Gora (1909) is the fifth in order of writing and the largest of Rabindranath’s twelve novels. A former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, himself a Tagore biographer and translator, had this to say about the work.
“Gora is more than a mere novel; it is an epic of India in transition at a crucial period of modern history, when the social concience and intellectual awareness of the new intelligentsia were in the throes of a great churning. No other book gives so masterly an analysis of the complex of Indian social life with its teeming contradictions, or of the character of Indian nationalism which draws its roots from renascent Hinduism and stretches out its arms towards universal humanism.
An early translation of Gora into English, often ascribed to Rabindranath’s nephew Surendranath, was published in 1924 by Macmillan & Co. of London. That text probably rendered the original as it appeared with some deletions in book form in 1909.
This new translation represents the fuller text as it appears now in Rabindra Rachanabali. It has been done by Sujit Mukherjee who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on the critical reception of Rabindranath in the United States, and this was subsequently published as Passage to America (1964). His previous translation from Rabindranath was Three Companions (1992), the original of which is titled Teen Sang (1941).
Gora was first serialized in the Bangle monthly Probasi from Bhadra 1314 of the Bengal Era (A.D. 1907) to Falgun 1316 B.E. (A.D. 1909). When it appeared as a book in the latter year, many portions of the serialized text were left out by the author. However, when a Visva-Bharati edition of the novel was brought out in 1928, some of these deletions were restored. Further restoration took place in the Rabindra rachanabali (Collected Works of Rabindranath) edition issued during 1941, and this has since then been regarded as the standard text of the novel. It has been used for the present translation into English.
An earlier and somewhat erratic translation into English was published in 1924 and this has been periodically reprinted. No particular translator was named for it nor is it stated which Bangla edition had been rendered into English. These issues have been brief discussed in the Translator’s Notes which follow the text in this volume.
Asterisks appearing in the translated text presented here signal that a particular item has been commented upon or explained further. Such comments and explanation have been collected under the above- mentioned “Notes”, with page references providing the key to the item being annotated.
Meenakshi Mukherjee has not only written the Introduction but also edited the draft translation with much care. This time, thus, she did more than her share of the work.
The debate about the cultural identity of India, and the place of religion, caste and class in it, which Rabindranath’s novel ‘Gora (1909) had initiated at the beginning of the century, seems nowhere near a resolution even at its very end. Situated within the larger conflict between modernization and the Hindu tradition—inevitable in a British-occupied India where the educated class was simultaneously going through an exhilarating exposure to new intellectual horizons through English education and the humiliating experience of political subjugation—the novel nevertheless foregrounds other local tensions as well, relating to caste, class, and gender that further complicated the question of freedom and selfhood. ‘This novel of colonial India continues to retain its relevance in our postcolonial days—acquiring surprisingly fresh refractions in the light of recent events in India and the world-wide theoretical discourses on the nation.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the social reform movement in Bengal which owed its origin to contact with the West was being countered by a new revivalism, an assertion of a nationalist consciousness predicated upon Hindu values. In an essay written in the early years of the twentieth century, Rabindranath Tagore had reflected on the waning of the euphoria that the first flush of English education had created in Bengal, emphasising the need for introspection at this juncture:
The time has come now to discuss this change because an element of doubt has certainly crept in. We seem to be sitting undecided at the crossroads of ancient India and modern civilization. Even a few years ago our educated people had no genuine hesitation. Whatever the nationalists might have professed verbally, their faith in Western values was unshakeable. The emotional effusion generated by the French Revolution, the effort to abolish slavery, and English poetry written at the dawn of the nineteenth century, had not yet subsided. Western civilization seemed to proclaim inclusiveness for all humanity irrespective of race and color. We were spellbound by Europe. We contrasted the generosity of that civilization with the narrow-mindedness of our own, and applauded the West.
The arguments that follow in the essay focus on the end- century disillusionment regarding the supposedly inclusive western ideal, adoption of whose values had by no means helped Indians to achieve equality with the white race. Then the author goes on to explode the fallacy of such an expectation and the absurdity of looking at the cultural options simply as binary alternatives. Investing too much hope in English education with its inevitable outcome—alienation of a few from the millions—could be as much fraught with negative social consequences as accepting uncritically a monolithic Hindu tradition with its hierarchical human divisions and frozen customs!
