Revolution in 19th Century Bengal

As many of you are aware that for this month, I hosted the The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore Read Along to celebrate the 100 years of publication of this great novel as well celebrate India’s 69th “new” independence from British Raj. I had the greatest pleasure and honor in reading the novel with Stefanie, Jane, Cleo and Brona and as we close this month, it seemed the time was appropriate to share some of my thoughts and ideas about this timeless classic.

Tagore wrote this novel in the back drop of partition of Bengal (for more information, you can refer to the details here) which led to the rise of “Swadeshi Movement”  –  a nationalist movement that demanded freedom from British rule and was a precursor to Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which would yield much more significant results. The novel opens with Bimala the lady of the house giving us a background of the house and family she has married into and more importantly the character of her husband. The family is a rich aristocratic family settled for generations in Eastern India. Nikhil, Bimala’s husband is the scion of the house, running his business and family to the best of his abilities in modern and enlightened lines. He is kind to his poor tenants and genuinely tries to improve their condition and the state of the country by trying out new agricultural techniques, indigenous factories to produce such daily needs like soaps and pens and deploy modern economics like banks. His schemes are not always successful but his kindness and moral standards have earned him the respect of one and all. He has tried to educate his wife Bimala and has had a British lady come and teach her and he hopes to bring her out as an individual, independent of her identity as his wife. The household also consists of his two widowed sister-in-laws, wives of his older brothers who had died young after a life of debauchery and profligacy, leaving these women without any resources and dependent on Nikhil. Bimla is often involved in petty arguments with her two sister-in-laws in domestic matters, while Nikhil teaches her patience and tolerance for creatures like them who have been deprived of practically all basic human joys through choices that were never theirs. Such are the conditions, when the “Swadeshi Movement” sweeps the country. Nikhil is wary of such frantic nationalism, though he continues to fund finances for Sandeep, his friend who is a leader of the movement. Bimala thinks of him as a selfish creature and does not approve of her husband’s financial support to Sandeep. Soon nationalism comes to their county and Sandeep comes to their house as a guest and his oratory inspires Bimala to step outside the inner sanctums and purdah and meet him. This unleashes a series of events which neither Bimla or Nikhil who always encouraged Bimala to come out of the purdah, foresaw with significant results!

Tagore’s literary masterpiece spoke of 3 important elements at once, through the interweaving of the first person narratives of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandeep. First, it acts as an allegory for the nationalist struggle that had spread across India and Bengal, that presents two opposing forces, that is fighting for the future of Bengal and India. Nikhil is the enlightened humanist who asserts that truth cannot be imposed; freedom is necessary for choice, and is critical to individual growth and fulfillment. Sandeep represents himself as a realist, one who brutally confronts the world.He presents all that is passionate and violent, believing that the end justifies the means and that if something is not given to him amicably, he will snatch it if need be. Secondly, it deals with the question of gender when it proposes the figure of the woman as the representative of the nation. Tagore brings out his woman – the central character of the novel and makes her cross the literal and metaphorical threshold between the world of the anter- mahal or the inner chambers, the private inhabited by women in traditional Indian families, and the world of politics, the public. Finally, the novel raises philosophical questions and brings in Tagore’s ever curious questioning of metaphysical conception of truth and see the world as a constantly attempting to ignore truth and believe illusions to be the truths, which cannot be self sustaining. There are some shortcomings in the novel for sure – too much of rhetoric and some very uni-dimensional characters, especially Sandeep, whose brilliance is overshadowed in portraying him as a complete villain. Amulaya’s character is another example of unilateral creation where his goodness belies everything! However despite these shortcomings, I am still in awe of the brilliance that Tagore displayed not only in the narrative but also in the way he could fortell the future and his understanding as visionary which he translated into words for the common man to understand. Well before the rise of Nazi Germany, well before the Serbian or Rawandan civil wars, Tagore could see the utter and complete destructive powers of the “nationalist sentiment” . He wrote extensively against blind patriotism and spoke strenuously from desisting from violence as means to an end. A humanitarian to the very core, the idea of hurting anyone, Hindu, Muslim or British was appalling to him and he was convinced any results achieved on such principles would not stand the test of time – a key of Tagore’s belief system. Sustainable things and not things of the a moment, were the ingredients for success in any endevour. His foresight was telling when he brought forth the unrest among the Muslim populace of Nikhil and other feudal lord’s territories. This unrest and discontentment would fester leading finally to the partition of Indian in 1947 on religious lines, leading to the creation of Pakistan. His humanism demanded that we treat Muslims no different from Hindus, and religion should be the last condition for understanding the value of an individual – a lesson valid now more than ever.His celebration of humanism and individuality is powerfully brought out in the character of Nikhil – the man who believes that true freedom does not restrict but liberate and who honors those principals even when his wife decides to make choices, contrary to him and his belief system. Finally in Bimala he beautifully depicts the confusion of the Indian woman, who is slowly stepping out in the world to try and take her place again after centuries of oppression and purdah. She is confused and dazzeled by the heading feeling of doing some important work in the arena of men. She is awe of the power, all the men around her seem to attribute to her and she thinks she is finally making a difference to her country. Her assertion of character first surprises Nikhil who, despite being hurt, allows her to follow her own path and later Sandeep who tries to dominate her, finally showing her, his true colors. Bimala is representative of many woman, including many woman of today, who come from a strongly male dominated arena and for the first time discover a world of their own. They lose a bit of ground initially, but are soon able to assert their strength. Bimala in fact constantly reminded me of many of my sorority sisters in college. Thanks to the struggles of my great grand mother and grand mother, the former a contemporary of Bimala , in the same age and same socio-economic background, by the time I was born, my family was liberated, educated and got confused when someone said a girl child was a burden. However many families to this day and age believe in restricting the freedoms of their daughters in this country for the sake of honor or some such imagined masculine pride. These girls, for the first time sent to college away from the domination of parents would lose all control, until their innate sense asserted themselves and some of them went on to become lawyers, lecturers and even politicians. Tagore in writing Bimala seemed to fortell the story of all these girls.

