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Since 1st March, 1999
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Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World: A Critical Companion Edited by P.K. Datta, Permanent Black, Rs 395

Tagore’s Ghare Baire is an astonishingly complex, beautiful and modern novel. Serialized in 1915-16 in an avant garde Bengali periodical, its longest version was published in 1920, a year after its English translation, The Home and the World. The period, 1915-20, is vital to an understanding of the reach of Tagore’s modernity. This was when Indian nationalism ran alongside World War I and the Russian Revolution. Einstein’s general theory of relativity and Freud’s Lectures on Psychoanalysis had just been sprung upon the world. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Joyce’s Portrait and Eliot’s Prufrock are also of that period, when Proust was at work on Temps Perdu and Mann on Magic Mountain. The post-Impressionists had been exhibited in London, Dada and Surrealism were happening, and Picasso was into his Cubist phase.

This chronology is not a matter of coincidence, but is of the essence of Tagore’s cosmopolitanism as an artist and thinker. Any historical understanding of the novel’s achievement must, of course, look closely at its critique of Hindu nationalism or Bengali “landlordism”. This is done, with erudition and varying critical sophistication, by Tanika Sarkar, Michael Sprinker and Sumit Sarkar, all of whom are well-established historians of the social, political and cultural forms taken by Indian nationalism. But the contexts to the novel explored in this anthology never quite make the defining movement outwards from the home to the world, with the exception of Jasodhara Bag-chi’s reading of the novel in relation to Auguste Comte’s positivism.

The editor’s desire “to break out” of what he takes to be “the mould of Eng. Lit. studies” is also apparent in the absence of any close literary readings of the novel in relation to Tagore’s poems, songs and — the most unfortunate omission — paintings. (Only one essay, by Malini Bhattacharya, compares the notion of modernity in the novel with that in Gora.) Portraiture and photography are integral to the representation of inwardness and female subjectivity in Ghare Baire; and the resonance of words like puja, prem, shorbonash, bedona and antar — crucial to the novel’s structures of feeling — become infinitely richer when heard against the verbal music of the lyrics and poetry. This is perhaps why Supriya Chaudhuri’s linguistically nuanced, but ultimately rather restrained, analysis of “styles of feeling”, “tonal shifts” and “specular dynamics” in the novel feels like having come closest to the grain of its play of voices and gazes. The passages she translates are a pleasure to read. Another insightful, but tantalizingly brief, essay is by Tapobrata Ghosh, on the “form” of the novel and how it reflects Nikhilesh’s “unique and daring experiment with conjugal relations” as well as Bimala’s perverse fascination with “sexual terror”.

Modernity, in Ghare Baire, has two closely intertwined unfoldings. The better noticed movement is from ghar to bahir, from the private and the domestic to the public and the political. This is Bimala’s journey, with its liberating intoxications and immeasurable pain, its own intimations of tragedy. But there is another journey that counterpoints this emergence not only into the blaze of a revolution but also into the light of common day. This second path leads to a profound inwardness and a desolating solitude, where blindness and egotism are inseparable from recognition and humility, even humiliation. This is Nikhilesh’s “antarer itihash”, near the end of which comes a baffling, mystical, night-born forgiveness, followed by a crucially “undiscovered” ending. That fleeting union is also a moment in modernity, both in and out of time — but it continues to elude the languages of modern criticism.

Aveek Sen

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