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The Home and the World

by Rabindranath Tagore

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526534,191 (3.63)48
Set on a Bengali noble's estate in 1908, this is both a love story and a novel of political awakening. The central character, Bimala, is torn between the duties owed to her husband, Nikhil, and the demands made on her by the radical leader, Sandip. Her attempts to resolve the irreconciliable pressures of the home and world reflect the conflict in India itself, and the tragic outcome foreshadows the unrest that accompanied Partition in 1947.… (more)
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This is a really short, very readable novel, about a love triangle that is also political: Bimala has married Nikhil, a nobleman, but becomes attracted to his friend, the political activist Sandip. There's a bit of Nikhil/Sandip bromance as well. Bimala's feelings for both Nikhil and Sandip are put to the test, in a context of revolutionary violence. The English are mere scenery; it's a novel about Bengal. Very interesting and very digestible. ( )
  nwhyte | Jan 30, 2021 |
Tagore’s story is set in Bengal at the early part of the 20th century when the Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement was taking root, which had as its aim that people would use only domestic goods. At the center of the novel is Bimala, a young woman who is happily married to an intelligent and enlightened landowner named Nikhil. When she’s exposed to a rousing revolutionary speech by Sandip, she’s not only drawn to the passion of his cause, but to Sandip himself, thus setting up a love triangle.

In cases of a people being oppressed, there is often a variety of viewpoints as to how to react, ranging from the gradual progressives to those who would use “any means necessary”. Tagore places the two men at opposite ends of this spectrum, and while both ironically want the same thing, an independent, strong India, Nikhil wants to follow the law and exercise restraint, believing that something far greater is lost if one steals or is unjust, while Sandip is not above lying, violence, and other treachery, believing himself to be serving a higher cause, and believing that all other strong nations have had leaders who have done similar in the past.

As to Swadeshi itself, Nikhil believes that the root cause to India’s dependence on foreign goods is its own demand, its own desire, which cannot forcibly changed, and any attempts to do so will not only be futile, but disproportionately harm the poor. Sandip believes that the root cause is essentially the supply itself, and that it must be suppressed with an iron hand.

The book’s main level is thus political, where Nikhil stands for conservatism, cool intellect, idealism, kindness, and holding steadfastly to one’s core principles. Sandip represents radical revolution, passion, the compromises one must make in the “real world”, including being cruel if necessary, and the ends justifying the means, because “this is war”, as he puts it. Bimala, who is torn between them, saying at one point that “this moment in our history seems to have dropped into our hand like a jewel from the crown of some drunken god”, represents Bengal itself.

While it’s easy to idealize Nikhil and demonize Sandip, and it’s clear that this is where Tagore’s sympathies lie, both men recognize their own weaknesses. Nikhil sees himself as a passionless, uninspiring lump of coal, and Sandip’s guilt gnaws away at him despite the vitriol of his words. Tagore also lets both men “present their argument” by assuming the point of view of each, as well as Bimala, in interleaving chapters throughout the book. To me, the characters are part of Tagore’s inner dialogue and conflict within himself, and I’m impressed by how in his work and in his life he tried to recognize all of these “voices”, and find a middle path. Nevertheless, he was criticized for being conservative in his viewpoint, and for flaws in the style of his prose on top of it.

I disagree with the former, but there is at least a little valid criticism with the latter: Tagore is essentially using the book as a vehicle for a debate, which can make it seem too plodding. On the other hand, as Anita Desai says in her excellent introduction, while it’s a “dramatic tale, yet not so particularly dramatic in the telling”, he writes as a Victorian, so this is a product of the time, and there are many touching, very human moments throughout the book.

And this is where the book works on the next level down: “at home”, the love triangle between the characters. Nikhil does not demand that Sandip leave his home, even though he knows something is going on, because he wants Bimala to choose freely. Nikhil is thus very forward thinking, adoring his wife but wanting her to be free … though if someone is so dispassionate it can come across as disinterest. Sandip here is raw emotion, and deludes Bimala along the way in his desire to just take her, and passionately. That has its appeal too, and she is torn.

Add in the minor characters, the chiding sister-in-law who has a long and close relationship with Nikhil (mirroring Tagore’s own beloved sister-in-law, who sadly committed suicide), as well as the young man who Sandip wants to use as a pawn and Bimala wants to keep pure, whatever her sins may be, and I found this to be a very appealing story. There was real tension in the tragedy that was unfolding for Bimala and for India after things been set in motion, and I think rather than being on the wrong side of history, Tagore correctly got his head around the issues with both perspectives, and foresaw the violence that was to come to India later in the century.

