THE NOVELS OF RABINDRANATH TAGORE
Scholar in English,
In an article entitled The Plays of Rabindranath Tagore Dr. D. V. K. Raghavacharyulu says “…Tagore effected a fruitful synthesis in his career and achievement between our Renaissance and Reformation. As a child of the Indian Renaissance, he emphasized the values of intellectual and imaginative creation. As a product of the Indian Reformation, he stressed the need of relating the enlightenment of outward nature with the illumination of the inner spirit….All the artistic output of his long life was a projection of this quick pulp of national consciousness into the enduring moulds of vital imagination.” This is no less true of Tagore, the novelist. Living in the turbulent times of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Tagore naturally reflects the contemporary ideas and counter-ideas in all his works–more particularly in his novels. His are Novels of Ideas without the taint of propaganda; despite the particular thesis in most of his novels, the characters are free in their action and organic in their development.
A careful scrutiny of his novels reveals two concurrent ideas of special significance to his countrymen, one is the Upanishadic ideal of a Universal Man, the englightened soul, not the materialistic robot of a mechanical civilization; the other is the image of woman, symbolizing the sensitivity and energy of Prakriti, the Universal Mother, certainly not the sensual nymph of a hedonistic society. These are the two basic ideas of the Indian national consciousness that Tagore presents in his novels against the contemporary background of hatred and violence, vice and superstition.
It was an Age of Renaissance and reformation. The reactionary forces of conventional society were up against the Social Reformers and liberal philosophers. On the other hand, the few educated Indians were but a brown version of the white snobbery and the complex of superiority. It was, in the words of Krishna Kripalani, “an age of toadies and of reactionaries, those who aped the Western ways and those who sought consolation in the bondage of immemorial tradition and dogma.” Thus we see that the novels of Tagore inevitably constitute the imaginative rendering of the contemporary social history, for, as Ernst Cassirer remarks, “All human works arise under particular historical and sociological conditions.” And Tagore’s greatness as a novelist lies in his artistic detachment while painting the canvas in diverse hues.
Broadly speaking, of all the novels of Tagore, available in English translation, Gora, The Home and The World, Binodini and Four Chapters are as stimulating as they are thought-provoking, demanding a close study. The remaining three note-worthy novels are The Wreck, Farewell, My Friend, and the Garden.
The Wreck is thematically fantastic and fatalistic, as the story is mainly based on the chance meeting of Ramesh and Kamala after the boat tragedy, utterly ignorant of their true relationship. This is one of Tagore’s light and detached social fantasies–perhaps the best among them. The element of chance or accident, and the fatalistic outlook of the chief characters recall to one’s mind Hardy’s tragedies, though the latter are much better in their style and thematic development and the final catastrophe. Compared even with his own other novels, The Wreck is loose in construction, melodramatic rather than natural or real. Ramesh is so weak and vacillating that he sounds artificial. But, barring Ramesh, the rest are quite convincing: Akshaya is sophisticated and meddlesome–a common type; Nalinaksha is an honest idealist with a firm will and subtle understanding–“a solemn stick,” as he calls himself half-jocularly and half-seriously; Hemnalini is perhaps the feminine version of Nalinaksha–strong willed and bold both in her utterances and actions. But, the most impressive character in the novel is Kamala, with her girlish simplicity in the beginning and with her sensitive and mature behaviour in the end symbolising the characteristic features of a sensitive Hindu wife. The entire story is based on the unfortunate wreck in the Padma river when Ramesh and Nalinaksha cross it with their respective brides. Accident is the starting point of the Novel; the element of chance plays a great role in the development of the plot; and a fatalistic faith drives on the characters. It may be justifiably said, therefore, that The Wreck is Tagore’s fancy-child, involving no serious moral issue of national importance.
If The Wreck is fanciful, Farewell, My Friend is a social romance with ironical undertones, and an obvious dig at the new generation of social snobs who fall in head long for the glittering appearance of the Western civilization with no proper understanding of their own culture. The “hero” of this romantic novelette is Amrit Rai, an ultra-modern, Oxford-educated Bengali young man of considerable talent, who tries to be self-consciously original by ridiculing both conventional and contemporary social values; and, when he meets Labonya, a typical product of modern culture, the synthesis of the old and the new, for a time, Amrit is under the spell of true love, his artificial modernity receiving a powerful jolt, thanks to his accidental friendship. But his “old world” of coquetry and snobbery comes to claim him even in the far off Assam hills, and Labonya truly sensing his inner conflict of old pledges and the new discipline of love, bids him farewell in a and touching poem, The Shesher Kavita. Brief and romantic as it is, its immediate popularity may be traced to what Mr. Kripalani refers when he says: “more than the development of the plot of the novel, it is the form of its presentation, the artistry of the author’s style, the exquisite poetry interwoven with scintillating, sophisticated prose, the half-lyrical half-mocking tone of the narrative which startle the reader and give the novel its distinction.”
