Rabindranath Tagore as a Novelist
“No man is an island”, said Donne. A man of genius is as much moulded by the age he lives in, as he, in his turn, shapes the times. Rabindranath Tagore lived in times when the forces of the Indian Renaissance were asserting themselves in all directions: They were the days of conflict between the old and the new, of rebellion against tradition and reaction against modernity. Many educated Indians regarded the Western ideal of life as containing the summum bonum of life, while a few turned their eyes to the ideals of Indian culture for enlightenment. They were the days of political upheaval, social reforms and cultural renaissance. Tagore, one of the finest products of that period could not keep his eyes shut to the cross-currents of the times. His novels, being the imaginative reconstructions of reality, reflect the working of these forces. Against the contemporary background of his novels, Tagore presented two basic ideals of Indian national consciousness-the Upanishadic ideal of universal man, the enlightened soul, and the typical Indian woman, symbolizing the sensibility and energy of the Prakriti. The novels of Tagore, though most of them contain one particular thesis or the other, are not propaganda; they may better be termed the novels of ideas; the organic development of plot, the nicely executed characterisation make them works of art.
Prof. Mehta remarks, ”
Tagore’s influence on the Indo-Anglican novelist was entirely different. If Romesh Chandra Dutt brought realism and reform to the novel, if Bankim Chandra invested the novel with a romantic halo, Tagore revealed the inmost currents of man’s mind in his novels-he brought psychological delineation to the novel. He added depth and significance to the novel-a great leap forward in the development of the novel.”
Tagore’s greatness as novelist lies in his artistic detachment while painting the canvas in diverse hues of his novels, Gora, The Home and the World, Binodini and Four Chapters are highly stimulating and thought-provoking. Among the main novels, Farewell, My Friend, The Wreck and The Garden are noteworthy. Chokher Bali was his first novel. It is acknowledged on all hands that Chokher Bali had adhered to a new trend in the history of Bengali literature. Krishna Kripalani has translated it into English under the title Binodini named after the heroine. Tagore came considerably under the influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the latter’s works had a substantial impact on Tagore’s writings.
Binodini deals with the social problem of early marriage, the cursed Hindu system of a few decades ago, in India. The most beautiful character studies are those of Binodini, Bihari, Asha and Mahendra. The entire story of the novel is a record of the mental conflict that rages in the minds of these four characters. Hence the interest of this novel lies not in episodes but in that exploration of the individual personality.
Of the major characters in the novel, those of Mahendra and Binodini are complex and interesting. Asha is a pale figure by the side of Binodini. Bihari gains vitality and interest towards the close of the story. Mahendra is lucky to have won the loving devotion of his wife although he does not deserve it. He is easily enticed by the charms of Binodini, a beautiful young widow. He surrenders himself before Binodini but is scored by her. At last he realizes his folly and comes back to his wife, shame-faced and crest-fallen.
Binodini is the story of a young widow. Although a similar theme had been exploited earlier by Bankim Chandra, Tagore’s is a more convincing and subtler psychological study. Dr. Iyengar writes,
“In Tagore’s novel, as in Hardy’s novel, the tangle of emotional involvements is most perverse. The marriage between Binodini and Bihari would have been artistically too facile a solution, and would besides have shocked the orthodox public.”
Binodini is a young widow whose desires have remained unfulfilled. She is jealous of Asha who is happily married. She is in no way inferior to her, in beauty or intelligence, but her fate has so ordained that she has to spend her life all alone. She tries to entice Mahendra and is easily successful. But she realizes that Mahendra has a weak character and lacks individuality. At the same time she comes into contact with Bihari and finds him steadfast in character. She begins to develop love and regard for this man of character and scorn for the weak-willed Mahendra. Mahendra completely surrenders himself to Binodini and begs her love but he meets only with a scornful refusal.
Binodini now offers her love to Bihari but her offer is rejected. There comes a time at last when Bihari realizes the sanctity of her love towards him and wants to marry her. But she does not agree because she thinks that if he marries a widow, he would be condemned in society. She therefore, makes a sacrifice of her love in order to maintain the honour and reputation of her lover in society. Thus the novel is rich not in episodes but in intellectual content.