On desire, this is Sandip:
“When a man goes away from the market of real things with empty hands and empty stomach, merely filling his bag with big sounding words, I wonder why he ever came into this hard world at all. … What I desire, I desire positively, superlatively. I want to knead it with both my hands and both my feet; I want to smear it all over my body; I want to gorge myself with it to the full.”

“Come, Sin, O beautiful Sin,
Let thy stinging red kisses pour down fiery red wine into our blood.
Sound the trumpet of imperious evil
And cross our forehead with the wreath of exulting lawlessness,
O Deity of Desecration,
Smear our breasts with the blackest mud of disrepute, unashamed.”

On being desired, Bimala:
“Sandip’s hungry eyes burnt like the lamps of worship before my shrine. All his gaze proclaimed that I was a wonder in beauty and power; and the loudness of his praise, spoken and unspoken, drowned all other voices in my world. Had the Creator created me afresh, I wondered? Did he wish to make up now for neglecting me so long? I who before was plain had become suddenly beautiful.”

“Nevertheless this flesh-and-blood lute of mine, fashioned with my feeling and fancy, found in him a master-player. What though I shrank from his touch, and even came to loathe the lute itself; its music was conjured up all the same.”

“The way of retreat is absolutely closed for both of us. We shall despoil each other: get to hate each other; but never more be free.”

“I can no longer enter my bedroom. The bedstead seems to thrust out a forbidding hand, the iron safe frowns at me. I want to get away from this continual insult to myself which is rankling within me. I want to keep running to Sandipto hear him sing my praises. There is just this one little altar of worship which has kept its head above the all-pervading depths of my dishonor, and so I want to cleave to it night and day; for on whichever side I step away from it, there is only emptiness.
Praise, praise, I want unceasing praise. I cannot live if my wine-cup be left empty for a single moment. So, as the very price of my life, I want Sandip of all the world, today.”

On love, Bimala:
“His love for me seemed to overflow my limits by its flood of wealth and service. But my necessity was more for giving than for receiving; for love is a vagabond, who can make his flowers bloom in the wayside dust, better than in the crystal jars kept in the drawing-room.”

“My beloved, it was worthy of you that you never expected worship from me. But if you had accepted it, you would have done me a real service. You showed your love by decorating me, by educating me, by giving me what I asked for, and what I did not. I have seen what depth of love there was in your eyes when you gazed at me. I have known the secret sigh of pain you suppressed in your love for me. You loved my body as if it were a flower of paradise. You loved my whole nature as if it had been given you by some rare providence.”

On nationalism, Nikhil:
“’I am willing,’ he said, ‘to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.’”

“…those who cannot love men just because they are men – who needs must shout and deify their country in order to keep up their excitement – these love excitement more than their country. … So long as we are impervious to truth and have to be moved by some hypnotic stimulus, we must know that we lack the capacity for self-government. Whatever may be our condition, we shall either need some imaginary ghost or some actual medicine-man to terrorize over us.”

On the old, Sandip:
“Chandranath Babu began to talk about Swadeshi. I thought I would let him go one with his monologues. There is nothing like letting an old man talk himself out. It makes him feel that he is winding up the world, forgetting all the while how far away the real world is from his wagging tongue.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Jul 13, 2014 |
Written during the Indian uprising. Effects on one family. ( )
  autumnesf | Sep 8, 2009 |
Classic of India from early 1900's.My favorite authors up till now have been Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but now that I've read two books by Rabindranath Tagore I've got to add him right up there at the top of my list. I can see why he's one of India's most favored authors and I really can't believe that he is not more popular than he is here in this USA. Not a person I've mentioned him to so far has ever heard of him. Give him a try and you'll want to read more, start with Purabi, be sure to be in a relaxed mood when you do!!! ( )
  Jim-Per | May 29, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rabindranath Tagoreprimary authorall editionscalculated
Terziani, SabinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Home and the World is a great modern novel that has waited a long time to come into its own.

Georg Lukács condemned The Home and the World as 'a petit bourgeois yarn of the shoddiest kind' and said of Tagore that he was a 'wholly insignificant figure...whose creative powers do not even stretch to a decent pamphlet.
Chapter One

Bimala's Story

Mother, today there comes back to mind the vermilion mark at the parting of your hair, the sari which you used to wear, with its wide red border, and those wonderful eyes of yours, full of depth and peace.
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Set on a Bengali noble's estate in 1908, this is both a love story and a novel of political awakening. The central character, Bimala, is torn between the duties owed to her husband, Nikhil, and the demands made on her by the radical leader, Sandip. Her attempts to resolve the irreconciliable pressures of the home and world reflect the conflict in India itself, and the tragic outcome foreshadows the unrest that accompanied Partition in 1947.

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