“The home and the world” was written during the time of the Swadeshi movement in India in the early 20th century. Even though the language is prose-like and poetic, the content is heavily philosophical and political. The three main characters represent different facets of the Indian political changes at that time. Nikhil stands for reason, morality and enlightenment. Sandip represents the passion for independence and nationalism. Bimala represents the awakening of a new generation and the departure from old ways. Together, they unfold the complications of this turbulent transitional period. I am most struck by Tagore’s treatment of the themes of justice and use of violence, freedom and truth, and patriotism.
Nikhil and Sandip debate each other at various points throughout the book on justice and the justification of violent force. Nikhil believes that God is justice, and violence is not justified in the pursuit of justice. He has a strong optimism that colonialism will meet its end, and the Indian people should not to use force to fight against colonialism. When confronted by Sandip, who argues that colonial regimes have a “history of stealing for the sake of one’s own country” (pg 37), Nikhil holds strong his belief that eventually, history will prove that these regimes cannot last. Both men want India to be strong and independent, but they morally disagree on how this can be achieved. According to Sandip, violent force and revolution can be used to serve justice to the Indian nation, who had long been oppressed by the British Empire. Leading a nationalist movement, Sandip believes fighting is the solution for his people. Meanwhile, Nikhil philosophizes about the nature of justice. He upholds the value of restraint; he believes that if the Indian people use violence against the oppressor, they are not truly gaining freedom, and will lose the ideal of independence: “so does the violence of passion, which would leave no space between the mind and its object, defeat its purpose”. (pg 60) He believes violence can obscure the end goal, and distract people from the main purpose: justice. He also doubts whether it is moral to use force, even if it is to obtain something of value: “It is true that you cannot get anything except by force. But then what is this force? The strength I believe in is the strength of renouncing.” (pg 47) Both Nikhil and Sandip agree on that the colonial British Empire are thieves, but Nikhil abstains from the Swadeshi movement, while Sandip believes it is just to use whatever method necessary to serve gain independence from the oppressive colonial rule.
Sandip chooses to fight for his own freedom, and shows little patience for debating what is “truth”. He argues that “the world into which we are born is the world of reality” (pg 46), therefore he does not spend time on metaphysics. On the other hand, Nikhil more often reflects on what is truth and especially its relation to freedom. He believes in intellectual enlightenment, which is demonstrated by his own education and his open-mindedness towards his wife Bimali also learning about the outside world. I interpret Nikhil’s faith in education as an aspect of modern India, and this rests on his belief that education can fight against the regressive ideas of colonialism. This is how India can truly find independence and freedom. In this poetic passage, Nikhil expresses his yearning for truth and freedom: “I longed to find Bimala blossoming fully in all her truth and power. […] One must give up all claims based on conventional rights, if one would find a person freely revealed in truth.” A person or country cannot be truly free until they are self-aware and intellectually progressive, so that they can reflect on their own beliefs and values. In Nikhil’s words, I sense Tagore’s criticism of the Swadeshi movement: the Indian people need to reflect on their own nationalism and identity before violently fighting for a “freedom” that had not been properly envisioned. Tagore urged his people to truly reflected on freedom for themselves: “I tell you, sir, this is just what the world has failed to understand. They all seek to reform something outside themselves. But reform is wanted only in one’s own desires, nowhere else!” (pg 134) This desire can only come from self-enlightenment and true understanding.
Observing Sandip and Nikhil’s conflicts, Bimali herself come to terms with her own love and passion for her country. She is transformed by Sandip’s passion and aggressiveness. She develops her own belief system, just like Nikhil wanted for her (he believes she only truly loves him when she has seen the outside world and has created her own desires). The novel’s essence is beautifully captured in Bimali’s thoughts: “There are many in this world whose minds dwell in brick-built houses – they can afford to ignore the thing called the outside. But my mind lives under the trees in the open, directly receives upon itself the messages borne by the free winds […]” (pg 132). Her home is her country, and she loves both with such sincerity and devotion. “Devotion is beauty itself, in its inner aspect.” (pg 18). Later, when she reflects on her crime, she fully recognizes the consequence of her action: “I could not think of my house as separate from my country: I had robbed my house, I had robbed my country” (pg 144). Patriotism is in essence a love for one’s home as it is a sanctuary. Similar to the way Bimali treats her household with care and tenderness, she also wants her country to be beautiful and protected. Her inner conflict between two different political camps is metaphorical of India’s own struggle for independence and nationalistic identity.
These ideas are complicated and intertwined. India had gone through a revolution to become what she is today. It is not an easy struggle, and the birth of an independent nation is profound and turbulent. Tagore’s language is magnificent and poetic, and deserves another essay. The sophisticated political and philosophical arguments are just as striking and passionate.