The Home and the World

Home and the World (426x640)As a young bride, Bimala took pleasure in “taking the dust” of her husband’s feet each morning as an act of reverence, believing that her woman’s heart “must worship in order to love.” But her husband, Nikhil, didn’t want her worship. He wanted her to have freedom, to go out into the world and discover and become her true self so that they could truly know and love each other.

Bimala and Nikhil take turns as narrators in this 1916 novel by the Nobel prize–winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. As they are trying to figure out how to love each other, a third narrator, Sandip, Nikhil’s old school friend, brings a new point of view, one that appeals to Bimala and pulls her away from her husband. Sandip is a political activist, driven to promote Indian independence from foreign influence. When Bimala hears him speak, she is riveted:

I returned home that evening with a new pride and joy. The storm within me had shifted my whole being from one centre to another. Like the Greek maidens of old, I fain would cut off my long, resplendent tresses to make a bowstring for me hero. Had my outward ornaments been connected with my inner feelings, then my necklet, my armlets, my bracelets, would all have burst their bonds and flung themselves over that assembly like a shower of meteors. Only some personal sacrifice, I felt, could help me to bear the tumult of my exaltation.

The trouble is that Sandip is the last person anyone should give this sort of devotion to. His politics may be on the right side, but his methods and his personality are terrible. My own dislike for Sandip was visceral almost from the start. He is manipulative in all the worst ways. Bimala, longing for a man to worship, gives her worship to the worst possible candidate. And he accepts, as of course he would, although he does so in the guise of making her the personification of the goddess who will drive their political movement. The fact that he accepts her devotion—and that he accepts it in such a skeevy and objectifying way—is indeed a sign that he’s unworthy of it.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, Anita Desai says that when The Home and the World was first published, critics lambasted it for its unrealistic two-dimensional characters and for its tendency to preachiness about its politics. It may be true that Sandip is too evil to be believed, but I bought it. This kind of manipulation is not unheard of today. (See, for instance, this recent post at Captain Awkward. Sandip is totally a Darth Vader boyfriend.) Sandip knows exactly how to get Bimala to do what he wants, usually in the name of the greater good of the cause. Really, though, he’s out for himself. He tells us this almost from his first appearance:

Every man has a natural right to possess, and therefore greed is natural. It is not in the wisdom of nature that we should be content to be deprived. What my mind covets, my surroundings must supply. This is the only true understanding between our inner and outer nature in this world. Let moral ideals remain merely for those poor anaemic creatures of starved desire whose grasp is weak. Those who can desire with all their soul and enjoy it with all their heart, those who have no hesitation or scruple, it is they who are anointed of Providence.

OK, it is maybe a wee bit unlikely that the entitled jackasses of the world will declare themselves as openly as this, but this is Sandip talking to the reader. When he’s talking to Bimala or Nikhil his desires are all for the cause, for making India stronger and getting free of foreign influence. Yet even here, his actions show a lack of compassion. One of his main principles is eliminating the sale of foreign goods, which sounds like a fine plan in theory, but the practice is more complicated. English cloth might be the only cloth some of the poorer merchants can obtain to sell. Nikhil, while agreeing with Sandip in principle, refuses to force anyone to stop selling foreign goods. He believes in freedom, for the merchants who sell in his market, just as he does for his bride, even if that freedom means they act in ways he disapproves of.

In her introduction, Desai says that the love triangle between Nikhil, Bimala, and Sandip represents the choices Bengal itself was having to face. Bimala is torn between two paths, just as Bengal was. Not being familiar with the politics of Bengal, I can’t speak to this, but I can certainly see that Bimala’s dilemma is about more than two men. It’s a choice between two ways of being—between being free and being governed. And in Bimala, we see how freedom is not always the more appealing option. Freedom is terrifying, for everyone involved. But it is the only right option, whether for a couple or a country.