In Gora, which was published about seven years after this essay, some of these hesitations and introspections are explored in fictional form. Although structured largely through a series of arguments, this massive novel, teeming with people and their contesting ideologies never congeals into predictable polemics. Tradition Vs modernity, religious orthodoxy Vs secularism, ancient India Vs the West, such are the paired oppositional categories through which the history of nationalism has often been narrated. Fictional texts remind us of the limitations of such a segmented view. In the densely textured and webbed social context that novels represent, these clear-cut intellectual categories get mediated through many imperceptible forces—often emotional and irrational, some of which remain unarticulated. This intricate process is clearly demonstrated in the present novel,
Gora and Binoy are by no means opposing protagonists nor are the advocacies of westernization or tradition posited in unitary voices. Despite the novel’s central concern with the cultural effects of colonialism, the actual debate is not between Christianity and Hinduism, nor do the adversaries belong to two different races. The dramatis personae are mostly educated Bengalis—either Hindu or Brahma—the few Englishmen who make fleeting appearance or are mentioned in conversations remain marginal on the whole. Those outside the pale of bhadralok society enter the story briefly now and then to contribute to Gora’s education about India, but they never acquire subject positions.
If the plurality of upper caste Hinduism is seen in a range of characters as varied as Krishnadayal, Anandamoyi, Gora and Abinash, the Brahma Samaj is equally splintered through the perspectives of Poresh Babu, Baradasundafl, Sucharita and Haran Babu. Meaning in this novel lies not in individual utterances, but in their dialogical negotiations. Barring one or two characters whose positions remain static (Haran or Abinash, for example), the ideas and praxis of the major figures in this novel get modified constantly through mutual interaction—logic and instinct, intellect and emotional attachments often getting into each other’s way to complicate the drift of the arguments. By the end of the novel we recognise this interpellation to be enrichment; the reticulation of the public domain of debate and the private arena of love, affection and friendship seem to initiate a process that might lead towards wholeness.
This wholeness always remained an elusive goal in Rabindranath’s work. Reconciling the integrity of a person with the public demands of a group was for him a task fraught with irreducible conflict. In his own life as in his novels we repeatedly see the tension between the introspective individual and the collectivity that tends to flatten out the nuances of his ideas through mindless adulation or hostility. In this novel Abinash and his gang trivialise Gora’s principles through their excessive zeal, reducing them to mere populist rhetoric. Another example is Haran whose flag-waiving creed is meant to represent the Brahmo Samaj. His intolerance of Poresh Babu’s individual interpretation of dharma reflects the tyrannical pressure of the community towards conformity.
Despite his felt need for mobilizing popular support for any social change or political action, Rabindranath rarely ever represented this collective ideal in fiction positively. Sandeep, the charismatic swadeshi leader in Ghare-baire, turns out to be a person of doubtful integrity while Nikhil’s, with his original and radical ideas about economic independence, remains a lonely man whose projects fail due to the lack of public cooperation. Gora has a following, but most of the time his followers are more of an embarrassment to him than a strength. He knows that belonging totally to a group can be stifling for the self and he urges Sucharita not to identify completely with the readymade ideology of a group (drawl in Bangla):
My only wish is you should understand your own mind. Don’t belittle yourself by listening to other people’s opinions. You have to realize clearly in your own mind that you are not merely a member of some group. (p. 354)
At the end of the novel Gora’s crisis if identity frees him from the imperative of belonging to any category of persons, marking out the start of an individual journey.
This uneasy relationship between the unique individual and the common run of people who tend to pull the uncommon down to their own level for admiration or attack may not be the central theme in this novel, but this situation, so familiar to the author all through his life, forms a distinct sub- text in Gora.
