Debasish Lahiri: ‘Tagore, Gora: A Critical Companion’
Rabindranath Tagore, Gora: A Critical Companion
Editor: Nandini Bhattacharya
New Delhi: Primus Books. 2015
Pages 232 | Rs 1195 HB
The Many Lives of Gora
Gora is an argosy that has known many harbours. Rabindranath Tagore’s novel has been the ship of dreams for the postcolonial and transnational air-benders in the academy ever since binarism became an impasse. And we have not seen the last of the air-benders. Not yet. But just once in a while comes a book that warms the heart, lifts the mind and brings a glint to the eye. Dangerous terms in which to couch an academic volume, especially one on Tagore’s Gora, a novel traffic-snarled with numerous critical traversals. Gora: A Critical Companion edited by Nandini Bhattacharya is exactly that book.
My fixation with the image of the air-bender is not whimsy or spleen masquerading as critique. The air-bender reverses physical laws. Postcolonialism (that has championed Gora) reverses the logic of interminable oppression with the myth of resistance. The air-bender allows us to believe that our everyday has the potential to be magical. Postcolonialism, born inside the academy, filled its lungs with the dying breath of student protests on Parisian streets in the autumn of the ’60s. It has ever since had to forge unwieldy apologies for its upbeat, vernal agenda: that of agency. An act of air-bending we have come to believe as true.
Gora: A Critical Companion is not afraid to acknowledge it. It sees the danger of falling into this trap that other books and essays have willingly done thus straining the danger/ opportunity binary to a point of rupture. Gora is much more than a postcolonial tool-kit. That liberating idea sets the agenda for this volume.
Gora was here, like a tree without a name, long before Western critical theory staked a claim to the yard in which it grew. Tagore’s nation is an arena where true understanding and accordance of dignity to all creatures bring about a sense of joy, Ananda, a fulfilment. Nandini Bhattacharya’s Introduction hones this idea brilliantly by contrasting it with the mundaneness of women’s lives in the 19th century households in Kolkata. Here is Kantian phenomenology sans the will to control and the fiats of foreclosure. Long before comprador scrutiny of Tagore’s Gora in the western academy, this tree of fiction knew how to arrange its leaves.
Bhattacharya’s pondering of the trickster status of etymology in the very naming of the eponymous figure of “Gora” is gripping. From orthodoxy, to roots, and the association of the name of Chaitanya-Gourango, the great Bhakti saint from Bengal, Tagore’s subtle sifting for fresh meanings is picked up with an enthusiasm that is infectious in the volume.
This verve in all the essays of the volume is also perhaps the result of an editorial approach to locate voices unafraid of the institutionalization of the novel in the critical matrix. Each essay, instead of being another tired attempt to remind us of earlier ennui, strikes out in engaging new directions, using Tagore’s novel as their point of departure, not arrival.
In the first of 11 expertly curated essays Spandana Bhowmick delves into the writer’s smithy of time – where a work emerges after the long and complex labour of textual revisionism – to share some gemlike insights about the ‘maker’ of Gora. It puts in perspective Sister Nivedita’s objection to its initial unhappy ending. Tagore had at one time narrated his plan regarding Gora to Nivedita. When the novel began appearing in episodic form in Probashi, she requested to read the ending. When she found how Sucharita, coming to know of Gora’s true identity, refuses to marry him, Nivedita complained that it would be tragic if Gora and Sucharita were not united in marriage. While she agreed that such miracles did not occur in the real world, she insisted that the author should make them happen in the world of imagination. He could not be so cruel in it. Tagore’s subsequent change of heart launched the novel/nation thesis in the sub-continent that Benedict Anderson put his critical seal to much later with his observations on South-East Asian nations.
