I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity for as long as I live.
– Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Abala Bose (1908)
Throughout history, an undesirably large portion of political dialogue has consisted of the argument that ends justify means. Examples of such political maneuvering, and the accompanying horrors, are everywhere around us, and cautionary voices are all but drowned out by extreme rhetoric. During a sensitive period in India’s freedom struggle, Rabindranath Tagore incurred much ridicule and censure when he wrote a story that warned against the rampant nationalistic fervor resulting from the Swadeshi movement.
Swadeshi, an important facet of Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to seeking freedom from the British Raj, consisted of asking people to boycott foreign goods and to rely on indigenously manufactured products. The intention was to drive home the importance of a self-reliant populace and a self-sufficient country that deserved freedom from the British Empire. Tagore was troubled by the spectacle of people enthusiastically burning foreign goods in public bonfires. He feared that this would spark discontent among India’s own social strata, and the germ of Gandhiji’s message would be lost to aggressive nationalism which would only turn the country against itself. This is the background against which he wrote Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) the story of a love triangle composed of an educated, moderate nobleman (Nikhil), his wilful, impressionable wife (Bimala) and a passionate, but self-serving freedom-fighter (Sandip).
Sandip is a fiery orator who can move thousands with his voice. He knows that nationalism has its ugly side, but believes that freedom must be attained at all costs. Nikhil realizes that Sandip treads a risky path and much can go wrong with it. Bimala who was married into the rich family in the traditional way, finds herself buffeted between her husband’s rational, peace-loving and conscientious nature and Sandip’s dangerous but irresistible ardor. That is how the story begins – with the home and outside world, both in turmoil.
The plot contains a number of interesting philosophical problems, which can be discussed without spoiling the particular events of the novel. In defense of his position, Sandip cites the example of the advice that Lord Krishna gave to the hesitant Arjuna prior to the great battle in the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic poem. This advice, encapsulated in the Bhagwad Gita, encourages a man to perform his rightful duty without thought for the consequence, or as we say in India, the “fruit of the action”. Tagore is concerned about the ease with which this maxim can be subverted to unpleasant ends. This position, which is skeptical of the Gita, is rare in Indian rhetoric to this day. As Amartya Sen notes in The Argumentative Indian,
Indeed, the tragic desolation that the post-combat and post-carnage land – largely the Indo-Gangetic plain – seems to face toward the end of the Mahabharata can even be seen as something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts. Arjuna’s contrary arguments are not really vanquished, no matter what the ‘message’ of the Bhagwad Gita is meant to be. There remains a powerful case for ‘faring well’, and not just ‘faring forward’. [This last sentence is a reference to T.S. Elliot’s “Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers!”]
Another impressive quality of the story, considering the period in which it was written, is the manner in which Nikhil perceives his relation to his wife, Bimala. Across many patriarchal societies, and certainly in much of India – there runs the refrain that the wife’s destiny is bound to her husband’s and that, once the woman has left her parents’ home, her husband is her protector and her lord. It comes as a surprise to discover that Nikhil considers the relationship as one of equality. Even though he loves Bimala immensely, and it is painful for him to contemplate separation, he does not think that she ought to remain bound to him by virtue of their marriage. I had read too little of Tagore to realize that, apart from being a great poet and educator, he was a progressive thinker whose opinions on international politics, patriotism, and God went against the established dogma of his period. [Much of these less well-known aspects of Tagore are in Amartya Sen’s essay Tagore and his India.]
The version that I read has been translated into English by Surendranath Bose. It is natural for most readers of translated texts to wonder what is being lost, what is being unconsciously subverted, and what is being rendered altogether opaque by the gaping chasm between the culture of the writer and the reader. It is true that such emotions as love, disgust, devotion and greed are universal, but the way in which they are expressed in the story is very much dependent on the particular culture in which the original story is supposed to happen. It would be apparent in any Western translation of an Eastern work and vice versa, and there is no escape from this for anyone who reads Ghare-Baire in English; this includes Indians who haven’t had much contact with Bengali culture. Footnotes attempt to explain that the vermilion mark on Bimala’s forehead is a symbol of Hindu wifehood, but how is the translator to explain the many manifestations of the vermilion mark – for has it not come to represent, simultaneously, a wife’s devotion and her cage, her love and her frustration, her radiant jewel and her crown of thorns? How is one to communicate to an uninitiated reader the religious and social “baggage” of something as loaded as the vermilion mark?
It appears that the translator’s task is made more difficult because much of the dialogue in Ghare-Baire has the flavor of poetry – some measure of rhyme and meter. In English, it still reads as very lyrical, but sometimes, it becomes a little dissonant, as if the idea being conveyed is rendered unnecessarily forceful by the mere act of translation. It took me a while to become aware of this, to accept the possibility that what I am reading is but a projection on to a subspace of fewer dimensions than Tagore might have intended.