The text of the novel mentions no dates, but by the internal evidence of Gora’s birth at the time of the Sipahi revolt in North India (1857), the temporal frame of action may be located roughly around 1880 (Gora is a young man fresh out of the university when the novel begins ), thirty years prior to the time of composition. The eponymous hero is thus chronologically four years senior to his author Rabindranth (b.1861) and six years older than Swami Vivekananda (b.1863), one of the many real life originals that have been claimed for this extraordinary fictional character.
The events in Gora are roughly contemporary with the time when Bankimchandra Cattopadhyay, under the assumed name of Ram Chandra, entered into a debate with William Hastie about Hinduism in the pages of The Statesman (Sept-Oct 1882). We are give to understand that Gora too began his public career through similar debates with some English-men, justifying the religious practices of Hinduism in the columns of Calcutta news papers. But by the time the novel begins, we are told, he had already realised the futility of this endeavour. His altered position is clearly spelt out in a conversation with Binoy fairly early in the book: “We shall not allow our country to stand in the dock like an accused person and be judged in a foreign law-court and according to alien laws.”
Ram Chandra had also made a similar declaration in his letter to The Statesman on October28, 1982:
Hinduism does not consider itself placed on its defense. In the language of lawyers, there is not yet a properly formed charge against it, And at the bar of Christianity, which itself has to maintain a hard struggle for existence in its own home, Hinduism also pleads want of Jurisdiction.
But despite such disclaimers, Ram Chandra in his correspondence does sound defensive, and Gora’s aggressive stance in the first part of the novel is definitely prolepsis of not openly reactive.
Gora’s polemics however are not directly aimed at foreigners. Rabindranath shifted the discourse to another arena- the Brahma-Hindu tension in late nineteenth-century Bengal the Brahmo Samaj being the most palpable institution through which both the religious and social impact of the West was mediated in Bengal. We are told that Gourmohan. Or Gora, like other English –educated young men of his generation, had first been drawn towards the reformist impulse of the Brahmo creed which attempted to purge Hinduism of elaborate rituals, caste hierarchy and idol worship. Incidentally, Narendranath Dutta, before he became Swami Vivekananda had also been drawn briefly to the Brahma Samaj.
The novel begins at a point when, after his brief infatuation with the Brahmo way of thinking, Gora has turned towards a loud and flamboyant brand of Hindu orthodoxy, displaying what may be called ‘a colonial anxiety of influence’, an anxiety that makes one aggressively deny the values that might have once conditioned one’s perception and thinking. His upholding of Hindu rituals and flaunting of Brahmanic symbols were gestures of defiance and assertion of cultural superiority directed not so much at the British, as at his westernised Indian contemporaries who had repudiated their own past and their own people. Gora’s‘ discovery of India’s visits to the rural areas (reminiscent again of Swami Vivekananda’s travels as a wandering monk in different parts of India) are emblematic of a desire to reconnect with the masses, a desire for belonging that has always troubled the Indian intelligentsia. Gourmohan’s emphatic adoption of a faith that embraces multitudes and a tradition that goes back centuries, is thus part of his anti- alienation strategy – the urban- Indian’s desperate attempt to become part of a larger whole. In response to Sucharita’s direct question ‘Do you really believe in idols?’ Gora has to admit somewhat defensively:,“Look, I’ll tell you the truth . I am not sure if I respect any idol but I do respect the faith of my countrymen.” (p.373) This respect, which he proclaimed in public, was not always sustainable in private, because when the blind faith of the carpenter community allowed young Nanda to die without proper medical treatment, Gora agonised over their ignorance and superstition instead of respecting their faith in alternative modes of heading.
To combat ignorance and weakness, Gora’s project o Hinduism took on an activist, masculinist and nationalist cast. When he mobilized young men for physical culture and group games, he did not make any distinction regarding caste. But in his own conduct and diet, he followed the ritual laws of pollution and purity. He did not see any contradiction in this because the Bharatvin of his dream was based on an indestructible order wherein these distinctions were divinely ordained.