Ananya Dutta Gupta uses Tagore’s considerable readings in Western literature to illustrate how the journey between the genres of Epic and the Novel can be an act of literary heroism itself. Rabindranath reprises the two genres in terms of his twin foci in Gora. – The atmanang vidhi, the pursuit of the self, wherein a great mind immerses himself in his own profundity, exploring it, the stuff of the Epic. In addition he has the project of exploring the dimensions of the public unconscious, its prejudices and drives in the same intimate manner in which he ferreted the consciousness of an individual, grist to the mill of the Novel. – Dutta Gupta carries the argument with élan.
The next couple of chapters are certainly the discursive heart of the volume. Tanika Sarkar’s essay (reprinted from the EPW Vol. 44, Nos. 30-9, 25 July 2009) argues the centrality of patriotism and nationalism in the novel. She paints the patriotic as an uncertain and vagrant emanation that sought the succor of religion. She moves on to find in Tagore’s novel the perfect foil to this friendship under duress. Sarkar reads Gora as emancipatory, freeing its protagonists at the end from the prison-house of creedal identity. Her idea of Love as a third force, working in tandem or in opposition to the other forces, that of History and Religion, also tends to privilege the idea of the individual’s agency in what becomes his ‘life’, his transfiguring power.
Nanidini Bhattacharya contra Sarkar boldly sets out her thesis about Gora’s truculence, its accentuation of status quo. This propagation of the universal provenance of religion as “ethico-cultural codes” was subtly achieved but was nonetheless brutal by implication. It is so refreshing to see Bhattacharya go beyond the Good Hindu/ Bad Hindu binary of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath pitted against Tagore’s Gora. Bhattacharya pares the camouflage of skins that the ‘secular’ uses to throw critics off the scent. She bores to the origins of the term in Protestant Christianity diagnosing its “intentions; naturalizing; and masking power-inflected religions so that they seem like universally valid, areligious; ethico-cultural codes”.
Alladi Uma and M Sridhar tackle the question of reading Gora in the national context by concentrating on its Telugu renditions and their circle of influence in contemporary literary debates. Ana Jelnikar reads “unconditional hospitality” in Tagore’s novel by resituating it in animadversions of 20th century ethical humanism, notably Jacques Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness. Critical incidence on Gora’s ‘racial’ body takes Sunayani Bhattacharya to such framing legislations and archives as the Ilbert Bill and the 1901 Census of India. What with their challenge to Bengali masculinity and the threat of burgeoning Muslim population Bhattacharya still finds vantage ground for hope that Tagore makes Gora truly marker-less in terms of race and caste. This is squarely in opposition to Nandini Bhattacharya’s warning at the end of her essay that any ‘resolution’ is at best an act of careful glossing over. An act that entrenches the provenance of the “Caucasian-Hindu,” that curious hybrid in the work of Enlightenment figures like Georges Leopold Cuvier.
“Mind-forged manacles” allows Debashish Raychaudhuri to capture the smear of Tagore’s mind as it built its world round it. He does it with an evocative and unconventional contextualizing of Tagore’s creativity that radiated both through Gora and the lyrics he had composed during the time. This freewheeling survey is characteristic of the volume that seeks to probe, question, be inspired, or put in its place, not only the original work but also its after-life.
Uma Dasgupta’s essay on Tagore’s Visva-Bharati dwells on this after-life. Her assay takes off where the novel ends. The new nation that Gora seeks to build, the vision of which he but faintly sees, like Stephen’s plans for Ireland in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is trans-textual. And since thoughts alone bring no fruit they have to be seeded in the loam of reality: Tagore’s Visva-Bharati. It was the site for a fashioning of the national self, Gora’s dream made reality.
The fate of male self-projections and the role of the feminine as its constitutive part in Gora is well articulated in Dipankar Roy’s essay. And Ritu Sen Chaudhuri draws up the strands in this shuttle of ideas on Tagore’s Gora by talking of the novel’s positing of Bharatbarsha, an argument opened in the Introduction.
Tagore’s Gora has died many nameless deaths in academic gardens, with Gora: A Critical Companion it is time to celebrate its many possible lives.