Gora, and The Wreck and The Home and the World are fundamentally social novels. The Wreck is the English translation of Nokhadubi. In this social novel the problem of marriage is discussed. It has an improbable beginning. It is a boat wreck in which two marriage parties are destroyed, except for one of the two bridegrooms and the ‘other’ bride. Ramesh, the hero of the novel, finds that the girl Kamala that has been saved along with him is not the girl that he has married. This leads to surprising events in the story and gives the novelist a chance to describe his characters in a splendid manner. But finally Kamala meets her real husband Nalinaksha. Ramesh too finds his original partner Hempalimi and so all ends well. The novel is full of improbabilities and inconsistencies, Ramesh and Kamala are united by accident. It seems unnatural that Ramesh should take three months to discover that Kamala is not his wife. The reunion between Kamala and Nalinaksha, her husband, is also helped by the accidental discovery of a letter. Kamala lives with Ramesh for a long time thinking him to be her husband. But the moment she learns that Nalinaksha is her husband, her whole heart yearns for a union with him and she never thinks of Ramesh with whom she had lived in such close intimacy for a long time. This kind of transformation is highly illogical and unrealistic.
But, nevertheless, as Dr. Iyengar puts it,
“There is no denying the fact that the novel is packed with incident and character and in spite of changing fashions the common reader’ does like good characters and a happy ending.” Dr. A.V. Krishna Rao feels “The Wreck is fanciful. It is a social fantasy. The play of fate or chance in human lives is fancifully depicted.”
In his later novels, the man and woman relationship is studied more strictly in terms of character. Krishna Kripalani has brought out the English version of Sesher Kavita as Farewell Friend“. It is a social romance with ironical undertones and an obvious dig at the new generation of social snobs. Sukumar Sen calls this novel,
“a love-story written as if to end all love stories…. The author has shown that love in its most basic form is above any need for consummation.” Amit, the hero, is an Oxford-educated barrister and a well-to-do-person. As he need not have to think of earning a livelihood, he plays with culture, with poetry and even with love. Dr. Iyengar expresses that “It is doubtless a witty and entertaining story, but it has also a core of serious purpose which Lifts high above the level of romantic comedy. Interspersed with song and set in the picturesque background of the hills, the novel has an unearthly, almost an ethereal quality.”
Tagore’s next novel The Garden is a tragedy of psychological maladjustment. Nirajo, the invalid wife of the florist Aditya, meets her own inevitable death out of nervous breakdown engendered by envy. Aditya and his cousin Sarala move about the garden and attend to its many needs. But soon they recognize the love that binds them together. Niraja makes an attempt to sacrifice all so that all three of them may still attain happiness. But it proves to be beyond her reach.
Tagore’s greatest achievement is his Gora, written at the zenith of his literary excellence. Here the archetypal image of India from various angles is finely depicted. Kripalani describes it as
“the epic of India in translation at the most crucially intellectual period of its modern history…it is to Indian fiction what Tolstoy’s War and Peace is to the Russian.” Sukumar Sen says that the novel “has been rightly viewed as something like a Mahabharata of modern India.”
Prof. Mehta feels
“Gora is a patriotic novel, a political novel voicing the aspiration of the resurgent India.”
It was published in serial installments during 1907-1909 in the Bengali magazine Probasi. It is Rabindranath’s longest novel. The story centres round the love episodes of four major characters in the play-Gora and Sucharita, Binoy and Lalita. The development of these romantic relationships is shown in the background of the social and political problems obtaining in India towards the close of the nineteenth century. These problems are not merely suggested; they are fully discussed. From the point of view of plot, characterization, dialogue and intellectual content Gora is a great achievement of Tagore’s art as a novelist.
Lalita and Sucharita are both lovable characters but their temperaments differ from each other. Lalita is lovely, impulsive and restless. Sucharita is calm and quiet. She feels deeply but does not demonstrate her feelings.
Binoy is a highly educated Hindu youth with refined manners and liberal views. He has great love and regard for Gora whose views are extremely rigid and orthodox. Although Gora and Binoy are fast friends, the latter is dominated by the masterful personality of the former.
Gora is the hero of the novel. Till realities come out, he grows up as an orthodox, almost a fanatic Hindu. But he learns that he is born of an Irish mother and is a foundling. As her husband has been killed during the Mutiny, she has taken refuge in a Hindu house at Etawa for fear of the sepoys. She leaves this world after giving birth to the child that grows up as ‘Gora’ under the care of his foster-parents Krishnadayal and Ananda Moyi. The secret is disclosed almost in the last pages of the novel. Gora, an incarnate image of revolt against modernity is a genuine nationalist. Sucharita- a typical Indian Renaissance product with all the love and broad-mindedness is well disciplined and kind. As Dr. A.V. Krishna Rao opines,
“the sentiments of extreme nationalism and liberal Brahmoism, the spirit of Renaissance-all are given full articulation.”
