I am a little slow in finishing and posting since the readalong was in August, but better late than never! I would probably never have read The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore if not for Cirtnecce. And I would not have enjoyed the book so much if not for her multiple postings about Indian history, especially about Swadeshi during which the book is set. One could read the book without background information and read it as a fine love story, but so much would be missed that way. Because the novel is full of ideas and a perfect example of the two-way street that is the personal and politcal.
Swadeshi, in case you don’t know, began as a protest movement after the British divided Bengal in 1905 under a kind of “divide and conquer” policy. Swadeshi aimed at boycotting British goods in order to encourage local industry and crafts. There were those who became rabid patriots and would go to any length for the cause and those who could see the bigger picture and aimed for long term solutions that would benefit all of Bengal and India rather than short term drastic measures that harmed more than helped.
This is the stage of The Home and the World. On the rational, bigger picture side we have Nikhil, a wealthy Bengali landowner of the enlightened humanist variety. He is for Swadeshi and early in the movement he made attempts to set up weaving centers and other industries to produce local goods. But the quality was poor and the cost of the goods produced was high. The British could make better quality goods at lower prices, especially cloth. Nikhil also realized that the boycott hurt the poor because they could not afford to buy the more expensive Indian products. In addition, many poor merchants made what living they could by buying cheap British goods and selling them at markets, now suddenly they are left with products they are not allowed to sell and those who try to sell them anyway are attacked and their products destroyed, their livelihoods ruined.
Among those who only care about the short term is Sandip. He is one of those passionate, charismatic sorts who can get people really worked up. He is also admittedly greedy and always on the alert for what he can gain even if it means others are hurt by it. Sandip is a local movement leader and has followers he can easily manipulate. Somehow he and Nikhil manage to be friends, though it seems the friendship is more a rivalry most of the time. Sandip and Nikhil spend hours discussing and arguing various philosphical and political points.
In the middle of the two men is Bimala, Nikhil’s wife of nine years. Wealthy women at this time did not go out of the house, were not to be seen in public or engage in political goings on. From the beginning of their marriage Nikhil has encouraged Bimala to not be a traditional wife, to take interest in the world outside the home, even to wear western clothes. Bimala has never been comfortable with this though she does her best to fufill her husband’s wishes. One day she goes out with a friend and hears Sandip speaking. She is immediately drawn in by his passion, his looks, the sound of his voice. She has Nikhil invite him to dinner so she can meet him. Sandip turns on the charm and Bimala is a goner.
Poor Bimala is caught between the two men. She loves her husband but he is so calm and rational and he doesn’t go all he-man when Sandip is making obvious passes at his wife. Instead he keeps stepping back giving Bimala room to make her own decisions and fearing that the woman he married and loves is turning into someone else. Sandip is an expert manipulator and knows exactly what he is doing. He says all the right things and convinces Bimala that she is a goddess and will lead the movement and inspire the country. He doesn’t believe this, he just wants Bimala and the money she can get from her husband.
At last it all comes to a crisis. There is fear, anger, guilt, relief, remorse, and more. And just when I thought it was all resolved and perhaps a crack of hopeful light, something terrible happens and the book ends and the reader is left suspended. At first I thought it was not fair to be left hanging but then I came to the conslusion that in the context of the book and the historical period in which it is placed, the lack of closure was appropriate. While today we have the benefit of history to know what the ultimate outcome of events were, when Tagore published the book in 1916 it was all still very much in progress and undecided.
The Home and the World is a good book about a period of Indian history I knew very little about. I felt like I got a two-for with this one; a good story and a history lesson.