Ghare Baire: a Search for the National Consciousness and the Portrayal of Bimala.
The early years of the twentieth century was a time of change in the socio-cultural and political consciousness of Bengali life. It was the time after Raja Rammohun Roy had set alight the cultural conscience of Bengal by constantly striving for the betterment of the average Bengali. The growth of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj had particularly brought about huge changes in the mindset of the average Bengali. The ‘bhadralok samaj’ had learnt to cultivate two disparate things at the same point of time. On one had it wished to accommodate the benefits of Western learning and thought and on the other hand it saw inherent dichotomy of such a system because in the long run the benefits would be washed away by the over-dependence on the English education system and the danger was that the British Raj would be able to find an excuse in making the Indians weaker in their cultural consciousness.
The construct of the Indian nation was not what it is today, at that point of time. The post-colonial era stresses on the spiritual considerations of the construct of the nation as has been interpreted by such writers as Partha Chatterjee and Benedict Anderson in their works. The growth of the Indian national Congress since 1885 was the first authentic as well as obvious step on part of the Indian intelligentsia to challenge the authority of the British on the political front. However, it must be noted that within the Indian National Congress itself sharp contradictions existed on the methodology to be followed in challenging the British political authority in Indian and its very obvious military might, coming as it was at the back of the glorious successes of the British in establishing colonial rule during the rule of Queen Victoria. In India, the British had previously been challenged with limited success by the Indians as was during what we call today as the First War of Independence or what the British historians prefer to call only as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The growth of the Indian National Congress was, however, different in the sense that a section of the British administration had been willing enough to oversee the setting up of the Indian national Congress, particularly as they thought that the Indian National Congress could function as a valid platform for the exchange of ideas between the British intelligentsia and the British administrators. The rather vocal protests on part of the Congress leaders at times, despite the language being of persuasion on their part, and the increasing awareness that the Indian National Congress was beginning to represent the aspirations of the common Indian for gaining independence became a matter of great discomfort to the British.
It is in the backdrop of these socio-political considerations that we need to analyze the Partition of Bengal which was decreed by the Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1905.The details of the official papers available to Amrit Bazaar Patrika, a Bengali newspaper point out that Lord Curzon felt that Bengal had become too large a province to be managed administratively with efficiency. The details were made public on 19th July 1905. The official effect of the decree came about on 16th October, 1905. Lord Curzon remarked in the decree that “Bengal was antiquated, illogical and productive of inefficiency” (www.britishempirehistory.com). Rabindranath Tagore’s reaction to the Partition of Bengal came in the form of writing a novel called Ghare Baire which was serialized in the year 1914 and published in the year 1916 in the novel form. The English translation called The Home and the World was performed by Tagore’s brother, Surendranath. Most critics opine that in many ways Ghare Baire evolved from Nashto Neer, which he had written in 1901, the novel being a product of the personal loss that the novelist had suffered at the suicide of his ‘bou-than’ or sister-in-law Kadambini Devi, the wife of Tagore’s brother, Jyotirindranath. It is generally believed that Rabindranath had an affair with his ‘bou-than’ which Jyotirindranath could not approve of, naturally. That apart, to return to the point, the writing of Ghare Baire was necessary to respond to the Partition of Bengal. Mario Prayer has remarked that Tagore considered nationalism to be quite contrary to the thoughts of the ordinary Indian mind. Prayer goes on to show modernism and national were basically anathema to Tagore. Herein can we show a case in point through the character of Bimala in Ghare Baire? In the novel Bimala is the wife of a rich zamindar, Nikhil. Into her life enters Sandip, a nationalist leader of violent intentions, who is also the friend of Nikhil. Nikhil in most ways is a liberal and feels for the oppression of his subjects bit at times is too strait-jacketed by the failure of his idealism and the tradition that he has to answer to. Sandip, on the other hand, has no such strings attached. Tagore shows the interaction between Sandip and Bimala to be crux of social change .Tagore shows Sandip to be glib-tongued who weaves his way into the heart of Bimala. He makes her believe that she is his Muse, the re-incarnation of the centre of power from which he derives both his drive and his desire to liberate his country from the clutches of British misrule. At this point of time Nikhil makes only one vital error. He introduces Bimala to Sandip and liberates her from the confines of traditional existence that the Bengali woman was subjected to in the recesses of the ‘andarmahal’. Tagore contrasts the two women characters of his novel to show the struggle between tradition and liberation of the soul through the characterization of Bimala and Bou-Rani. Bou-Rani is the widowed sister-in-law of Nikhil whose life is dictated not only by her predicament but also by the age-old customs that were imposed on her lot by society. She is the possessor of an acerbic tongue and can hardly digest the situation of liberation that Bimala enjoys. In some ways, Tagore through the characterization of Bou-Rani brings about the latent conscience of Bimala as she stands at the cross-roads of her life. The way forward for Bimala is indeed fraught with dangers. Now, if we are to indeed contribute to the way that Sandip professes for Bimala, then the moment when Nikhil takes Bimala away from the purdah of the andarmahal and brings her in front of the outside world to be introduced to Sandip, is indeed the moment when through Bimala’s tentative steps Tagore shows the construct of the nation to be awakening to its new realization and its liberated soul. However, if we are to go by the analysis of Prayer then it is indeed difficult to garb Bimala in the glory of a nationalistic symbolization. Prayer says,
He was also a critic of modernism. Its mechanical operation and lifelessness, he thought, constrained the free expression of man's spirituality. He contrasted these imports from the West with the richness of Indian civilization, which he saw as symbolized by the shakti, the divine female energy giving life and sustaining the world. He criticized the nationalist interpretation of shakti and projected the predicament of Indian civilization through the unhappy story of some of his female characters.