There is, however, great drawback in this novel. The way in which the conflict in the mind of Gora is finally resolved lies through an accidental discovery of the secret of his birth. This is an artificial solution of a fundamental problem of life. Prof. S.C. Sen Gupta has rightly said: “If Gora had been able to resolve the contradiction through a spiritual struggle, his story would have made a great novel. But Rabindranath betrays here an indolence about fundamentals; rather than portray the intricate spiritual struggle that is aroused in Gora’s heart; he ends it mechanically almost as soon as it begins.” However, it must be said to the credit of Rabindranath that all the characters in this novel are distinct and alive.
Gora is in some respects identical to Mulk Raj Anand’s Village, yet in other ways different. The hero of the Village is a Punjabi Sikh youth Lal Singh or ‘Lalu’ as his mother fondly calls him. Gora’s enthusiasm for village reform gets him involved in a scuffle between a batch of students and some constables on a minor issue. He assists the students and helps them to drive away the police, and consequently he is arrested and gaoled. This incident is not far removed from similar experience of ‘Lalu’ though he is not gaoled. Hira Lal Seth feels: “Tagore’s Gora as well as Mulk Raj’s Village depict the village life as it is, with all its vividness and contrasts, the clash of East and West, and the panorama of Hindu. Sikh and Mohammedan tradition, which absorbs the attention of the villagers, keeping them utterly ignorant about the progress of science and civilization.” Summing up the novel, Dr. Iyengar quite aptly remarks that
“Notwithstanding the wide canvas and the multiplicity of characters, incident and dialogue, the novel is a unity and this comes from Gora himself, who is both centre and circumference. The rest serve largely to explain him, or are explained by his relations with them.”
In The Home and the World, Tagore makes a psychological study of relationship between a husband and his wife. Marriage unites two persons in life. If it is a loveless union, marriage is reduced to a bondage of tyranny Nikhil is a loving husband, who wants to establish his relationship with his wife on the free form of love. This can be done only when Bimla, his wife comes out of the seclusion of the home, and mingles freely with the outside world. The Swadesi movement in Bengal in the first decade of the present century supplies the necessary background of this larger world so essential for testing the genuineness of the relationship between Nikhil and Bimla. But the sociological problem that has been raised in the novel about the basis of married life has not been dealt with in a satisfactory manner.
But The Home and the World has a political purport. It is a superb study in the psychological analysis of the characters. The dramatic personae in the Home and the World are Nikhil, his wife Bimla and his close friend Sandip. The problem, is obviously political-One of Tagore’s forthright statements concerning the national movement including a reference to ‘Bande Mataram’. The technical device of narration each character, whose separate autobiographical narratives intertwine to make the novel soliloquizing his or her feelings and experiences in the action-is interesting as a form of ‘internal monologue. Besides it is a nice technique of character portrayal. A free play can be given to all the innermost springs of feelings and actions in all the characters without the least difficulty.
Love can come in conflict with politics also and this is the theme of The Home and the World. The story centres around three principal characters-husband (Nikhil), wife (Bimala) and the friend (Sandip). To put it in brief, Sandip claims to be a patriot with communistic leanings. Bimala, the beautiful young wife is torn between two men she loves and likes. Nikhil, the husband of Bimala is a noble soul, much misunderstood.
Bimala has lived the sheltered life of a Hindu wife and the ‘Home’ is the ‘World’ to her until Sandip makes his disturbing appearance. Thus, as Dr. Iyengar puts it.
“She is thus caught between the pull of the ‘Home’ and the pull of the ‘World’- of husband, who symbolizes peace, stability, security and of the friend, who seems to promise excitement and adventure, and point towards realms of infinite possibility- and henceforth there is no quiet for her.”
In all, there are twelve chapters in the novel, divided into twenty five autobiographical narratives of which ten are Bimla’s eight those of Nikhil and five those of Sandip. Another striking feature is that the events of the first and the last are given to Bimala, thus giving to the novel a cyclic movement.
Dr. Iyengar writes: “Nikhil is what is best in traditional India, to him the end does not justify the means: Sandip is typical of the new world that would like to fashion itself in the image of the Western and to him the end does justify the means. In the opening decade of the present century the issue between Moderatism and Extremism, between the cult of humanism and the cult of the bomb, was fought all over the country, and with particular acerbity in Bengal; and The Home and the World is an artistic study of the impact of these forces on everyday life in an obscure Zemindari in Bengal. Of three principal characters, neither Nikhil nor Sandip changes much in the course of novel; it is Bimala alone that changes the stress of trial and error and failure. If Nikhil’s is the Sattwick nature, silent, long suffering, reconciling and Sandip’s is the Rajasik nature, voluble, impetuous, violent, then Bimala’s is to start with the Tamsik nature. She has to work out her salvation in diligence, through tribulation and experimentation and suffering and disaster.”
