even get his own wife to agree
    with hiim. even to help a person like panchu, he needs to be advised by a
    chandranath babu. hardly capable of leading/organizing an attack on the colonial govt and
    their oppressive policies, dont you think?

    Finally, i dont think its as clear as “the woman belonging to the house and the man belonging to the outside”. it seems more like the author is trying to realistically
    portray the life of an average woman in society then. the extremist swadeshi
    movemnet of 1905 in bengal did pedestalise women, revered them as Shakti,
    idolised the nation as the Mother goddes, but it hardly led to any liberatory
    effects for women. despite all that sandip says, bimla doesnt have any more
    power outside her home than she did before. very few women actually joined the
    swadeshi movemnt. so one reading of the book could be that tagore is trying to
    point out the inherent hypocrisy of such a movement. and the fact that the fate
    of nikhilesh is left ambiguous at the end. while amulya’s death, the riots, and
    nikhil’s fate all show how the movement was ultimately very destructive, isnt
    it possible that one of the reasons tagore doesnt simply kill nikhilesh in the
    end is precisely because he doesnt want it to be read as a “punishtment” for
    bimla?

    The book has a lot of grey areas and this is a bit too Black&White imo.

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