Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Genre: Autobiographical fiction
Published: 1916(in Bengali), 1919(in English).
Edition: Penguin Modern Classics, Published 2005.
My Rating: ****4/5
Summary: “Set against the backdrop of the partitionof Bengal by the British in 1905, Home and the World is the story of a young zamindar Nikhilesh, his educated and sensitive wife Bimala, and Nikhilehs’s friend Sandip, a charismatic nationalist leader whom Bimala finds herself attracted to. A perceptive exposition of the difficulties surrounding women’s emancipationin pre-modern India, and a telling portrayal of the chasms inherent in the nationalist movement, Home and the World has generated endless debate and discussion”
“It has the complexity and tragic dimensions of Tagore’s own time and ours”- Anita Desai
This edition is translated from Bengali by Sreejata Guha with introduction and notes by Swagato Ganguly. The publisher’s note explicitly states that Rabindranath Tagore wrote the original version with much of the poetic prose and including many poems. The translated English edition is, however, short of those poems as they were deemed untranslatable. Also in the original version Bimala has two elder sisters-in-law, but in this one they were merged in one. But we get the gist of it. About the poems though, I’m glad there are few as I am not much of the poetry person, although I’m sure they are much more enjoyable in the original language. The story is narrated in the first person POV of three main characters.
Plot and setting: The story is set in the backdrop of partition of Bengal during 1905. The Swadeshi movement was on the uproar in those days. We have three main characters in our story, Nikhilesh, belonging to an aristocratic family who are descended from Mughals, his wife Bimala, belonging to a much humble background which becomes a topic of envy among her peers and her sisiters-in-law who mock her about her dark skin, when Nikhilesh gets an English tutor for her and when he adorns her with all the gifts and western clothes, and Sandip, friend of Nikhilesh, who is a political revolutionary hell bent on doing anything he wants to acquire freedom. The story is very symbolic of the Ramayana, where the threshold is very important, and hence the title ‘Home and the World’. Nikhilesh loves his wife and wants her to have an understanding of the world beyond her inner chambers. He doesn’t want to limit her only to the household chores and diminish her intellect, he wants her to experience how the outside world works and that she should do so on her own terms. This thought was particularly very modern during the time this novel was published so it was the subject of controversy. Anyway, now Bimala, due to her dark skin never considered herself beautiful, so she finds her happiness in the fact that Nikhilesh loves and respects her and she respects him very much. Although she does try to compensate for the fact that Nikhilesh is not the man of her dreams. Nikhilesh is very benevolent and passive and does a lot of charity which is disparaged by Bimala. Even when Nikhilesh is passive on the subject of Swadeshi movement reluctant to ban foreign goods from his market, Bimala thinks of him as not bold enough to do so. During a meeting for the promotion of Swadeshi movement Bimala watches Sandip, speaking so boldly and persuasively that she gets enthralled by his voice, his persona and begins to revere him. She gets infatuated with him. He too adulates her and convinces her to help and lead with him in his mission and in turn go against her husband’s beliefs. Bimala actively participates in the movement and is confused with her feelings for Sandip. Eventually Bimala gets to know her own self in this journey and the true love she always wanted.
The household and day to day activities described are very relatable. The Swadeshi movement really sneaks up on you. It’s not the main theme here but it plays an active role. The ending is ambiguous and could have been better but may be that was what the author was going for. The main theme here are the characters especially Bimala, an educated girl living in pre-modern India.
Characterisation and chemistry: The story is extremely character driven. These characters in the story are very strong. As we have the first person narration here we get into their psyche, their feelings, pain, joy all of it can be experienced by the readers. But I must say the author has done a stupendous job building the characters earlier in the novel. In the later part the plot is progressed. But without building these characters first the plot could not have been conceived. When I was reading the Bimala part I was completely gripped by her narration, I got in her mind, I knew how she felt, and I was her. And when I read Nikhilesh or Sandip , I was again captured by their emotions. The thing is I got to know these characters and they were so real and relatable that they became real people for me and as the story progressed I knew how their decisions and their mind is affecting their actions. The plot, for me, was basically the result of how these characters felt and thought and acted on their beliefs and principles.
“I am not greedy, I am a lover. I desire her who can only be had when she wanted to give herself to me”.
Nikhilesh is very much in love with his wife. He equally respects her. He has his own reasons for not banning the foreign goods but never elucidates them. He is very well aware of the entanglements between Bimala and Sandip, but hopes that with the space he has given her she would choose wisely and even if she didn’t choose him he would not become an obstacle for her. To him Bimala was not bound by any laws or restriction, she was for him free and playful like he wanted to see her. For Nikhilesh she was not his just because customs made her his wife, she was to him whatever she chooses to be. I thought he had an amazing chemistry with every other character because of his pure nature. He sees good in every person but isn’t blind to their faults. He also believes anyone can be saved.
Sandip on the other hand is exactly the opposite but very interesting character. He wants what he sees and isn’t ashamed to do so even if it is forbidden. He falls in lust with Bimala and seduces her to do her bidding. He imagines himself as Ravana tempting the dark side of Sita. Although Sandip was attracted to Bimala, I couldn’t perceive any chemistry between them.
“I want, I want, I’ll have, I’ll have. From deep within women know that this desire is the life force of this world”.
Bimala is the jewel in this crown. She is my favourite character. She is most vibrant, flawed and relatable character. What she lacks in beauty and fair skin is made up by her colourful personality.
“I was not beautiful. I would be blessed with the gift of chastity”
Noting that she knows she has no beauty, yet she wishes to marry the prince of her dreams but is disappointed when she looks at Nikhilesh, who has the same colour as her, signifies as a shallow personality. She gets easily irritated by him and jealous of her sister-in-law.
“If only I could have one glimpse of the prince of my dreams”
She gets attracted to Sandip, or might I say more attracted towards his power, boldness, fierceness, but mostly his persona. She falls in lust with the power of his persona which is clearly lacking in her husband. She acknowledges these feelings but never professes them. She knows she has sinned and tries very hard to repent them. She is flawed and has weakness like many women, she is bold and wishes for her Prince charming. She knows where her fault lies and tries to do right by her own principles. I loved her. She has radiating chemistry with anyone she meets. But the sweetest chemistry is between her and Nikhilesh.
What I liked:
If the story doesn’t work for you, the love triangle doesn’t work for you, then I suggest you read this book for Bimala. She deserves it. I know it’s a lot to take in but I loved it. The prose is very beautiful. It makes you wonder. It is psychological and philosophical. I would recommend it to people who love character driven plot or novels set during partition and also if you want to get into the psyche of the woman who lived in pre-modern India.
What I didn’t like:
The ending could have been unambiguous. Also the characterization was brilliant but sometimes I felt overwhelmed because the characters would get too much philosophical.