Malancha or The Garden is another long short story of Tagore –a tragedy of psychological maladjustment. It has neither the elaborate plot of a social fantasy like The Wreck, nor the satirical slant of a romantic narrative like the Farewell, My Friend. It is a penetrating study of the human mind in an invalid body. Niraja’s jealous and possessive love for her husband, a florist, warps her mind with increasing intensity as she realises that Sarala is to fill her place in her husband’s life. She finally nervously breaks down, destroying the garden, the symbol of her own life. Her spiritual death as it were, quickly and inevitably leads to her own tragedy.
is, however, in Gora, The
Home and The World, Binodini and Four
Chapters, that we find a full proliferation of the national culture in a
memorable and crucial period of the history of modern
Gora artistically demonstrates the unavoidable clash between thesis and antithesis, resulting in the emergent synthesis. Paresh babu, the Brahmo sage, is like Tagore himself: serene and unruffled even in the face of a malicious and scandalous domestic crisis; always dignified, exuding warmth and affection; and respected and accepted as Guru, even by such an ardent Hindu fighter like Gora. He is not a Brahmo bigot, who is a false copy of his Western contemporary, like the Pedantic and proud Brahmo leader, Panu Babu; nor is he an emotional Hindu extremist like Gora; he is, in fact, the real representative of Tagore’s ideal of the Universal Man, transcending sectarian limits and the narrow national frontiers. Gora rightly confesses, in the end,
“It is you who have the mantram of that freedom…and that is why today you find no place in any society. Make me your disciple: Today give me the mantram of that Deity who belongs to all, Hindu, Musalman, Christian and Brahmo alike–the doors to whose temple are never closed to any person of any caste whatever–He who is not merely the God of the Hindus but who is the God of India herself.
And after this clean and honest avowal of Gora, his request to Sucharita, “take my hand and lead me to this guru of yours” is readily granted when Gora turned towards Paresh Babu “the two together made their obeisance to him.”
Gora, “an incarnate image of revolt against modernity,” is a genuine nationalist when he says to his dear friend, Binoy:
“At present, our only task is to infuse in the un-believers our own unhesitating and unflinching confidence in all that belongs to our country. Through our constant habit of being ashamed of our country, the poison of servility has overpowered our minds.”
A devout champion of the Hindu way of life, Gora is not a bigot; on the contrary, he admits the accretion of certain unwholesome practices in the Hindu society as a “result of the totality of the conditions of our country, but he insists on a personal and nationalistic approach to the entire issue; for, he urges Sucharita, his ultimate alter-ego:
“…..come inside India, accept all her good and her evil, if there be deformity then try and cure it from within, but see it with your own eyes, understand it….become one with it.”
Thus, it is quite perceptible that Gora symbolises all that India stands for with her strength and weakness. This only becomes enlarged after the dramatic revelation that Gora “was a foundling at the time of the Mutiny,” and that his father was an Irishman; because, he now becomes with his Hindu breeding and his own intellectual affiliation to the spirit of the unmistakable symbol of the composite culture of the greater India, the mother of transcendental, universal philosophy of Man. And, in the process of this spiritual transformation, an exultant exaltation of men and women with superior sensibilities like Gora and Sucharita, Binoy and Lolita, the self-appointed and ego-centric leaders of society like Panu Babu naturally suffer Bottom-like translations.
If the character of Gora is a study of the progress of an Indian nationalist, Sucharita is the image of Indian womanhood. As the devoted disciple of Paresh Babu she imbibes the best of all cultures. Gora always regards her not as a social individual, but rather as an idea.” The womanhood of India is revealed to him in the figure of Sucharita. Her discussion with Gora regarding the intricate aspects of nationalism and religion is indicative of her intellectual analysis of any problem that, demands sensitive perception. And, finally, Ananda Moyi, is Mother India herself, as Gora realises and salutes her in the end:
“Mother, you are my mother….The mother, whom I have been wandering about, in search of, was all the time sitting in my room at home. You have no caste, you make no distinctions, and have no hatred….you are only the image of our welfare. It is you who are India.”
Anand Moyi is the truest symbol of Mother India, with no artificial distinctions and inhibitions. Her bringing up Gora, the orphan-foundling, like her own son is, indeed a tribute to the Indian motherhood; her expostulation of Gora on the caste-distinction is a sample of her motherly care and kindliness:
“when you hold a little child to your breast then you feel certain that no one is born into this world with caste…”
Thus, in the final analysis, Gora seems to be a supreme example of the Indo-Anglian symbolist fiction with national dimensions.
