“Do I really want to be emancipated?”
That’s Bimala talking, a character from Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World. Her self reflection resonates with so many women today who are trying to find their way outside the comfort of their homes. There’s a reason why the Bengali author was ahead of his time.
I first read a collection of his lectures as a freshman at college, about 10 years ago, and was intrigued by how he differentiated modernity from western thought.
“True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.”
The novel is set in Bengal when the independence movement was in full swing. And Tagore takes off the romanticism surrounding it.
When Swadeshi leaders burned imported goods in the markets urging small traders to buy, produce and sell local, Tagore says: “Now you would dictate what salt they shall eat, what clothes they shall wear. [..] As it is, every moment of theirs is a life-and-death struggle for a bare living.”
He is not fond of narrow ideas like Nationalism, and writes: “Man’s history has to be built by the united efforts of all the races in the world, and therefore this selling of conscience for political reasons – this making a fetish of one’s country won’t do.”
The story is told by three protagonists; Bimala, a woman who has just been introduced to ideas outside her home; her doting husband Nikhil who happens to be a Nawab, and who’s character I felt was the closest reflection of the author; and Sandip, a freedom fighter with a head full of lofty ideas.
Sandip tries to woo Bimala, but not for love. In Tagore’s words: “The colouring of ideas which man gives himself is only superficial. The inner man remains as ordinary as ever.”
He talks her into stealing 50,000 rupees for the cause from her husband, saying whatever the rich hide in their vaults does not belong to them, but the motherland. Bimala complies, but in the process sees Sandip for who he is; an opportunist.
She tries to salvage whatever is left of her marriage, but it’s too late.
“God can create new things, but has even He the power to create afresh that which has been destroyed?”
In my heart of hearts I’m hoping a filmmaker picks this novel, and turns it into a movie, because this masterpiece deserves a much wider audience.