Nationalism, women’s emancipation & a classic

Turning a leave

By Bhaskar Roy

Revisiting literary classics is a rewarding exercise inasmuch as it, apart from giving a nuanced reading of the texts, foregrounds issues (dealt with in the classics) germane to the fundamental concerns of our civilisation in these fractious times of ours. One such classic is Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali novel ‘Ghare-Baire’ (The Home and the World), set against the background of the Swadeshi movement against the Partition of Bengal in 1905, which triggered a massive upsurge of popular protest across Bengal. This movement gave Tagore the occasion to interrogate his times (which he always did with a Catholic, unprejudiced mind) to come up with his own notions of nationalism and the question of women’s emancipation.

The novel is structured around the monologues of three principal characters — Nikhilesh, his wife Bimala and his college friend Sandip. But as the novel progresses, the monologues take a dialogic form, the author giving an open space for debates, while suppressing his own voice. This suppression of his own voice is indicative of his liberal mind, always open to debate.

The two opposing views of nationalism are articulated through the views of Nikhilesh and Sandip.

Nikhilesh, the best product of the Bengal Renaissance, is an enlightened and benevolent landlord. He respects his wife as an individual and wants her to come out of the ‘home’ into the ‘world’. This liberal attitude is reflected in his vision of the nation. His vision transcends the narrow limits of nationalism. At this point, one has to interrogate what nationalism is. The nationalism we see today arose in 18th century Europe with the rise of the nation states which demanded loyalty to a religion, a race or a language. Prior to that, it demanded loyalty to a religion or a ruling dynasty. This unquestioned loyalty is alien to Rabindranath’s ideal of humanist ideals which are against all types of bigotry and extremism. Nationalism, for him, is valid for the subjugated people fighting for independence but once they get it, its utility is gone.

That demand to a certain kind of loyalty is what distinguishes Sandip’s character. To him, morality does not matter. One can take resort to any means to justify ends. His patriotism borders on fanaticism. He goes on for the deification of the nation, ignoring the concerns of the marginalized classes and the minority in society. His brand of nationalism turns out to be the nationalism of an exclusive domain of the privileged class of society. His followers burn foreign goods sold by the poor as part of the call for boycott of foreign goods. The marginalised does not matter to them.

Bimala is a defining character in the novel, in fact she is its pivot, insofar as all the contradictions of the story are refracted through her. To begin with, she is the ideal Hindu married woman whose life is totally dedicated to the worship of her husband. In fact, she has no life of her own. Her life is totally defined by that of her husband. She refuses to be out in the ‘world’ despite her husband’s exhortation, until she gets to hear the fiery speech of Sandip. She is mesmerised. She is attracted by the ‘maleness’ of it. It is kind of a ‘sexual passion’ that she has never experienced in her conjugal life before. She is being inexorably drawn into the final ‘kiss’ sequence. That is a sacrilege, a transgression for a Hindu married woman, a transgression that frees her as a woman who is the sovereign of her life and body. But is it so? It is not that easy as Tagore would have wanted us to see. Bimala gets to see her folly in not getting to see the real face of Sandip — manipulative and willing to resort to any means to achieve his goals. But that is too late. Her husband dies in trying to quell a Hindu-Muslim riot. Devastated by the twin tragedy, she comes out badly bruised, but a real woman, forged in the fire of the fractious times.

(The author is a translator and freelance writer)

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