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"I Will Make Bimala One With My Country": Gender and Nationalism in Tagore's The Home and the World

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 41, Number 2, Summer 1995
pp. 243-264 | 10.1353/mfs.1995.0094

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“I Will Make Bimala One With My Country”:
Gender and Nationalism in Tagore’s The Home and the World

For each new class, which puts itself in the place of the one before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, i.e., employing an ideal formula to give its ideas the form of universally valid ones.

In opening this paper with the well-known passage from Marx, my objective is to draw attention to the anti-imperialist movement in India as a site of struggle, ideological as well as political, not only between the colonial powers and their nationalist opponents but also between a native elite 1 and the group Ranajit Guha has simply called “the people” (“Historiography” 44). 2 We know after Foucault that the exercise of power in modern states happens through the novel forms of surveillance carried out in cultural rather than coercive political institutions. 3 [End Page 243] In the Indian situation, the reformulations of social ideologies in general, and gender ideologies in particular, through the nineteenth century need to be examined in the context of the constitution and transference of power from a colonial to a sovereign nation state. The main premise of my argument here builds on the work of Partha Chatterjee, Tanika Sarkar and other recent studies which examine the construction of the “new” woman in nationalist writing as the signal of the cultural and political ascendance of a national elite. 4 My point of departure, however, is the following: I argue that the persistent deployment of a woman-centered iconography and the idealization of the woman-in-the-home in the rhetoric of Indian nationalism is founded upon an ideology that constructs the “home” as the symbolic space of nationalist politics and non-violent activism as its only true form. Turning then to The Home and the World (1915), this essay argues that Tagore’s novel, located at a critical point in the history of the freedom movement, is useful for an understanding of this momentous political phenomenon in two ways: first, the novel enacts the social anxieties connected to the production of the “new” Indian woman at the turn of the century; more importantly, it underlines the crucial significance attached to the discourse of sexuality in the negotiation between opposing forms of political action. My reading seeks to uncover at the heart of this novel the interlocking discourses of politics and sexuality.

Any attempt to understand this rather complex work must begin with an examination of the historical moment in which the story is situated. The years 1903–08 mark the era of Swadeshi in Bengal (literally meaning “home-made” or indigenous), a period in Indian nationalism when the concerted demand for self-government and the boycott of British goods seemed for a while to rock the very foundations of imperial administration in India. The primary architects of this phase of nationalism were the Bengali intelligentsia, a group that had grown increasingly frustrated with the diminishing economic opportunities in a colonial state. The actual movement was triggered in 1903 by the proposed partition of the province of Bengal, a scheme that was executed in 1905 despite widespread protests. This blatant display of colonial aggression fired the patriotic consciousness of the Bengali middle class. Swadeshi went from a campaign for constructive self-development to militant activism in its final phase. The communal riots of 1906–07 are the tragic consequence of the Hindu-dominated movement, and perhaps [End Page 244] the immediate cause for the decline of this phase of nationalism.

Rabindranath himself was deeply scarred by the outcome of Swadeshi which he had earlier embraced. The Home and the World, produced out of the ravages of the time, relives some of the poet’s own anguish. In a series of essays written shortly after this novel, Tagore would aggressively decry the goals and outcome of nationalist politics. Nationalism in the West, he claimed, had produced a mindless hungering after material wealth and political power, its ultimate terrifying form being imperialist domination of other peoples of...