Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry does not require a reason for entering my life. I could imbibe his words on any given day, no matter what I am feeling; so powerful and intimate and intrinsic are they to me.
His prose, though, has not had nearly as powerful an effect on my literary leanings. I have read a few of his short stories, and one novel: Chokher Bali, and that too after watching the 2003 Bengali film by Rituparno Ghosh that starred Aishwarya Rai.
This isn’t due to any flaw of Tagore’s writing, but rather, some subconscious bias I had towards his poems. I began with his poetry at an age too young to remember, and for years only knew him as a poet (he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his poetry collection Gitanjali).
And so, perhaps I stuck, rather lazily and greedily, to devouring over and over the works I already knew would give me pleasure. Even after reading Chokher Bali and enjoying it, it has taken me more than 10 years to read another Tagore novel.
And I could not have asked for a better one than The Home And The World (or Ghare Baire in its original Bengali).
It tells the story of the wealthy Bengali landowner Nikhil, who does not share the chauvinistic attitudes of his contemporaries. Instead, he encourages his wife Bimala to seek freedom and knowledge beyond the confines of their home, and aspires to establish an equal partnership with her.
Bimala, meanwhile, is initially a traditional wife who believes she should worship her husband and follow the conventions set by society. This changes, however, when Nikhil introduces her to his friend Sandip, a radical leader of the burgeoning Swadeshi movement (an Indian nationalist movement that emphasised independence and self-sufficiency). Swept up by both Sandip’s rhetoric and his passionate, aggressive personality, Bimala experiences a political awakening – which, however, takes her further and further away from Nikhil’s belief in truth and empathy.
It is an inherently powerful story, as seen in the 1985 film adaptation by the great Satyajit Ray. Actually reading book, however, is an incomparable experience. For all that it is a prose novel, there is such poetry and imagery in Tagore’s telling of the story.
The book is narrated from the points of view of its three main characters, and the very rhythm of the writing changes as the Tagore switches from person to person. The words and sentence structure used for each character convey as much as their narration, the intangible imagery as much a part of their story as the plot (credit must be given to the English translation by Surendranath Tagore, who captures and conveys these nuances from Bengali).
Despite being written in 1916, The Home And The World pulses with a vitality that feels immediate and modern. The conflicts presented in the book – between passion and thought, between realism and idealism, between truth and populism – are issues we continue to struggle with today.
The way Tagore captures these dualities is one of The Home And The World’s highest pleasures. Where Nikhil speaks in even, lyrical cadences, Sandip narrates in bursts of words which are no less intoxicating for their power and forcefulness. Bimala, both the heart of the story and the embodiment of its central schism, takes form before our eyes. Her gentle speech ever so gradually speeds up through the book to become full and rounded and purposeful.
But there is also betrayal in this tale, and tragedy. And Tagore spares us none of it. If anything his vivid prose is perhaps even more piercing in these moments, and the book concludes with an open-endedness that feels both frustrating and fitting.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.