In the opening chapter the readers are acquainted with Bimala’s story and her household. She remarks “Can there be any real happiness for a woman in merely feeling that she has power over a man? To surrender one’s pride in devotion is woman’s only salvation.” In the second chapter the first moves are made by Sandip and Bimla. Bimla crowned ‘Queen Bee Nikhil’s master warns him about the dangerous consequence. Soon Sandip makes further moves and his photograph nestles close to Nikhil’s in Bimala’s room. Bara Rani begins to talk ill of Sandip’s relations with Bimala.
Amidst this tension inside ‘home’, there is the strife in the ‘world’ outside. Spirited young men try their best to persuade Nikhil to jump into the Swadeshi campaign, but in vain, Sandip’s slogan of burning foreign clothes catches momentum and Nikhil finds himself perplexed. Sandip has brought the glorious Bimala to the level of a glamorous woman. In addition to that he makes demands for money.
The events follow one after the other, in rapid succession. A juggler of words, Sandip succeeds, however, in winning the sympathies of Bimala whom he acclaims as the symbol of Shakti, the Mother of India. Bimla is temporarily swayed by the maddening cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ and robs her own house, like a cunning thief, for the sake of the so called National cause. She takes the keys from her husband’s pockets and steals twenty rolls of gold. Nikhil is prepared to set her free, but soon wisdom dawns on Bimala, and she detests whole-heartedly the filthy means of Sandip to worship the Mother. His greed and lust masqueraded and paraded as nationalism, are extremely repulsive to Bimala now. But it is now too late to make amends. Though the forgiving Nikhil is prepared to accept the repentant Bimala, he seems bent upon demanding the sacrifice of those responsible for the sins of the ‘home’ and the ‘world’. When a fellow-zamindar’s house is being looted by the mob, Nikhil, quite unarmed, rushes to the place, and is soon brought back, with a serious injury on the head. Bimala has learnt her lesson, but at a tremendous cost.
Nikhil, the protagonist, reflects the extra-national ideals that one should possess. To him, as Radhakrishnan elsewhere observes, “patriotism devoid of humanity is nothing but selfishness on a large scale”. Nikhil’s humanistic philosophy comes in conflict with the pseudo-nationalism of Sandip. Bimala is no doubt a symbol of Shakti, but Sandip’s exploitation of the same is fraught with disastrous consequences, Sandip and Nikhil are ideologically poles apart; the former is an aggressive and unscrupulous nationalist, while the latter is a non-violent humanist.
Krishna Kripalani thinks that the political message in The Home and the World is as it were an anticipation of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, for the Mahatma too was to warn over and over again that “evil means must vitiate the end, however nobly conceived.”
Prof. Mehta feels:
“The novel is a tour-de-force in keen psychological analysis. This novel with its political implications was a novel to which almost every civilized married couple turned for a lesson in tolerance and understanding.”
This novel could well have been named ‘The Education of Bimala.’ Hiren Mukherjee has finely brought out its significance: “Husband and wife could come closer to each other only after a strenuous ordeal and Sandip moved out of their lives as abruptly as he had entered. This is the theme of a woman emerging from the home into the world, but it has a much larger connotation, that of India herself, emerging into a restless world and yet making sure of home.” Thus the novel has a distinct place and is packed with prophetic riches of meaning.
Tagore’s novels resemble those of Tolstoy with whom his political philosophy also coincided. Novel writing for Tagore and Tolstoy did serve a social purpose. Tagore’s characters were of flesh and blood and realistic. He did not fly into the world of fantasy in such a way as to be shorn of all contact with the earth.
Reviewing this novel (The Home and the World) The Church Times remarks: “It is interesting to compare this work of Tagore with that of Dostoevsky, not that there is any similarity between the two as artists; one might as well compare a cathedral organ to a flute—the great Russian, moreover, has the background of a deep Christianity. But both are orientals, and their ideal of human excellence is in many ways the same.”
Thus, in the ultimate analysis, the novels of Tagore are but the artistic transfiguration of the vital values of Indian culture with a universal import. His Gora and The Home and the World are the unquestionable testament of his faith in the composite and humanistic character of Indian culture.