Much later in the novel, when Gora’s rigidity began to thaw imperceptibly under Sucharita’s influence, he himself detected a major flaw in his earlier concept of Bharatvarsha: it excluded women altogether. If women existed for him at all, as symbols of grace, purity and motherhood, they were supposed to perform their functions in the enclosed domestic space, invisible to the outside world. As Gora’s trajectory in the novel veered him away from an inflexible intolerance to a certain measure of self-doubt, he also began to understand that women are individuals rather than static icons of culture. As early as chapter 17, Binoy had argued with Gora about the need to see women in their totality as human beings (p. 107). When he compared the high –born Hindu males’ attitude towards women with that towards the low caste people (neither was perceived beyond their specific occupational or biological function), Gora had dismissed the analogy outright, insisting on the internal order of Hindu society, whose reversal would lead to anarchy. But by the end of the novel, through a long and circuitous route, he arrived at the position where Binoy’s point had to be conceding.
In Gora as well as his other political novel, Gare-baire (1916), Rabindranath seems critical of the deification of women as the spirit of the country, as done by Bankimchandra Chatopadhyay before him- an act which involves a denial of her status as a living human being. Worshipping the nation as mother and essential sing the woman as spiritual power are parallel processes: one perpetuates the bondage of women; the other exalts the abstract notion of the country over the actual people who constitute it.
The miseries of the actual people that Gora confronts in his second visit to the village Char- Ghospara (chapter67) helps to cure him of his rural nostalgia and makes possible his shift from the abstract to the concrete level of reality. His first visit to the village fairly early in the novel (chapter26), was a quixotic one, making it clear to the reader, though not to Gora, that his well-meaning interventions could cause more harm than good to the oppressed inhabitants. He spoke to the people across the gulf of class, not being able to understand their perspective. For example, he dismissed the village barbar’s perfectly legitimate fear of persecution by the indigo planter as mere cowardice, Moreover even though he wanted to identify with the people, he was clearly seen as ‘bhadralok’ by the others and the police were prepared to treat him differently from the rural folk. Much later in the novel when Gora returned to char- Ghospara again, he could clearly see the chasm that separated him from them. It was a bitter realization that the tradition he had idealised for so long would not bear close critical scrutiny in real life. Religion, instead of being the sustaining faith that he had perceived it to be, had become reduced to stifling rituals and divisive practices. When he saw that his imagined organic community was in reality deeply fractured by cruelty and caste exploitations, the validity of his definition of a Hindu Bharatvarsha lay exposed and discredited.
For Gora the final delinking if Hinduism from the concept of Bharatvarsha is achieved through the knowledge of his birth. The fortress of his orthodoxy had already started crumbling, but this plot strategy administers the decisive blow. This device of the orphan hero, fairly common in fiction is not as dramatic in this novel as it is sometimes considered to be because Gora’s Irish parentage was no secret to the reader. It came as a surprise only to Gora. As a matter of fact, being brought up by parents not one’s own is the norm rather than an exception in this novel. Born of Hindu parents, Radharani grew up in to Brahmo household of pareshbabu, to be renamed Suchitra. Binoy, orphaned in childhood, was educated by an uncle who never appears in the novel, and was emotionally nurtured by his friend’s mother Anandamoyi Gora’s case however was entirely different, because the discovery of his biological origin dismantled the concept of self he had erected on the props of caste, religion, race and nation, purity of birth being for him the most important factor in his identity. When he learns of his birth, Gora’s first reaction is of total disorientation: “He had no mother, no father, no country, no race, no name, no lineage, and no god. All of him constituted a ‘no’” (p.471) But the next realization is that of release and freedom. “That which I sought day and night to become, but could not, today I have indeed become that. Today I am Bharatvarshiya. Within me here is no conflict between communities…..”
