About the Book
Towards Freedom is a collection of critical essays on the issues raised by Tagore’s in a contemporary world where differences of religion, region, class, caste, gender, etc., constantly demand to be addressed. It focuses upon the crafting of the novel out of complex historical contexts of caste, class and gender politics. By examining the play of ideologies in this novel, the anthology aims to help student recognise the importance of locating imaginative literature within its histories. Given that most of these structured hierarchies of oppression function powerfully in our lives even today, Towards Freedom stresses the continuing relevance of engaging with the issues raised by a novel which looks at the private and the political as intertwined.
Towards Freedom stresses the continuing relevance of engaging with the issues raised by a novel which looks at the private and the political as intertwined.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Baire was first serialised in 1915 and published as a novel in 1916. The English translation, with some excisions, by Surendranath Tagore was published in 1919 as The Home and The World. The events narrated in the novel belong to the period 1905-08, a period of tremendous political unrest in Bengal in the wake of the partition of the province by the colonial British government and the rise of militant nationalism, historicised as bangabhanga and the swadeshi movement. This brief pre-Gandhian anti-colonial movement occupies an important place in the national historiography and even more so in the popular memory of middle-class Bengal despite its short duration and failure.
The partition of Bengal was effected on 16 October 1905 during the vice-royalty of Lord Curzon on the grounds that the premier province of the Bengal Presidency had grown too vast for effective administration. The administrative failure in dealing with the Orissa famine of 1866, for instance, was blamed on the vastness of the presidency and used to strengthen the argument for its partitioning. The new province was to be called Eastern Bengal and Assam with its capital at Dhaka. However, the proposed partition of the province for the furnished reasons of greater administrative efficiency was perceived by the nationalists as “... little more than smokescreens for a deep Imperialist design of ‘divide and rule’.” The educated middle-class Bengalis saw in this proposal a deliberate move to splinter the solidarity of the Bengali-speaking population and their growing nationalism along communal lines, as the partition would encourage the growth of a Muslim power in eastern Bengal. In his speech at Dhaka on February 1904, for instance, Lord Curzon had reminded the Muslims of “their superior culture” and promised that the British would “invest the Mohammedans in Eastern Bengal with a unity which they have not enjoyed since the days of the old Mussalman Viceroys and kings”. The political protest against the partition of Bengal that started in 1905 with a call to boycott British piece goods was known as the swadeshi movement.
The swadeshi protest among the upper-class Bengali circles over the territorial division was, however, not without material considerations. The partition of the province, which would lead to a Court of Appeal at Dhaka, the rise of local newspapers, the imminent prominence of the Chittagong port, was apprehended as loss of business for the Calcutta lawyers, journalists, and zamindars who owned vast tracts of land across west and east Bengal. The growing unemployment within the educated bhadralok section, which coveted jobs in the Indian Civil Service, fuelled popular anti-British sentiments. All of these accounted for the high-caste Hindu bhadralok orientation of the swadeshi movement. The student community of Bengal- also responded with great enthusiasm to the call of nationalism. Students, including schoolboys, participated en masse in the campaigns of swadeshi and boycott. The government retaliated with the notorious Carlyle Circular that aimed to crush the students’ participation in the swadeshi and boycott movements, and the “Anti-Circular Society”, a militant student organisation, came into being to oppose the repressive methods. Initially the swadeshi movement used “moderate” methods of press campaigns, meetings, and petitions. The failure of such techniques led to a more extreme demand. fu Aurobindo Ghosh asserted, “We recognize no political object of worship except the divinity in our Motherland, no present object of political endeavour except liberty, and no method or action as politically good or evil except as it truly helps or hinders our progress towards national emancipation.” The new demand led to a search for new forms of agitation ranging from the aggressive boycott of British goods to terrorist activities. Rabindranath Tagore subscribed to the school that advocated the need for constructive self-help through swadeshi industries and National Schools which he termed “atma shakti” or self-strengthening. But between 1905-07, there was greater exhortation for a more relentless recourse to armed struggle. The Bengal extremists even got in touch with the Tilak group in Maharashtra and sought to give the Congress programme a new orientation at the Calcutta Congress of 1906.7 Gradually, the swadeshi mood in general was closely linked with individual acts of heroic self-sacrifice and terrorism and attempts to colour the boycott movement with Hindu religious revivalism. The Hindu revivalist trend together with the British propaganda that the new province would mean more jobs for the Muslims splintered the appeal for communal unity, which drew from Tagore the admission that “Satan cannot enter till he finds a flaw ... “ Rabindranath Tagore gradually withdrew from the political arena of the aggressive middle- and upper-class swadeshi movement.