As Gora is culturally symbolic, so is Binodini on the social plane. The translator, Kripalani, affirms that “it is the first modern novel in Bengali and, one might say, in Indian literature-which is not to say that no novels were written in Bengali or other Indian languages before it. But these novels whether Tagore’s or Bankim’s can hardly be called modern.” Though primarily a poet, it was Tagore who initiated the modern novel into vogue. His best novels are always realistic or psychological or concerned with social problems. Binodini, beautiful, young and vivacious, is the symbol of the Hindu social injustice. The cultural cussedness of the Hindu society is primarily responsible for her becoming a widow even before she becomes mature enough to understand and live a married life. Educated and beautiful, young and frustrated, she naturally rebels against the conventional moral code, and encourages Mahendra to love her. Mahendra, the pampered son of Rajlakshmi, desperately clings to his own girl-wife, Asha, whose artlessness and simplicity unwillingly bring about the inevitable domestic disharmony and conjugal unhappiness to herself for a considerable time. Bihari’s warnings and friendly intervention are easily and intentionally misconstrued by the infatuated Mahendra. And, in fact, Binodini herself is no mean character, but really, loves Bihari for his dependable and ideal conduct. She soon realizes her mistake in ruining the happy home of the good-natured and innocent Asha. Binodini finally turns to Bihari for protection and sympathetic understanding and love; rightly does Bihari respond to her sincere and impassioned importunities. Such is the theme of Binodini which is one of best written problem novels of Tagore. In one of his lectures, Tagore asserts that “our real problem in India is not political. It is social….” And Tagore never evades the question, but offers a solution to the same. But even if it is merely a presentation of the problem, Binodini eminently satisfies the dictum of Tchekov who says,
“you confuse two things–solving a problem, and stating it correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory to the artist.”
Gora and Binodini are two of Tagore’s novels which directly deal with the contemporary culture, and social history. But it is perhaps in The Home and The World that Tagore’s virtuosity as a novelist is clearly discernible. The ‘dramatis personae’ are Sandip, Nikhil and Bimal. The problem is obviously political–one of Tagore’s forthright statements concerning the national movement including a reference to ‘Bande Mataram’. Besides the interesting theme, the technical device in narration–each character soliloquising his or her feelings and experiences in the action–is also fascinating as a form of “internal monologue.” The story itself is simple, the purport being mainly political.
The ‘Home’ is the ‘World’ to Bimala until Sandip makes his disturbing appearance with his aggressive informality. Nikhil winks at the familiarity of Sandip and Bimala chiefly owing to his innate large-heartedness and cultivated idealism. Sandip and Nikhil are ideologically poles apart: the former is an aggressive and unscrupulous nationalist while the latter is a non-violent humanist. He disagrees with Sandip on the ideal of Nation-god. A juggler of words, Sandip succeeds, however, in winning the sympathies of Bimala whom he acclaims as the symbol of Shakti that is Mother India. Bimala 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. Nikhil is prepared to set her free; but soon wisdom dawns on Bimala, and she detests wholeheartedly the filthy means of Sandip to worship the Mother. His greed and lust, masqueraded and paraded as nationalism, are extremely repulsive to Bimala now.
The leitmotif of this novel is What Tagore himself declares in one of his lectures in Japan: “With the growth of power the cult of self-worship of the nation grows in ascendancy; and the individual willingly allows the nation to take donkey-rides upon his back; and there happens the anomaly which must have such disastrous effects that the individual worships with all sacrifices a god which is morally much inferior to himself…” And Nikhil, being the main protagonist in this novel, reflects the same extra-national ideas, opposing the “organized selfishness of nationalism.” To him, as Radhakrishnan rightly observes, “patriotism devoid of humanity is nothing but selfishness on a large scale. The individual wants wealth, the nation wants earth. In both cases it is greed and hunger for matter.” Nikhil’s humanistic philosophy comes in conflict with the pseudo-nationalism of Sandip. Bimala is doubtless a symbol of Shakti or primordial energy, but Sandip’s exploitation of the same is fraught with disastrous consequences–as is suggested in fact, by the communal riots at the end of the novel. And Tagore’s emphasis is always on the creative aspects of energy.
Four Chapters, the last novel of our examination, is rather a controversial novel of Tagore. Mainly the tragic story of Ela and Atin, set against the bloody background of revolutionary Bengal, it is a strong indictment of the revolutionary politics, as it affects the lives of countless young men and women in gruesome circumstances. Pleading artistic immunity, Tagore explains the theme: “what might be called the only theme of the book is the love of Ela and Atmdra. The nature and course of the love between man and woman is determined not only by the individual characters of the lovers; it is influenced also by the impact of their circumstances on them...On the one hand, there is the inner feeling, on the other, the conflict with outward circumstances.” Strongly disapproving and deprecating the imputation of motives to him, Tagore states: “what matters as literature is the portrayal of the poignance and pain of their love against the stormy background of the revolution.” And to that extent, of course, this brief and moving story of the doomed lovers is completely satisfying.
Indranath, the disgruntled leader of the revolutionary group, is a ruthless organiser of terrorist activities, to whom individuals do not count. And hence the tragedy of Atin and Ela who have implicit faith in him as their leader. Atin, in fact, realises the error of his judgment too late to turn back. And, Ela, the turns spirited young lady that she is, has to accept the final tragic tryst with destiny when her own lover is commissioned to kill her for the advancement of the revolution. Her last cry “let me die awake, in your arms. Let our last kiss be eternal, Ontu, my Ontu,” is not only courageous but expressive of the anguish of a loving heart.
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. While his Gora and The Home and The World are the unquestionable testament of his faith in the composite and humanistic character of Indian culture, his Four Chapters is a forthright condemnation of the xenophobic expression of the amoral nationalism, a potentially dangerous political doctrine borrowed from the West.