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Tagore's Home and the World

Towards Freedom: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore's Ghare Baire/The Home and the World edited by Saswati Sengupta,

Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 13, 200823book reviewTagore’s Home and the WorldRosinka ChaudhuriTowards Freedom: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore’sGhare Baire/The Home and the Worldedited by Saswati Sengupta, Shampa Roy and Sharmila Purkayastha;Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2007; pp xii + 207, Rs 235.Rabindranath Tagore’sGhare Baire, first published as a novel in 1916, was a very important publication in its time, but while its political concerns were noted and debated, and its social message, especially concerning gender-related issues, fiercely contested during its serialisation inSabuj Patra in 1915/16, it would be fair to say that it was never held up by succeeding generations of Bengalis as an exemplary instance of Rabindranath’s achievements in relation to the rest of his works. Among his novels, it was the ambi-tious sweep of Gora (1910) or the psycho-logical depth of Chokher Bali (1903) or Jogajog (1929) that excited more serious attention and admiration. Yet Ghare Baire is the only one of Rabindranath’s novels that has had the distinction of having not one, but two separate readers dedicated to it over the space of the last five years – the first being Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World: A Critical Companion, edited by P K Datta and published by Permanent Black in 2003, and now, the book under review, edited by Saswati Sengupta, Shampa Roy, and Sharmila Purkayastha, all teachers of English at Miranda House,Delhi. Like the never-ending relevance of “nation and narration”, the problematic paradigm of “the home and the world”, then, seems to answer a particular provenance in the post-colonial condition. This assumption is necessarily reinforced by the awareness that apart from these two readers, many other books and essays have addressed the novel specifically in relation to their own agenda of nationalism,feminism, subal-ternism or post-colonialism. Texts such as Ashis Nandy’s The Illegitimacy ofNational-ism (1994), or the recent novel by Neel Mukherjee, Past Continuous(2008), that intercuts Miss Gilby’s story with the narra-tive of the protagonist of the novel, con-tribute new kinds of insights intoGhare Baire. However, the most immediate prac-tical impetus for the appearance of the two readers on the novel seems to be, as the latter volume acknowledges, “the need for a student-friendly anthology on the subject” occasioned by the revolutionary gesture, acknowledged in the first, of “the teachers who devised the current under-graduate English syllabus [at Delhi Uni-versity who] boldly entered new academic territories” by including Indian writing in translation in the English department’s hallowed precincts. (Interestingly, the edi-tors of the current volume do not adopt so uncritically laudatory a tone regarding this move, quoting, without footnotes, this perception of “postcolonial theorists” that “the inclusion of Indian texts…signifies ‘freedom’ ”, refusing, in their turn, to read the novel as the “essentialised voice of indigenous authenticity striking back at Empire.”) Since then, a fresh translation of the novel by Nivedita Sen has appeared (Srishti Publishers, 2004) which hopefully makes up for the lack of accomplishment in the first attempt by Surendranath Tagore (Macmillan, 1919), although it should be noted that Prasanta Pal has shown, in his magisterial volumes on Rabindranath’s life, that Rabindranath had done a large part of the translation there himself. But then it is a universally acknowledged fact that Rabindranath was most often his own worst translator.Ten essays in the volume under review deal with different aspects of the novel; these include the introduction and the introductory essay by Niharranjan Ray, ‘The Role of Tagore’s Literature’, excerpted and translated by the editors – no doubt for its continuing relevance – from a chapter in Ray’sRabindra Sahityer Bhumika, first published in 1962. The fact that the editors felt this to be a seminal reading of Tagore that would benefit students today unsurprisingly points to the realisation that indeed the best commentators on Tagore wrote almost half a century ago and that not only are there no good criti-cal writings on Tagore’s novels in English, it would perhaps be difficult to find such material even in the Bengali that has been produced in the last decade or so. Towards Freedomthus answers a felt need to provide incisive critical analysis on the subject of the novel and its back-ground, which it then endeavours to ful-fil