Paradoxixlly, only the knowledge of his Irish birth could transform Gora into a true Indian, wrenching him out of all sectarian identifications. Gora;s providential solution cannot however be replicated for others; the competing claims of class, caste, language, region and religion continue to this day to create fissures in any totalizing discourse of the nation. The fictional closure of the novel Gora thus remains in the realm of an idealized optimism, marking a step in Rabindranath’s evolving relationship with Indian nationalism, prefiguring a more stringent criticism of the ‘seadeshi’ ideology with its neo- Hindu rhetoric in his next political novel Ghare-baire
Bharatvarsha is a key concept in Gora, denoting more than a geographical area or administrative unit. The emotive and abstract vision of Bharatvarsha that Gora propagates in the early part of the novel gathers round itself a louder resonance and a more febrile intoxication every time he-tries to articulate it, e.g., in response to Binoy’s question in chapter7 ‘where is this Bharatvarsha of yours?’, or in the attempt to justify to Sucharita his identification of the country with religion or in numerous other arguments with his adversaries and exhortations to his followers.
The slow drift form the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic towards the actual, takes place in many stages, marked by several oscillations on Gora’s part, often occasioned by his conversations with Sucharita. At their first meeting Gora had completely ignored Sucharita. This deliberate with holding of attention was an indirect statement of his ideological position on women. A woman who did not observe the rules of seclusion, daring even to participate in the intellectual argument between two men, earned nothing but his dismissive contempt. Gradually, however, Gora’s own growth as an individual gets linked to his slow recognition of Sucharita as a thinking human being. After his initial dialogue with Sucharita about the reality of Bharatvarsha, we see Gora for the first time emotionally unsettled and in need for solitude (p.140). Quite uncharacteristically, he spent one whole evening alone by the river, suddenly conscious of the flowing water, fragrant creepers and the darkening sky- sensations he had been unaware of so far. The word for nature in the original text- prakriti-also means the feminine principle in creation, and thus the author’s comment ‘Today Gora was somehow caught unawares by prakriti gains a dual significance. Gora’s humanization is simultaneously also a process of feminisation, although his stubbornly masculine persona- acquired defensively against the British assumption of the effeminacy of the Hindu male- does not dissolve very easily. Rabindranath’s attempt to inscribe the women centrally in the narrative of the nation (in Gora as well as in Ghare – Baire) was radical move at that historical moment, an implicit rejoinder to Bankinchandra Chattopadhyay’s version of militant motherland patriotism and the recuperation of Hindu manhood as valorized in a text like Anandamath (1882 in which political praxis demanded the exclusion of women from the sphere of action.
In Gora there are as many women as men in the large cast of characters, creating an almost schematic balance of gender in the dynamics of the plot. If Gora’s adoptive mother Anandamoyi provides one model of inclusive lice and quietly confident individualism, Poresh Babu, Sucharita’s adoptive father, provides the parallel ideal of equanimity and wisdom. The other parents both the Hindu and Brahmo households represent degrees of bigotry and exclusion. Lolita, like an unsheathed sword in her rebellious individualism, offers the same contrast to the gentle and considerate Sucharita as the strident Gora does to his low- key friend Binoy. Satish, suchitra’s younger brother who occupies a prominent space in the action mail through his spatial mobility and friendly playfulness stands as an exact contrast to Sashimukhi, a girl-child of the same age who remains carefully concealed within the domestic space, static and passive- without a voice, a silent counter in the adult game of power. But the character, who disturbs this symmetry, ushering in an unpredictable and therefore interesting complication in the plot, is Harimohini, the unlettered and destitute widow who plays as crucial a role in this novel of idealogical debates as the more articulate and intellectual characters?
Introduced as a victim figure, exploited by her husband’s family, unable to accept the path of religion without the ame liorating influence of human attachments, initially Harimohini attracts not only Sucharita’s sympathy, but the reader’s as well. But as she acquires power and independence she grows increasingly intolerant of laxity in matters of purity and pollution regarding food and water. Incidentally, food in this novel assumes considerable semiotic importance as a signifier of inclusion and exclusion or as a site for filial bonding, because, by demanding food from a woman a man can stake his claim as a surrogate son. Unlike Anadamoyi who is affectionate without being possessive, Harmohini turns fiercely proprietary about her relationships. She uses food as a boundary marker rather than a token of nurture and care. Her transformation from a social vicitm-hence an object of compassion- into a despotic figure of orthodoxy, who would forcibly push Sucharita into a stifling marriage in order to consolidate her own power, only highlights the reactive nature of human belief and conduct – one of the central concerns of the novel. Ideas are seldom absolute; they are constantly reconstituting themselves in response to other ideas. The greater the threat of opposition, the more rigid is the stance of resistance. In Gora’s case the movement from a defensive orthodoxy- used by him almost as military tactics- towards an acceptance of plurality is trace mainly through a range of relationships. The real and imagined male adversaries only spurred him on to a further hardening of dogma, while the women, subtly and indirectly, through uncertain interstices, propelled him towards sympathy and understanding.
