This 1916 novel, originally written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore, is a terrific example of what happens when individual lives and the life of a nation meet. Sometimes books like this can be lumpen allegories, where the author keeps hitting you over the head with a bottle of Think Like Me Sauce. In The Home and the World, however, we have three people tangled together in ideas and ideology, love and desire, tradition and modernity, arrogance and need, idealism and realism, freedom and tyranny. There is Nikhil, the zamindar who adores his wife and wants her greater freedom and engagement with the world. There is Bimala, the wife who almost worships her husband and seems content with her traditional role — until she meets Sandip, the greedy, manipulative nationalist who flatters her by making her into his muse. These characters leap off the page, full of anguish or happiness or wisdom. At the same time, we have India at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Independence Movement is in full swing, and Swadeshi (a movement that tried to rid India of foreign goods and influence) is rocking the local economy with its fervor. When these people clash with the huge swell of events, who can predict what will happen?
As the book opens, Bimala is deeply in love with Nikhil. She “takes the dust of his feet” while he sleeps, wanting to keep her deep reverence to herself, because a woman “must worship in order to love.” Nikhil, however, doesn’t want her worship (or at least he thinks he doesn’t.) His ideal is a woman who can step out of the women’s quarters and engage with the outside world, a woman who is free even from freely-chosen governance. When Bimala goes to a political event to please Nikhil, she hears Sandip speak and feels her world shaken. She is immediately convinced of the vital importance of Swadeshi, and — more vitally — of her own centrality to the movement, as the muse and goddess of Bengal, the embodiment of Bengali womanhood. She begins changing into a freer and more modern woman, flattered and encouraged at every step by the virile and smooth-spoken Sandip. Nikhil must struggle with his feelings: in theory, he wants her (and everyone) to be perfectly free, but does he want this at the cost of his marriage?
So Bimala’s choice isn’t just between two men. It’s between two ways of life: being completely free and being governed — a life in which power goes to the person who can snatch it. Sandip sees this power-hungry life as the natural way of things, and envisions himself as the top of the heap and Bimala as the goddess who will motivate him. Nikhil’s rational, gentle way of helping people at his own expense will never make progress — or so he thinks.
This storyline, full of drama and emotion, both plays itself out against and reflects the different ideas about nationalism happening at the moment in India. Nikhil represents a humanistic freedom, that puts people above nation, caste, gender, and race. He wants the good of individuals more than a nominal freedom that might hurt more than it would help. Sandip, on the other hand, is brash, seeking power for its own sake, putting on the mask of nationalism so he can gain the upper hand over individuals and country alike. Bimala, at first completely taken in by Sandip’s rhetoric and carried away by the Swadeshi movement, later begins to see through his tactics. The goddess of Bengal must also dwell in the home, or the home means nothing. This is brought out in particular in the question of Bimala’s jewelry: traditionally, an Indian woman’s jewelry is extremely sentimental, the way I might feel about my engagement or wedding ring. Sandip asks her to sell it to get money for “the cause,” a deeply insensitive and unchivalric gesture meant to cement his power over her. She does it — but in fact it breaks his power, because she sees through his petty, grasping effort to break her home.
The three main characters take turns writing their stories (or, more accurately, “autobiographies”) as the story unfolds. This means that we sometimes see the same event from two or even three different perspectives as the story gains momentum. In this way, the book makes us consider: what is truth? There aren’t any staged answers here; the reader has to come to her own conclusions. The prose — as translated from Bengali — is elaborate and a bit formal, but I didn’t find it stilted or hard to read. It struck me as being of its time, and indeed quite beautiful. I wish I could read Bengali.
I thought this book was fascinating and compelling, and still relevant today with the fanatic nationalism that affects so many countries, including my own. I hope you read it if you haven’t already. If you have — what did you think?