I have read The Home and The World several times before and each time, I find something new to delve into and think about. If this does not define a classic, I am not sure what will.

To end, I would like to thank you all who participated in this read along and stuck around through my tedious history posts and found time to read this wonderful book. Thank you for your time and constant encouragement. No way could I have pulled off this event, if you all were not standing around cheering me on!


14 thoughts on “Revolution in 19th Century Bengal

  1. Thank you sooo much for introducing me to this book! It was a wonderful read and left me with so much to think about, both with regard to Indian history and also human nature. And your historical perspective posts were awesome and not tedious at all. They made for a much deeper and enjoyable read. I have only drafted half my review, so I’m going to wait to read your complete review until I have something more comprehensive together. As you know, my new friend has borrowed my copy and I am a little lost without it. I still have questions though and will ask them when I have them sorted more in my mind. Once again, thanks for a great read-along. I can’t wait until you do another one!

    1. Cleo, the pleasure and honor is all mine. I am so very glad you enjoyed the books and I am even more glad the history posts helped! Take your time with the review….there is no rush! Let me know your questions and I will try my best to answer them!
      P.S. If you keep writing things like another one, I may end up hosting another one, so forewarned!! 😉

  2. This sounds like a wonderful novel. I wonder what Tagore would have said about Shining India and Hindu nationalism? Is this novel read a lot in India? Is it taught? Thanks for the very interesting review.

    1. Tagore, Ian, would be horrified! He was a true humanist and a liberal one at that! This rise of Hindu nationalisim and aggressive Hindu culture would have horrified him. He saw nothing noble about patriotism built on violent means at the expense of the poor and the marginalized . It is one of his more popular works and yes, its taught in quite a few places! I am glad you enjoyed the review and I hope you are enjoying his short stories – Golpo Guccho or collection of stories is my personal favorite. He was brilliant in conveying so many things in just 4-5 pages!

      1. I have just started my Penguin Tagore anthology. There are 30 or so stories so I will taste one or two at a time over the next month or so. He seems such a humane and civilized writer and how powerfully he is able to evoke Indian village life in the monsoon season! I think I’ll enjoy these.

  3. I cannot thank you enough for hosting this readalong and allowing us your insights into a world far from my own.

    I have finally written a review, after letting it sit for several days. It still feels incomplete – there is so much more to say and discuss, but I decided to just pull out one of the main themes (truth) for now and focus on that, otherwise I may have been writing this review until the new year!

    Now that I’ve read your thoughts above I will probably have more to ask and discuss. But for now my review is here –

    I notice that my Penguin Classics edition spells your Sandeep as Sandip.

    I’ll be back for more….but for now, thank you so much for all the time, effort and enthusiasm you have put into making this readalong fun and informative for us. I’ve enjoyed all your posts and love that I could read this book with someone who has so much local insight. It has given my reading of this classic much more depth and significance.

    Thank you again 🙂

    1. I am snowed Brona by your kind words! But seriously the pleasure was completely mine and I had so much fun reading it with you! I loved our Twitter conversations as we progressed through the novel. 🙂 I agree with you that this novel has many aspects and I know exactly what you mean when you say that if really sit down to unravel it, we will be here till New Year and may be beyond! But I think you have picked the key theme of the plot – truth and its manifestation and interpretation was one puzzle that kept the philosopher Tagore thinking! Thank you so much for giving me company though this book and for all your time and efforts and all those wonderful posts and thought provoking tweets!!! You absolutely ROCK!

  4. Enjoyed your write up! And thanks for hosting and providing all the background information, it has been really helpful while reading. I just finished today so hopefully in the next few days I will get my thoughts together on it!

    1. Thank you for joining the Read Along! Super cool to have you as you know I learnt most of blogging from you! 😀 Also a big thank you for hanging on during those LOOOOOONNNNG history sessions! Look forward to your thoughts!

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