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.