The Hindu-Muslim riots between 1906-07 exposed the inadequacy of the movement to counter this communal challenge. Coercion soon brought resistance, and the constructive programmes of swadeshi were not enough to generate enthusiasm among Muslim and low-caste Hindu peasantry, resulting in the failure of the movement The two communities, outcaste and despised by the high-caste Hindu gentry, initiated their own counter-mobilisation campaigns in opposition to the swadeshi movement emanating from different historical consciousnesses and dissimilar ideological construction of the nation. The colonial government, at the same time, began to offer concessions, one such being that its employees in Eastern Bengal and Assam would be recruited on the basis of proportional numerical strength of various communities. By 1908, the swadeshi movement was on the decline. The failure of the movement is related to the ideological limitations of the Hindu bhadralok, who drew sustenance from the liberal professions, intermediate tenures, and subordinate administrative services, and its inability to address labour unrest, offer a constructive economic plan to the peasants, dissolve sharpening communal tensions, or carry on consistent constructive work in the villages.
This public political upheaval takes place alongside another revolution-that of women’s emancipation and a new gender equation in Bengal. The history of nineteenth-century Bengal is now widely recognised as crucial to the new construction of gender relations. The influence of Western education and philosophy on the traditional society of Bengal starts manifesting itself from the second and third decade of the nineteenth century. In a comparative evaluation of Western and Bengali social systems, the social position of women was marked as chief evidence of the latter’s backwardness. Of all the debates and agitation about the social reforms of the nineteenth century, the majority of them centred on those that dealt with women’s utter helplessness and position in society-sati, child marriage, incongruous age difference between bride and groom, condition of widows, polygamy, the need and extent of female education. In the nineteenth century, the question of equal right to education for men and women was not raised, but towards the close of the century, the belief that women should not be educated at all was on the decline. Journals and periodicals published in the second half of the nineteenth century foregrounded the need for improvement in the condition of women in the antahpur. Issues of female education, emancipation, as well as femine domestic virtues highlighted the progressive sections’ attempt at gender reforms, and, at the same time, the patriarchal limits of colonised Bengali society.
Ghare Baire is the first fictional exploration of the entangled web of crucial issues related to two spheres-The Home and The World-as implicated in questions of women’s freedom and the nationalist project in early twentieth-century Bengal. Nikhilesh is an enlightened, introspective, upper-caste young zamindar who attempts to “emancipate” his wife. The wife, Bimala, strong and sensuous, is drawn in the process towards Nikhilesh’s charismatic, swadeshi friend, Sandip. Sandip’s brand of nationalism is communal, but holds the promise of power and the possibility of gender emancipation. The interposing, interior monologues of these three protagonists constitute the fictional rendering of the charged historical period. The contemporary response to the novel was dominated by the horrified condemnation of Bimala’s modernisation. Her adulterous desire was berated for being shamelessly disruptive of traditional values, indicating the discomfiture of even the progressive sections of society with a novel that seemed to question so blatantly the mystified notions of chastity and domestic subservience of the Hindu wife. Surprisingly, the other important aspect of the novel- its critique of extremist nationalism through the figure of the morally dubious Sandip-did not receive much contemporary critical attention. As far as Western critical reception was concerned, besides the damning criticism of the novel that came from Lukacs, who characterised it as “a petit-bourgeois yarn of the silliest kind”, most other critics passed it over, probably for not giving that message of “Eastern mysticism” with which they principally associated Tagore. His novels, in fact, remained largely ignored, dealing as they did with specific problems of contemporary Bengal and hardly fulfilling the requirements of “imagining India” in terms of spiritual transcendence, squalor, and chaos that had been standardised by writers like Forster and Kipling.