through the remaining eight essays which are divided into two parts; the first, called “Home/Ghare” deals with the inner world of domestic space, while the second, “World/Baire” deals with its opposite binary.Contemporary RelevanceThe introduction to Towards Freedom is an attempt by the editors of the volume to address some questions of contemporary relevance in relation to the novel. Perti-nently, after establishing the context in whichthenovel was written, of the parti-tionofBengal in 1905 and the Swadeshi politics that followed, they ask, “What makesGhare Baire relevant to our times?” The answer, in this book at least, lies in thedomain of “ideological terrain ranging from gender reforms and education to caste mobilisation and nationalism; issues that hold relevance even today”. Apart fromthequestionable use of the conclud-ing phrase in the introduction which states: “Towards Freedom is thus for a heuristic and not a hortatorypurpose”,and the occasionaluse of neologisms such as “visibilise” (especially of concern with regard to the students of English to whom the book is addressed), the book, taken onitsown terms, addresses the issues it identifies individually with a great deal of attention, attempting, as the introduction states, to “repeatedly examine the various ways in which the domestic space and the private relationships it shelters are infactdeeply criss-crossed by social and political relations”.Sambuddha Chakrabarti’s “Andare Antare/Inner Worlds” begins the section
BOOK REVIEWdecember 13, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly24on the “home” with an article that has been adapted and added to from chapters in a book published by him from Stree in Calcutta in 1995. Exploring women’s roles in 19th century Bengali society with great attention to detail and historical material, the author meticulously records the facts available in contemporary journals of the period. Thus, from the journal Bangamahila in 1875 is garnered a vanished custom that stands as a classic example of attitudes to daughters-in-law in that era:Most married men are acquainted with the following ritual question and answer ex-changed between the groom and his mother on the eve of his departure for the wedding ceremony: the mother asks, “What are you going to bring?”. “A maid for you, mother” is the son’s answer.The roles of daughter, wife and mother into which women’s lives were segmented in the 19th century are investigated and counterpoised with details from the changes taking place in Rabindranath’s own family and life. Married to a 10-year-old wife whose own name was erased and a new one chosen for her, Rabindranath nonetheless expected from the mature woman of later years an individuality and intimacy that was not entirely novel for the times, as we know from Aurobindo Ghosh’s letters to his wife at exactly this time. It would have been more satisfying, one cannot help but think, to have had access to also to her thoughts on her role in life, which are not provided, perhaps because the letters do not exist?If the Indian woman’s selfhood in the first decade of the 20th century needs pain-ful reconstruction from material over-whelmingly written by men, the records, in the instance of British women, are slightly more substantial. Thus Shampa Roy, in “Teaching the Wife: Miss Gilby, the English Women, and the Antahpur”, draws on Mary Carpenter’s Six Months in India (1868), where, according to Roy, Carpenter “scripts an authoritative identity capable of effectually fulfilling public roles on the site of Indian women’s reforms”. The Indian woman retained a position of subjecthood in relation to the white woman’s agenda of what Antoinette Burton has called “Impe-rial feminism”, a project in which reformist Indian gentlemen such as Nikhilesh were complicit allies. The figuration of women through meta-phor and image is drawn out by Saswati Sengupta in ‘Goddesses, Women, and the Clutch of Metaphors’ to show how gender norms established a rigid frame within which the trope of Lakshmi reigned as “cryptic cultural code for the steadfast Hindu wife”. From there to the image of Bharati or Bhavani as “politic metaphor of the nation as mother” was not a step forward, for “the Bengali nationalist discourse that valorised the militant mother also propagated the domestic woman”. Still, this promise of participa-tion in the politics of the new nation seems to hold out, at the end of the novel, a ten-tative hope of women’s emancipation and action. Shirshendu Chakrabarti takes the argument further when he explores how Tagore’s focus on this “mystification of woman” inGhare Baire helps to expose “the interlocked combat of domination and submission underlying it”. To see women “in the specific form of the god-dess of shakti…actually