Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Ghare Baire" (The home and the world) : Tagore - a re-look after nearly 100 years

"Ghare Baire" (Home and the World)  is a novel written by Tagore in 1916. True to his usual style, Tagore had used a narrative structure to discuss or debate on certain issues (a form which he had also used in several other novels like "Jogajog", "Char Adhyay" and "Shesher Kobita"). Nevertheless, he managed to create a novel which, even on the strength of "pure storytelling" succeeds brilliantly. 
The form of the story is multiple self-narrative. The chapters are alternately narrated by the three main protagonists - Nikhilesh, Sandeep and Bimala. This becomes exceptionally effective in this case as their respective personalities and point of views are presented well. This also avoids the narrator taking any "sides" as such and the reader is left to form his own opinion about what is right and wrong. 
The historical backdrop of the story is partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905. This triggered a widespread protest - the so called 'Swadeshi" movement which started on it's own and then got merged into the Indian National Congress movement. Tagore and many more were participants in the initial phases of this movement. The movement, simply put, focused on self reliance - developing own products and rejecting the imported British products - the initial phase of the Khadi movement of Mahatma Gandhi. Many things culminated out of the Swadeshi movement including starting of own "Engineering" colleges, small scale industries etc. 
As is usually the case, the initial "voluntary" movement started taking a different turn when it started becoming an actively political movement. While in the initial phases, people used to voluntarily quit imported merchandise and start using local merchandise, later on this was forced upon by the Swadeshi volunteers. The argument put forward by the Swadeshi's was that in order to really hit out at the imperialist forces, it is necessary that the protests are "large scale" and everyone has to participate. So even when some people are reluctant to join in, it is the duty of the more "politically aware" Swadeshis to "force it" upon them because this is, in fact, for the greater good of them. The end will justify the means and for the greater good, a few evils have to be accepted and tolerated. 
Ghare Baire is actually a book about this conflict - of whether it is acceptable to do things which are morally incorrect but serves a greater goal. And if so, who decides what is correct in the longer run and is in fact the "greater good". Sandeep is the symbol of this school of thinking - who believes that evil has to be fought with evil and greater good for a larger number of people justifies individuals being sacrificed. Nikhilesh symbolizes the other end of the spectrum - which is more of a moralistic viewpoint which says that a wrong cannot become right because the end result is promising. And Bimala is the symbol of the common man (or woman) who moves from an essentially conservative sense of good and evil to the "end justifies the means" school of thinking and eventually comes back to her original beliefs. The important balance that Tagore has maintained is that none of three has been portrayed as "wrong" - there are no "villains" in the conventional sense of the word. There are also other characters into this - the idealist school teacher (Mashtarmoshai), the innocent student Amulya and the conservative, petty sister-in-law. 
The apparent story-line is also an interesting parallel - about Bimala who moves out of the "parda" of a conservative Bengali household ("Ghare") to outside ("Baire"). In the process, she is attracted towards the charismatic Sandeep instead of her apparently hidebound low key Nikhilesh but realizes her mistake later. Amulya - who, in a short while, had become like her son or younger brother had to die in the process - which is also like the death of "innocence" in the novel. 
The conclusion of the novel is intentionally kept obscure. Amulya dies but what happens to Nikhilesh? Did he die in the riot that was started due to the actions of Sandeep (and indirectly supported by Bimala) ? The novel says that he is severely injured but it is not sure whether he is dead or not. In my opinion, this is the masterstroke of this novel. 
At the very beginning of the novel, which starts with Bimala's narration, she talks about her marriage. Nikhilesh had two elder brothers - both of whom had died relatively young - within a few years after their respective marriages. Both the wives were extremely pretty but were rumoured to have been promiscuous. Nikhilesh's family members had come to the conclusion that their sons have died because of the "sin" of their wives and therefore had chosen a girl who was not pretty in the conventional sense but will be faithful and sincere. How exactly they could have judged whether the girl will remain faithful after marriage was unknown but it seemed to have done the trick as Nikhlesh had a long and happy married life with Bimala. That is - till the arrival of the Swadeshi movement at their doorsteps, spearheaded by the charismatic Sandeep - Nikhilesh's school friend. 
In my eyes, by not stating whether Nikhilesh died or not, Tagore had thrown back the question to us - was Bimala a sinner or not? If she is indeed a sinner (as she had fallen in love with Sandeep - to put it very crudely), then are we to conclude that the entire nation which had accepted Sandeep's theory of "end justifies the means" are also sinners? And if so, can we blame Bimala, who had a sheltered life, for succumbing to the charms of Sandeep, when a much larger and more educated / illustrious crowd also seem to have fallen prey to the violent thinking of Swadeshi? 
It is because of this dilemma, this non-conclusive end, this element of contradiction that this books transcends from being a historical novel or a novel about a woman's dilemma. It remains relevant even today for the same reasons why Dostoevsky remains relevant to us. It forces us to look at ourselves and makes us wonder if we are indeed eligible to throw the first stone to the sinner.