But why only Gora? Binoy is as much a protagonist in this novel as his larger- than- life friend, more central to the working out of the theme in realistic setting because Binoy in his ordinariness is a truer representative of his class than the unusual Gourmohan. Like other educated Bengali young men of his time, Binoy is marked by his dexterity with words and indecisiveness in action, his unwillingness to hurt others and anxiety to maintain decorum. Although at first he gives the impression of being Gora’s shadow, their relationship turns out not to be a simple one of leader and disciple. For long stretches, as when Gora is in jail, or away in his walking tours, Binoy navigates alone through the eddies of conflicting ideologies without the benefit of a debating partner, temporarily drifting away from Gora’s sphere of influence, to come together again to resume their sparring matches. These friends need each other as sounding boards for reaffirming their different stance, although at two points in the novel their friendship is put to tests almost too severe to allow any further coming together.
The first time was when Gora refused bail and chose to spend a term in a British Indian jail. As circumstances would have it, Binoy was at that moment enjoying the hospitality of the British magistrate of the same district. The distance between them seemed unbridgeable, but for once Binoy overcame his customary vacillation to walk out in his earlier commitment of entertaining his hosts and take the first steamer home. The second and more serious breach was caused by Binoy’s decision to marry Lolita. The last fifteen chapters of the novel dwell seemingly irrevocable rupture in their friendship, but the novel ends with a hint of their possible reconciliation. In the last chapter, when Gora is reborn in a humanist world beyond sectarianism, as a symbolic gesture of redemption he asks for a glass of water from Lachhmi, his mother’s domestic help, who had so far been an untouchable for him . Anandamoyi, as if to make his regeneration complete, tells him: ‘Now let me send for Binoy’. That this should be the last sentence of this nearly 500 page novel invests the Gora-Binoy relationship with a special dialogic significance in which one is incomplete without the other.
The first character the author introduces in this novel is Binoy thereby gaining for him the reader’s empathy that during the course of action is never completely lost. It is curious that this novel of stormy rhetoric and public polemics should open in a mood of indolence and inertia. Binoy idly watches from his balcony a world of bustle and action of which he does not form a part. His sense of detachment is not unalloyed with a mood of romantic restlessness. Binoy’s reverie is cut short by an accident on the street which sets the plot in motion. The baul’s song has already evoked an unnamable sense of longing that pervades this magic morning. Young unattached, on the brink of life, Binoy’s vulner ability is such that had it not been Sucharita, some other woman could just as well have unsettled his world at his point. After his long and solitary male existence in a rented apartment in Calcutta, when he gains entry in to Poresh Babu’s house, the feminie presence there overwhelms him completely. Imperceptible, as the novel progresses, without creating any tension in the narrative, we find Lolita replacing Sucharita in Binoy’s mind. There is a certain inevitability in this pairing, because Lolita;s directness and militancy presents the counterpart of Binoy’s malleability, just as Suchitra’s calm and unflickering search for truth becomes a foil for Gora’s combative logic.