Tagore would have us believe that Bimala in trying to become the Muse of Sandip had actually misinterpreted the designs of Sandip. Tagore’s brand of nationalism was more in keeping with the policy of moderation of the Indian National Congress lead by Surendranath Banerjee and Dadabhai Naoroji. For Tagore, the intention of the British in giving any form of independence to the Indians was surreptitious, but at the same point of time force was not a solution to the partition of India. Tagore’s ideas on Swadeshi were exclusive from those expressed by Sandip in the novel. In the novel, Tagore shows Sandip meeting a violent death. The vacillations regarding the nationalist movement have been aptly brought out by Tagore through the inter-relationship between the three protagonists and the self-analysis that these characters make in this novel. Let us refer to some of the passages that the three characters utter and thus try to understand their respective mental frame-works. When it is Bimala’s narrative the prose meanders in confusion:
Nature has many anodynes in her pharmacy, which she secretly administers when vital relations are being insidiously severed, so that none may know of the operation, till at last one awakes to know what a great rent has been made. When the knife was busy with my life’s most intimate tie, my mind was so clouded with fumes of intoxicating gas that I was not in the least aware of what a cruel thing was happening.
Nikhil is painstakingly righteous when he says:
If my heart is breaking-let it break! That will not make the world bankrupt, - nor even me; for man is so much greater than the things he loses in life. The very ocean of tears has its other shore, else no one would have ever wept.
Sandip’s narrative makes it unbelievably pompous:
My theory of life makes me certain that the great is cruel. To be just is for ordinary men,- it is reserved for the great to be unjust. The surface of earth was even. The volcano butted it with its fiery horn and found its own eminence. Successful injustice and genuine cruelty have been the only forces by which individual or nation have become millionaire or monarch.
If we look at the three passages afore mentioned then we find that Bimala understands that her actions of falling in love with Sandip is actually wrong and as a symbol of the liberated woman, the archetypal ‘Shakti’ as Prayer puts it, it is most unbecoming on her part to use her liberation for wrong ends. Sandip on the other hand lacks the conscience to carry out the essence of a national struggle. His self-centeredness is the very basis of the anathema that Tagore had for the Swadeshi struggle and its apparent political ends. He strongly believed it was the liberation of the soul that was needed at the hour of crisis. Nikhil on the other hand stands for the patience that Tagore wished for with regard to the Swadeshi movement. Bimala’s characterization, for Tagore stood for the liberated feminist that he wished for in his own bou-than, Kadambini which unfortunately was lost due to her untimely death. Both for Charulata in Nashto Neer and Vinodinee in Chokher Bali, the liberation of the Indian woman like that of Bimala remained only partially fulfilled.
Amartya Sen questions the various parameters of the theme of patriotism in the thought of Tagore and also points out to its practical manifestation, particularly through, the characterization of Bimala in Ghare Baire. Sen writes:
Tagore's criticism of patriotism is a persistent theme in his writings. As early as 1908, he put his position succinctly in a letter replying to the criticism of Abala Bose, the wife of a great Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose: ‘Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.’ His novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) has much to say about this theme. In the novel, Nikhil, who is keen on social reform, including women's liberation, but cool toward nationalism, gradually loses the esteem of his spirited wife, Bimala, because of his failure to be enthusiastic about anti-British agitations, which she sees as a lack of patriotic commitment. Bimala becomes fascinated with Nikhil's nationalist friend Sandip, who speaks brilliantly and acts with patriotic militancy, and she falls in love with him. Nikhil refuses to change his views: ‘I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it’.[10-11]
Sen shows that paralleling the growth of national consciousness and the nouveau liberation of the women like Bimala was a contradiction by itself. In the end, neither was nationalism achieved nor was the feministic platform reinforced by the shifting, unsure and often immoral attitude of women like Bimala or Vinodinee or Charulata, for that matter. Sen is, in particular, terribly disappointed with Tagore for letting an opportunity slip by in making a strong statement on both nationalism, in the context of Swadeshi, and feminism in the context of women like Bimala, Charulata and Vinodinee. Sen terms Sandip’s brand of nationalism as being sectarian. Sen further goes on to suggest that perhaps the best case could have been made out for both the construct of the nation as well as that of feminism if it had been shown by Tagore that Bimala comes out of the confines of her house to support the unfashionable, yet more consistent and patient version of the capturing of the nation construct by Nikhil.
