Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World is a product of the crisis of that time, and as a political novel it echoes through its narration a large number of attitudes, not always compatible with the colonial experience. The novel deals with the experience of modernity and the price one has to pay for it. The controversial nature of the subject matter, in which Tagore takes the opportunity to launch his fiercest attack yet against the ideology of nationalism, contrary to its rising popularity both in India and the West, was also a reason it drew much attention, mostly in the form of reprobation and scorn, from readers both in and outside Bengal.
The novel deals with the experiences of three characters during the volatile period of swadeshi: Nikhil, a benevolent, enlightened and progressive landlord; his childhood friend and a voluble, selfish but charismatic nationalist leader, Sandip; and Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, who is happy at the outset in her traditional role as a zamindar’s wife but who, encouraged by her husband, steps out of home to better acquaint herself with the world and find a new identity for the Indian woman. At the sight of Sandip, she emotionally trips, vacillates between him and her husband, until she returns home bruised and humiliated but with a more mature understanding of both the home/self and the world.
The novel has a certain allegorical quality in that Nikhil and Sandip seem to represent two opposing visions for the nation; with Bimala, torn between the two, not knowing for sure what should be her guiding principle - signifying Bengal tottering between the two possibilities. Nikhil’s vision is one of enlightened humanitarian and global perspective, based on a true equality and harmony of individuals and nations. On the other hand, Sandip’s parochial and belligerent nationalism, which cultivates an intense sense of patriotism in individuals, threatens to replace their moral sensibility with national bigotry and blind fanaticism. Seen from this perspective, Nikhil’s death at the end of the novel, just when Bimala is turning the corner and returning to her senses after a prolonged infatuation with Sandip and his views, also signals Tagore’s pessimism about the future of Bengal. In the absence of truly benevolent leaders like Nikhil, she would be mutilated, divided in two (currently Bangladesh and West Bengal), with millions of her children paying with their lives to meet the apocalyptic wishes of self-seeking, immoral, power-hungry politicians, determined to carve out her body on religious communal lines.
Nikhil loves his country as much as, if not more than, Sandip, but he will not allow his love for the country to overtake his conscience. Sandip, on the other hand, believes that ‘country’s needs must be made into a god’, and one ought to set ‘aside conscience [by] putting the country in its place’. This reckless deification of the nation and his belief that any action, no matter how heinous or unscrupulous, is justifiable if undertaken for the nation’s sake eventually turns him into a frightful terrorist and appalling criminal. He does not mind using intrigue or violence to accomplish his mission, even if it means harm to his own followers. As long as the mission is accomplished, the end justifies his means. He adroitly persuades Bimala to give all her jewellery to him to finance the movement, and steal money from the family safe. He also uses Amulya, an impassioned but idealistic youth (emblematic of the many adolescents who were influenced by the movement), exploitatively. When Mirjan, a Muslim boatman, refuses to stop carrying foreign goods, as it will take away his livelihood, Sandip arranges to sink his boat in midstream.
Post-colonial critics such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn have pointed out how nationalism cultivates the sentiments of irrationality, prejudice and hatred in people and Leela Gandhi has spoken of its attendant racism and loathing, and the alacrity with which citizens are willing to both kill and die for it. Frantz Fanon has explained that although the objective of nationalism is to create a horizontal relationship and fraternity within its people, in reality the nation never speaks of the hopes and aspirations of the entire ‘imagined community’, and hierarchy, factional hegemony, inequality and exploitation remain a daily occurrence in its body. In Sandip’s actions, Tagore has insightfully and shrewdly anticipated all these pitfalls of nationalism pointed out by latter-day post-colonial critics.
This radical critique of militant nationalism, conceived against a backdrop of a larger ideology of love, creation and global human fellowship, is what occupies Tagore’s The Home and the World.