reduces her to the stereotype of the bewitching enchantress whose power…springs from her depend-ence on male fantasy and desire”. Thus the rhetoric of “nationalism and female shakti, exchanged between Sandip and Bimala is contaminated by furtive, mani-pulative sexuality.”The ‘Baire’The world outside is mapped, in this reader, through the men who inhabit it in the novel; thus the two ‘bhadralok’ men, Nikhilesh and Sandip, are placed inthe context of an evolving Bengali modernity, while a succession of essays investigate the politics of the peasant (Sumanta Banerjee), as well as the predicament of Panchu (Sekhar Bandyopadhyay) and Mirjan(Sengupta, Roy and Purkayastha) respectively. “Con-testing forms of modernity centring on the issues of nation and gender in the context of swadeshi Bengal” are probed through the textual responses of the novel by Sharmila Purkayastha. The tragic incon-clusiveness of the two young men’s ideas of nation and womanhood is foreground-ed to show how their visions are inscribed within two kinds of masculinities as well as different conceptions of freedom. Education and social class contribute their part towards the contradictions of modernity that both men grapple with, and the consensus that binds both within a com-mon culture needs also to be appreciated in order to delve into their differences. Just as the background of a painting is as important a part of the picture as the character/s in the foreground, the essays that deal with the marginal and outcaste characters such as Panchu and Mirjan add an invaluable element to our understand-ing of the novel. “Hovering behindthe scenes of the emotional and political ten-sions within the Nikhilesh-Bimala-Sandip triangle is the Bengal peasantry”, feels Sumanta Banerjee, and to show how Rabindranath arrived at his novelistic depictions, he brings to our attention Rabindranath’s own role as a zamindar and his own relationship with the poor and the dispossessed on his estates. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s essay, “Un-derstanding Panchu”, is in fact one of the outstanding contributions to this volume for the insight it gives us into the politics propagated by the Namasudras and the Rajbansis in east and north Bengal in this period. Airbrushed out of history text books, the aspirations of a whole swathe of the population (whose solerepresenta-tive in the novel is Panchu) isshownto have ignited a resistance to mainstream politics that becomes more significant in this light. The Muslims and the dalit groups both supported the partition of Bengal because they saw in it an oppor-tunity to improve their condition; going against the grain of the emotive nation-alism of swadeshi was not a choice but an inevitable precondition of advancement for these groups. Indicative of “a cata-strophic lacuna in the process of imagin-ing our nation”, the failure to integrate Dalits and Muslims into the dominant nationalist agenda spelt doom then, and continues to do so today.Guided by HistoryThis is a volume, then, that treats the social, the political, and the historical contexts of Rabindranath’s novel as all-important, treating these issues with the attention they no doubt deserve. In their under-standing ofGhare Baire, these essayists are guided altogether by history, butin doing so, they would do well to remember Rabindranath’s own injunction inSahitye
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 13, 200825Aitihasikata (1941), where, speaking of himself in the third person, he said:In his own field of creativity Rabindranath has been entirely alone and tied to no public by history…. The bizarre game of political change was being played out there, of course, but the light that glittered on the foliage of coconut palms was not a statist in-put owing to the British government… The creator gathers some of the material for his creation from historical narratives and some from his social environment. But the materi-al by itself does not make him a creator. It is only by putting it to use that he expresses himself as the creator…. There is no doubt that the rural scenes surveyed by the poet in those days were affected by the conflicts of political history. However, thanks to his crea-tivity, what came to be reflected…was not the image of a feudal order nor indeed any political order at all but th[e] history of the weal and woe of human life…1Here, Rabindranath was responding to materialist and Marxist critics of the turbulent 1930s in Calcutta who accused him again and again of abnegating his duties to history. Speaking here interchange-ably of his poetry in books such asKatha O Kahini or short stories in the collections known asGalpaguchha, Rabindranath arti-culatesa defence that Ranajit Guha likens to the concept of “facticity” in