In 1905, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, announced his decision to partition the large Bengal province, into Hindu-majority West and Muslim-dominated East. The proposal met with protests, petitions, articles and widespread outrage. Once the formal division was announced — to be rescinded in 1911 and reimposed in 1947 — the call to boycott bideshi (foreign-made) products in favour of swadeshi or Indian goods appealed to the masses. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims escalated into violence; as anti-British sentiments ran high, idealists carried out a series of attacks against the ‘rulers’.
In this political backdrop, Rabindranath Tagore, whose 157th birthday is on May 7, set one of his best-known novels, Ghare Baire ( The Home and the World ), published in 1916. Told through the personal stories of each of the three main characters — Nikhilesh, his wife Bimala and the political upstart and friend Sandip — it pits the old against the new, west against east, the rational and the emotional, conservative and revolutionary, home and the world. Nikhilesh, who owns an estate and is educated, wants to free his wife “from her moorings”.
He brings her out of the inner recesses of the home — a place where she seems happy — to meet his old friend Sandip, an act that will have tragic consequences. Later, Nikhilesh will be torn by his decision, wondering whether his desire to cast Bimala in a mould has extracted a terrible revenge. The love story itself is deluged by fast-paced political developments, the force of swadeshi that Sandip hurls; the burning of foreign goods, which affect the poor as they are put out of business, the outbreak of riots.
Bimala, swayed by Sandip’s brand of nationalism, is almost shocked by her husband’s view on the subject — critics have found Tagore’s voice in Nikhilesh. This is how Nikhilesh reacts to Sandip on ‘Vande Mataram’: “I want to understand the idea of my country as the truth and pass it on to others — I am both afraid and embarrassed to deploy a magic incantation and cast a hypnotic spell on people...” Satyajit Ray adapted the novel for the silver screen in 1984, evoking a mixed response.
In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Anita Desai praises its “extraordinary flashes of light and colour, as if created by the striking of flints, as well as touches of tenderness and childishness which lighten the lowering clouds of the prevalent mood of disaster and give the novel variation and vivacity.” But the clouds are never far away.
As Arunava Sinha writes in his translator’s note to Rabindranath Tagore, For the 21st Century Reader , a collection of selected fiction, poetry and drama, the novel is “shockingly relevant today in its delineation of the conflict between the forces of nationalism and humanism.”
The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.