The inertia and apparent purposelessness of the opening page mark an empty space in Benoy’s life. He has finished his university education but has not found his vocation yet. The novel on the whole elides the question of work or livelihood as far as its young protagonists are concerned. Presumably Gora and Binoy could be financially supported by their respective families while they indulged in their debates and journalistic enterprises, but it is curious that the issue of a remunerative profession or a career is never allowed to enter the discursive space of the novel at all. Indeed, for the educated young men in colonial Bengal, there was very little career option except jobs in the administration or in British merchant offices—none of which would have been acceptable to these fiery friends, even if we see Gora’s staid brother smugly slaving away at his clerical job under a British boss. Although once or twice Gora refers in passing to the demeaning life of a ten-to-five serfdom’, nowhere in his agenda do we find a blueprint for any alternative plan of income generation. Unlike the middle class in England, the educated class in British-administered Bengal contributed very little to the economy of the country. Rabindranath shows Nikhilesh in Ghare-baire to be much more acutely aware of this practical aspect of nationalism than either Sandip, the flamboyant political leader in the same novel, or Gora, the passionate ideologue in the earlier text. But even Nikhilesh’s manufacturing and banking enterprises were destined to end in failure. Because the English-educated class in Bengal were financially dependent either on salaries from the British or on revenue from their rural land holdings from which they remained permanently absent, their debates on nationalism remain at the relatively harmless level of emotive verbal jugglery and rhetorical flourish.
It is not surprising therefore that words should play such an important part in this novel. Debates and arguments form the staple narrative vehicle in Gora either in face-to-face confrontations or through the print medium. All the major male characters of the younger generation—Gora, Binoy, Haran, Abinash—are prodigious writers with access to the periodical press. Written words assume an unusual weight and make personal issues public. What was unspoken, tender and tenuous between Binoy and Lolita gets muddied by a public scandal through newspaper articles, anonymous letters and pamphlets.
A command over the English language- a much valued accomplishment in a colonial society – is as much a matter of pride for Gora as it is for his arch enemy Haran. The extent of irony inherent in the situation is left ambivalent here by the author. But in a later novel Chaturanga (1916), an acknowledged master of the English language is described with a touch of acerbic wit:
Some hailed him as the Macaulay of Bengal; others regarded him as the Johnson of this century. Like the shell of a tortoise, his life was encased within English books.
Compared to the mockery implicit in the tortoise metaphor, in Gora proficiency in English rhetoric and oratory seems to be uncritically accepted as an asset. But English in the colonial set-up could not have been a neutral language: it empowered the person who had mastery over it, insulating him from whatever was local and non- cerebral, and marking him out from the millions around. Moreover, it was a gendered acquisition. The women, even in Poreshh Babu’s emancipated household, who could copy lines from Longfellow and Moore in their elegant scrapbooks, did not express themselves in this language. Writing as a skill –in whatever language-was generally a male preserve. As Gora’sdisciple, Sucharita avidly read the volumes written by him, but neither she nor Lolita ever aspired t wield a pen, an instrument of power that might have gained them entry into the public arena of print culture.
In Ghare- baire, which too is palpably dependent on rhetoric and suggestive imagery for its effect, the hypnosis created by words becomes the filter through which the three major characters perceive themselves and each other. The most consummate word- wizard among them, at a moment of introspection cries out in desperation and anguish: ‘Am I then made of words?’ Such self-reflexivity is not evident in Gora, perhaps because in this novel words are necessary weapons not only against adversaries, but for convincing oneself of one’s own position. That is why Gora is least effective in a village, or when confronted with an illiterate women like Hari mohini; his scintillating langrage or brilliant logic makes in impression there. Beyond the dazzling structure of words, the novel contains awareness that there is a truth beyond verbal gymnastics which is much harder to arrive at. In this wordy novel of complex debates and polemical excesses, in a way the final triumph belongs to those who never speak loudly or assert themselves, although in order to reach this point the novel has to traverse a gamut of ideas on religion, nationalism, identity and community that not only tether the text to its historical context- the last quarter of the nineteenth century- but also offer possible points of entry for today’s readers after almost a hundred years.
Like all complex novels Gora has been subjected to diverse readings and multiple interpretations in Bangle through these eight decades and more-by turns foregrounding formal structure, history politics, religion, and caste-presumably by those who read it in the original. In English the novel has not yet received extensive critical scrutiny. One hopes that a new translation will merit attention from a different sector of readers who can read it only in English, and who might bring the theoretical and ideological perspectives of their own generation for opening out this old this text to further new readings.
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