Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Home and the World

The Home and the World, by Rabindranath Tagore

The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore is one of those writers that I want to read, but am a bit afraid of.  Someday I'll get to the poetry, but for now I'm sticking to prose.  As far as I can tell, Tagore wrote just the one novel, published in 1915, and as you might expect it is excellent.

The Home and the World is set on a Bengali estate in 1908, in the midst of political upheaval and rebellion.  The three major characters take turns narrating their own points of view.  Bimala, at the center, is torn between her husband Nikhil and the leader of the radicals, Sandip. 

Bimala has lived her adult life in purdah, as is traditional, but Nikhil, a thoughtful modern man, wishes her to leave her seclusion and enter the world so that they may be equals.  Nikhil is a serious and gentle man who despises coercion and above all wants individual freedom for everyone; as a result he dislikes argument and refuses to assert himself.

Sandip, in contrast, is a believer in might making right.  He is charismatic, a persuasive speaker, and willing to justify any wrong or injury in the name of his goals.  His wish is to lead Bengal, and he is happy to force people to live as he wants them to.  He is great at making fiery speeches and whipping up mobs to follow him.

The two men disagree over the doctrine of swadeshi--the practice of boycotting British-made goods and encouraging Indian industry.  Nikhil has supported swadeshi for many years, but will not stop other people in his market from buying or selling British goods.  Sandip insists that people must be forced to abide by it and resorts to destroying British goods and terrorizing anyone who buys or sells them.  This mostly punishes the poor, who cannot afford the more expensive Indian-made goods or survive when their livelihoods are taken from them.

As Bimala gets to know Sandip, he enchants her with his flattery as Nikhil insists that she be free to choose.  Her home and the outside world pull her in different directions and she cannot reconcile the two.  Her choices dictate the future for the whole estate.

This is all very symbolic of the situation in India.  Bimala is Bengal itself, torn between possibilities.  She constantly compares herself to a river, to the country, to a goddess of the earth.  Tagore's writing is poetic and Bengali, given to high-flown sentences that may sound overly dramatic and sentimental to a modern ear unless the reader understands that Bengali really does sound like that.  It is very beautiful writing, but you have to come at it with the right attitude.

If you are at all interested in Indian literature, this is probably a necessary book to read, and not a bad choice for a relative beginner.  I got the title from one of my favorite writers, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who teaches a course on "India in the Writer's Eye."   I put the works on her syllabus, which she posted on Facebook, into the bonus section of my Classics Club list.  

The novel was made into a Bengali film, Ghare Baire, in 1984 and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.  I'd like to see it very much.

Bimala in Ghare Baire


Amy said...

I'd love to read this. The book I'm reading right now on modern Asian history has a section devoted to Tagore; I didn't know much about him before I read his beautiful poetry last year.

Jean said...

I am sure that you would love it, Amy! Put it on your list!

Amy said...

Okie doke, on the list it goes!