In case you can’t tell, I absolutely adored this book. I loved it for the personal story of these three people (and the people their lives touch) and for the bigger story it points toward. It’s a tremendous novel, and I hope more people read it.

This novel was translated from the Bengali by Surendranath Tagore.

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18 Responses to The Home and the World

  1. Thank you for your heartfelt review of this book. Though I haven’t read it, I hope to, and I hope it doesn’t sound too sexist to say that only a man who is very naive of his fellow men could say that the villain is too evil actually to exist. Most women have at least encountered some man like this, and his fellow men are often deceived about him because his “political” goals seem to them noble. They are not familiar with the ’60′s and ’70′s women’s mantra “The personal is political.”

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve encountered more than one person like this during my life (one who springs to mind is actually a woman), and it’s true that in every case, some people around them were deceived—at least for a while. But none of them declared their nefarious intentions quite so openly, and that could be the part that seemed unrealistic. I read it as being kind of like the main character in Game of Kings talking to the camera. He reveals himself to the audience but no one else.

      And “the personal is political” definitely comes into play here. The way people act out their politics to those around them is what matters.

      • Yes, you’re quite correct, this personality is not restricted to men alone. Women may be like this too. The kind of man I had in mind, though, gets a bit of a kick out of being cynical verbally, and not only takes advantage of women, but likes to parade his conquests before other men. That can go for women too, I suppose, who might want to be elevated for their politics and yet who want to show off their acquisitions, but since Tagore was writing about an issue of women’s freedom, it was what I spoke about. His title of “The Home and the World” directly grabbed my attention when you wrote about it, because historically speaking it is the woman who is shoved into the shade in the household and the man who is expected to mediate with the world, a situation which is actually when one thinks of it equally unfair to both, because each may have the ability to do the work traditionally alloted to the other, and yet not be allowed to do it by tradition and public prejudice.

      • Teresa says:

        I definitely know the type you mean. The women I’ve known who’ve been manipulative in that way tend to focus on the personal realm. Men have more opportunities to go wider with it, I think.

        That tension between home and world for Bimala is huge in the book. The way I read it, getting into the world and out of the home is a good thing, but fraught with potential troubles, especially for a person who isn’t prepared or doesn’t want to. There’s a lot of ways to read how Tagore depicts that tension.

  2. Rabindranath Tagore remains still a huge figure in Bengali culture, and, although some of his novels, including ths one, are well known, he is renowned more as a poet and as a songwriter than as a novelist. I really think Tagire was as great a poet as I’ve encountered, but the sounds and rhythms of Bengali are so different from English, that I have never personally been convinced by the translations I’ve encountered. Translations of his prose, too, can, I think, be problematic: Bengali prose can take more decorative effects than can English, and a literal translation into English can give the impression of being over-written. But obviously, this translation didn’t strike you as being so.

    The distinguished Benali film-director, Satyajit Ray, filmed this novel in the 1980s. Sadly, he suffered a heart attack immediately after shooting, and wasn’t present during the editing. As a consequence, the pacing of the film is a bit rambling – as I am sure would not have been the case has Ray even able to supervise the editing, as he normally did. Nonetheless, there are many fine things in the film, and as you enjoyed the novel so much, the film can certainly be warmly recommended.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you for all this background! I was looking in my library catalog for more of his books to read, and it looks all they have is poetry–several volumes of it in fact–so I’ll have to look elsewhere for his prose. But maybe I’ll try the poetry at some point, with the understanding that the translation could be a problem.

      I did not find this particularly over-written at all. It didn’t read like modern English prose, but I didn’t expect it to, given when it was written. It felt like prose of its period to me.

      I’ll have to see if I can find the film version. I loved the Apu trilpgy, but I don’t think I’ve seen any of Ray’s other films.