Subsequently, in the post-independence context, as Tagore went on to become a towering figure in the tradition of Bengali/Indian literature, critical response to the political questions and ideological debates in the text was governed by an admiration for Tagore’s universal humanism and an easy identification of the author’s politics with that of Nikhilesh’s idealism. It was only later, with a rigorous historical analysis of the swadeshi movement, the politics of nation formation, and particularly in the interest of marginal/subaltern interests, and India’s (and the world’s) preoccupation perforce with fundamentalism and militant insurgencies that the political questions of motivations, methods, and the margins of “freedom” movements in the world-and the text-were foregrounded.
What makes Ghare Baire relevant to our times? Turning to its context, precisely a hundred years after the 1905 partition of Bengal, one is struck by the rich ideological terrain ranging from gender reforms and education to caste mobilisation and nationalism; issues that hold relevance even today. The swadeshi context of the novel allows for questioning the politics of nationalism premised on caste hierarchy and religious intolerance, precisely because we see in the novel the possible birth of such a nation. The novel shows glimpses of the poor ryots’ poverty-stricken life in the wake of swadeshi. Panchu’s story is an extremely moving one as it shows how the feudal zamindar’s like Harish Kundu exploit and ruthlessly dominate poor tenants in the name of swadeshi. Distant echoes of the Permanent Settlement, the zamindar-peasant relationship, and the Hindu-Muslim conflict in rural Bengal reverberate through Tagore’s narrative. But Ghare Baire is not essentially about class conflicts or contradictions. In fact, class configurations are presented sketchily and details are kept to a minimum except in the case of Nikhilesh and his household. And, while the text documents how Panchu is exploited by the swadeshi agitation, it offers little by way of analysis of why educated and yet unemployed students would be swayed by the ideology of anti-colonialism. Historically, the swadeshi agitation did not throw up two classes, the exploited and the exploiters, along with some benevolent intellectuals. The andolan, if anything, showed class alliances between zamindars and educated, unemployed young men, on the one hand, while the poor and exploited peasantry, both Hindus and Muslims, remained outside the andolan. Clearly, the representation of Nikhilesh as a rich zamindar who is anti-swadeshi is an intriguing aspect which raises questions of the nature of upper-class/caste feudal benevolence. Could there be a more complex trajectory of the low castes’ struggle for identities during the period other than the patronising plot that Nikhilesh’s (and Tagore’s) narrative maps?
Notes on Contributors
The Role of Tagore’s Literature (Niharranjan Ray)
Andare Antare: Inner Worlds (Sambuddha Chakrabarti)
Teaching the Wife: Miss Gilby, the English Women, and the Antahpur (Shamparoy)
Goddesses, Women, and the Clutch of Metaphors in Gbare Baire (Saswati Sengupta)
Beyond the Intricate Web of Words: An Essay on Tagore’s Ghare Baire (Shirshendu Chakrabarti)
Contesting Modernities: The Two Men in Ghare Baire (Sharmila Purkayastha)
The Peasant in Ghare Baire (Sumanta Banerjee)
Understanding Panchu: Swadeshi, Ghare Baire, and the Lower-Caste Peasants of Eastern Bengal (Sekhar Bandyopadhyay)
Mirjan from the Margins (Saswati Sengupta, Shampa Roy, Sharmila Purkayastha)
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