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.