Tagore’s brand of nationalism is to treat this fear factor and expel it from the hearts and minds of the ordinary Indian in order to realize the true and universal appeal of nationalism. For both Sandip and Bimala, the failure of their relationship lay in the fear that was ever present in the recesses of their heart. Tagore’s idea of the nation refers to, ‘where the mind is without fear’. The ‘tireless striving’ is necessary to cultivate both the nation construct the feministic idealism. Jennifer Takhar sees Bimala in the avatar of Durga and Parvati, both a continuation of the realization referred to earlier by Mario Prayer. Takhar writes in her essay on the realization of Shakti and her thoughts are as follows-
The devil (or goddess) in India is presented as fulfilling many different roles … These feminine figures cannot be truly understood without the attachment of the figure of Shakti…In a broader sense shakti is the vitalae lan, the animating factor as illustrated in the fiercely anti-colonial Bengali novel Ghare Baire by Rabindranath Tagore, where the tribune, Sandip, asks the self-emancipating woman, Bimala to become the shakti of the nation.
At the same point of time Jasodhara Bagchi states that,
The nation is, in the current post-modernist onslaught on all things that smack of ‘modernity’, a meta-narrative in which the entire hegemonic establishment is implicated. Assessing the event from a feminist perspective one cannot help noticing the deep collusion between the community at one end of the spectrum and the nation on the other. The majoritarian religious ideology turning into natural common sense is thus not just the threat posed by the nation state. It is also the threat of the community and the family that make such naturalization possible.
As long as Bimala is with Sandip she is within the construct of the majoritarian viewpoint of the nation, the centre-point of ‘shakti’, but when Sandip dies, she returns to Nikhil as Tagore would want us to understand that she is able to remove the coloured goggles of feminism as she had been told to think of by Sandip and is disillusioned with the evolving contradictions of the nation construct within the boundaries of the British rule. Tagore’s thoughts are shown by Bagchi to be an interpretation of the prejudices that are inherent within the confines of neo-nationalism in the garb of Swadeshi. Mohammed Quayum defines Swadeshi as “of our own country”. Quayum notes that the true flavour of the realization of the nation construct and its power of ‘shakti’ was lost on Tagore in the novel partially, in fact, due to the narrative followed by Tagore in the novel. Tagore’s biographer Krishna Kripalani mentions that this happened as “Tagore was no Tolstoy or Balzac… [a myriad-minded writer] the poet, the singer and the teacher constantly meddled with the novelist.”
To conclude we may therefore say that Rabindranath Tagore has created multiple levels of understanding through the characterization of Bimala in Ghare Baire. On one hand he wishes to project Bimala as an icon of the liberated woman who is granted free access to the ‘baire’ or ‘bahir’ or the World. On the other hand her failed relationship with Sandip signals the re-entry to the ‘ghar’ or the Home. Tagore seems to create the idea that women like Bimala were not yet fully ready for the outside world, the space being beyond them in not its contours but in its magnitude. The liberation of the soul is as much important to Tagore as is the physical self. The awakening of Bimala is a protest against the Partition of Bengal, as much as Sandip is shown to be messenger of the nationalistic consciousness of the early 20th century mind. However, Bimala cannot be said to be the ‘shakti’ that Sandip yearns for and thus over-zealously projects through Bimala.
Anderson, Benedict. Imaginined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Silvers, Robert B. and Barbara Epstein. India: A Mosaic. USA: New York Review Books,2000.
Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World, London: The Caravan Library, 1919.
Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World, (translation Sreejata Guha), London: Penguin, 2005.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Chokher Bali/ A Grain of Sand (translation Sreejata Guha), London: Penguin, 2003.
Bagchi, Jasodhara. “Freedom in an idiom of loss”, page3, www.india-seminar.com,2002.
Prayer, Mario. “Shakti and Womanhood in Tagore’s criticism of Nationalism”, Journal of South Asia Women Studies, International Symposium, 18th October 2004, originally printed in 13th October, 2003, JSAWS, Vol.9, No.1.page 5
Quayum, Mohammed. “Review of Rabindranath Tagore: Ghare Baire [The Home and the World]”, Mukto-Mona, Bengali blog, pp 2 and 3, 13th February, 2007.
Sen, Amartya, Tagore and His India, pp10-11, www.counter-currents.org