Heidegger. How such a defence plays out in the con-text of an overtly political novel such as Ghare Baire could have been productively explored in a volume that leaves little room for the gap between the ambiguities of literary intention and expression. If criticism may be defined as “the pro-fessionalising or institutionalising of the urge to talk or write in response to an act of reading or seeing”, then, as J Hillis Miller has recently argued, “such talking or writing…is not without its dangers”. “If you could see to the end”, he continues, “you would not need to write the essay, but since you do not know where you are going you may fall into an unforeseenpit or enter a blind alley, an aporia, a blank wall, in the act of writing as feeling your way blindly.”2 There are very few such moments, however, inTowards Freedom, where the essays have been conceptualised with political goodwill and purity of intention; their very foresight, however, precludes the productivity that results from “the act of writing as feeling your way blindly”. That is a road not taken.Email: rosinka@rediffmail.comNotes1Ranajit Guha’s translation in Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 96-99.2 J Hillis Miller, ‘What Do Stories about Pictures Want?’,Critical Inquiry 34, suppl (Winter 2008), s61.Gramsci Is Dead But Resurrected Arun Kumar Patnaik“How close to us are some of the dead, how dead are so many who live” – Wolf Biermann – John Keane (1988: 31)Of late, several intellectuals, com-ing under Foucault’s spell, have declared that Gramsci is dead. Richard Day’s book under review is one such example. Day argues that Gramsci’s idea of hegemony is irrelevant today in view of newer social movements that do not aim “to counter” the state power in order “to seize” it; they believe in a com-munity’s direct action and also, they be-lieve in creating alternatives here and now. Partha Chatterjee’s recent publica-tion inEPW (2008: 53-62) is another ex-ample. Chatterjee argues how Gramsci’s concept of common sense is ineffective in view of governmental interventions in subaltern lives where Foucault’s govern-mentality is more applicable. I beg to dif-fer with them at least partially. Gramsci’s SignificanceEven though there are elements in Gramsci which must be declared dead (Iam no Gramsci fanatic), there are still elements in his theory which have tremendous bearing on our times. To be sure, his theory of hegemony that, echoing Lenin, talks about the primacy of the political must be revised in the light of new and newer socialmovements which talk about the primacy of the social today. His adherence to the concept of the proletarian dictator-ship must be rethought. For, the idea of seizure of the State power by the prole-tariat is not even a daydream today and moreover, is fraught with possibilitiesof political opportunism instrumentalism: try to abolish the State by means of the State. But even when we think that some of the classical ideas of Gramsci are out-dated, ironically his ideas on each of these dead issues are a little more complex than thepresent book proposes. In his theory of the primacy of the political, he tried to bridge with the idea of the primacyofthe social. In his talk of the proletarian dictatorship in the State power, he tried to bridge with the autonomy of the factory councils in civil society. While assertingthat socialism must mean the witheringaway of the State, he countered his Leninist comrades that socialism must aim to reconstruct bourgeois civil society rather than try to abolish it altogether. Thus, even when his ideas are really dated, some of his insights present in these very dead ideas come alive. More-over, where his ideas are live and kick-ing, there are no contemporary parallels. Every other post-war intellectual inter-ested in praxis unmediated by Gramscian philosophy falls into rationalist or romantic trappings. First, let us do a content review. Richard Day argues that newer social movements believe in “do it yourself”. These are es-sentially direct action currents in activism today. Hegemony is not their orientation. Rather they believe in non-hegemonic action. This means that they donot intend to counter the State power or capitalist power in order to redefine them and create alternatives in a remote future. They rather try to create alternatives to such powers through community action here and now. And they do so in five dif-ferent ways: (1) Dropping out of existing institutions; for example, the squatters movement in inner-city “black areas” of Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movementsby Richard J F Day; Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2008 (reprint from Pluto Press, 2005); pp 254, Rs 320.

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