      • You may be interested in a novella by Tagore called “Nastanirh” (English title: “The Broken Nest”). There is a translation of it – quite a good one, I think – but it may not be easy to get hold of: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL5447172M/The_broken_nest_(Nashtanir). This novella forms the basis of one of Satyajit Ray’s finest films – “Charulata” – although Ray takes Tagore’s work really as a starting point for his own film: the motivations of the characters are very different in the film from what they are in the novel. But both film and novel are, I think, remarkable works in their own right.

        The novel is also about a failed marriage, and there are certain autobiographical elements in it. Tagore himself, as a young man, had been very close to his elder brother’s wife (although they did not have an affair as such). A couple of years after his own marriage (an arranged marriage, as they all were within that social class in those times), his sister-in-law, for reasons never ascertained, took her life. Memories of his sister-in-law surface frequently in Tagore’s poetry – even the very late ones written in extreme old age. “Nastanirh” is about a close (though not adulterous) relationship between wife and brother-in-law, and while it is clearly fiction rather than autobiography, the theme does come very close to the circumstances of Tagore’s own life. It really is a marvellous work, and, if you can get hold of it, strongly recommended. (Ray’s film too is a masterpiece: Ray himself thought it his best.)

        The collection of Tagore’s short stories translated by William Radice and published by Penguin is also very fine (although I must admit am not so taken with Radice’s translations of the poems – but then again, no-one is acquainted with these intensely musical poems in the original is unlikely ever to be satisfied with any transltion!) There is also a collection of poems translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, and published by Bloodaxe Books under the title “I Won’t let You Go”. I have similar reservations about this collection also, but once again, I guess I am not the target readership.

        Many will say that the heart of Tagore’s output are his songs – literally thousands of them: these are, in effect, the national music of Bengal. I wouldn’t dissent from this view. Tagore wrote both the lyrics and the music (he was a gifted musician), and the lyrics can easily stand on their own as poetry: they are exquisite. If you’re interested, this is one of my favourites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTk4wWNQo3c

        You may also be interested in the website of Arunava Sinha, a prolific translator of Bengali literature, both modern and classical, into English: http://arunavasinha.in/ The website contains many of his translations. He has translated some of Tagore’s prose works.

        And finally (sorry if I am overloading you with information!) since you mentioned the Apu Trilogy, those films were based on two superb novels written by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji. (Bandopadhyay is another form of the same surname.) They are both available in fine English translations: http://www.harpercollins.co.in/BookDetail.asp?Book_Code=1036 and http://www.parabaas.com/bookstore/bookpage/bbb_unvanquished.html

        All the best, Himadri

      • Oops! My proof-reading let me down there. Where I had written “…no-one is acquainted with these intensely musical poems in the original is unlikely ever to be satisfied with any transltion”, I should have written: “…anyone who is acquainted with these intensely musical poems in the original is unlikely ever to be satisfied with any translation”. Sorry about that!

      • Teresa says:

        Thank you for these suggestions! It’s great to have some ideas of where to go next if I decide to delve a little deeper into Bengali literature. I’ll add the Tagore books you suggest to my wishlist and look into the others as well.

  3. heavenali says:

    Excellent review, I must admit to not having heard of this before, it sounds fascinating.

  4. Interesting! I’m trying to read more books by authors not from the US and the UK this year, and I always want to be better about reading books in translation. I’m adding The Home and the World to my TBR list.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’d find a lot of things about the way the author handles gender and politics to be really interesting. There are a lot of different ways to take it apart.

  5. Alex says:

    I hadn’t realised that Tagore wrote novels. He is much fated in Stratford as a poet. There is a bust of him in the Shakespeare Birthplace where his birthday is celebrated every year. I can see that when the anniversary comes round this year I must acknowledge it by reading some of his prose work for a change.

  6. aartichapati says:

    I am pretty sure I watched a movie based on this book as the plot sounds very similar to a movie I watched, I think in college. A quick Google search yields;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghare_Baire_%28film%29

    I remember the movie being pretty interesting, so you might want to look into it!

    Great review :-)

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