Friday, 11 May 2018

Book Review: The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore crammed on the same fragile planet, we all live our daily lives in quite different worlds. According to temperament, possibility and situation it may be a small, more or less secluded world in one moment and a wide one with few limitations in another. Passing between these worlds can be a rather confusing, sometimes even unwanted experience. In the classical Indian novel The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1913, the Maharajah’s wife Bimala falls under the spell of charismatic political leader Sandip Babu who seems to be the complete opposite of her always poised husband Nikhil. For the first time in her life she feels passion, both for the man as well as for his uncompromisingly nationalist ideas, but book knowledge and the sheltered life in the purdah left her quite unprepared for the challenges of the outside world.

Rabindranath Tagore (রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর) was born in Calcutta (today: Kolkata), Bengal Presidency (today: West Bengal), British India (today: India), in May 1861. Already as an eight-year-old he wrote first poems, but published under pseudonym until using his real name after 1877. Most famous and praised for his poetry, songs and short stories, he also wrote plays, essays, novels and novellas. Most notable among the latter are Chokher Bali (শেষের কবিতা: 1903; also translated as A Grain of Sand), The Boat-Wreck (নৌকাডুবি: 1906; also translated as The Wreck and Boat Accident), Gora (গোরা: 1910), The Home and the World (ঘরে বাইরে: 1916), Quartet (চতুরঙ্গ: 1916; also translated as Broken Ties), The Last Poem (শেষের কবিতা: 1929; also translated as Farewell Song), Yogayog (যোগাযোগ: 1929; also translated as Relationships), and Four Chapters (চার অধ্যায়: 1934). In 1913, the Bengali writer received as first non-European the Nobel Prize in Literature “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”. Rabindranath Tagore died in Calcutta (today: Kolkata), Bengal Presidency (today: West Bengal), British India (today: India), in August 1941.

When Bimala first sees Sandip Babu, a friend of her husband Nikhil, he speaks in their Bengali village as a campaigner for the nationalist Swadeshi movement. Used only to the quiet life in the Maharajah’s purdah, the charismatic man as well as his passionate words electrify the young woman and make her step over the traditional boundaries between The Home and the World. She has been married for nine years and thought that she didn’t miss anything. Nikhil always encouraged her to learn, which she did for his sake, and to take part in the outside world, which she refused.
“[…] I have read in books that we are called ‘caged birds’. I cannot speak for others, but I had so much in this cage of mine that there was not room for it in the universe—at least that is what I then felt.”
Now Sandip’s passion has kindled a new fire in Bimala and she asks her husband Nikhil to invite his friend to stay with them for a while. The experienced womaniser and politician doesn’t hesitate one moment to seize the opportunity to win the naïve woman over and to take advantage of her. He flatters Bimala calling her the Queen Bee of India and praising her understanding whenever he can. Nikhil sees what is happening – like everybody else in the household –, but he is an idealist and believes that it’s better to allow his wife to find her own way.
“I must not lose my faith: I shall wait. The passage from the narrow to the larger world is stormy. When she is familiar with this freedom, then I shall know where my place is. If I discover that I do not fit in with the arrangement of the outer world, then I shall not quarrel with my fate, but silently take my leave…. Use force? But for what? Can force prevail against Truth?”
Meanwhile, Sandip continues political agitation in the house and in the village heating up the atmosphere and calling for violence, not to say terrorism to reach the ultimate goal: India’s complete independence from foreign, including century-old Muslim influence. Blinded by her passion, Bimala, too, firmly believes in the nationalist cause as Sandip advocates it and can’t understand why Nikhil pleads for moderation and peaceful action. One night Bimala steals money from her husband’s iron safe to support the freedom fight, but then, bad conscience begins to nag at her and she tries to undo her theft causing still more harm…

In alternating chapters that strictly follow the chronology of events, each of the protagonists – Bimala, Nikhil and Sandip – tells different parts of The Home and the World in first person from her/his own perspective which gives the novel a very personal touch. The plot offers at the same time a love triangle and a glimpse at the political situation in India in the early 1900s, when naïve Bimala as female protagonist as well as India altogether were torn between past and future, i.e. between own traditions and foreign-imposed progress. Consequently, the passionate nationalist Sandip who believes that independence as end justifies all means including falsehood, violence and oppression juxtaposes Nikhil as poised and far-sighted man of reason who is convinced that the country needs truth, peace and individual freedom to reach this goal. In a way Nikhil thus is a precursor of Mahatma Gandhi, while Sandip is the epitome of any political or/and religious fanatic ever. The masterly description of the conflict that has always raged between peaceful activists and violent fighters makes the novel a truly timeless classic. I read an English wikisource edition of the book and found the language rich in images and yet unpretentious and modern.

Reading The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore has been a pleasant surprise, a political novel in the guise of a love triangle that even after more than a century has lost nothing of its power and message. I enjoyed discovering the opposing views of Sandip and Nikhil with Bimala in-between to choose her way. For me it was an entertaining book, too, but one that makes think and that lingers on in the mind revealing ever new aspects. Of course, I preferred the allegorical story of India that overlays the plot on the surface from beginning to end. I would have appreciated a happier ending, though. Well, History often takes a different turn than hoped. Besides, Indian History didn’t stop there! More than thirty years later the country saw the end of British rule and independence. I enjoyed the read very much and therefore I gladly recommend it.

Since the author died more than 70 years ago, at least the original versions of his writings are all in the public domain. Many of his works including The Home and the World can be legally downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg,, wikisource, or The Virtual Library.

1 comment:

  1. I had always thought Tagore was only a poet, so thanks for your review and all the background on him. Now that I know he wrote novels I will have to get to some of them someday. Now you have another Nobel winner added to your list!


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