Crossing the threshold of inner quarters: Bimala and other women characters in Tagore’s Ghare Baire

                                                  “A sound educational policy is one which enables students to study the culture and environment of their own society first, then in relation to the culture and environment of other societies.”  This was one of the arguments cited by Ngugi in his book “Decolonizing the mind” to support his thesis on inclusion of native African texts in the syllabus of schools and university to evoke in the students a sense of their own culture. Influenced by this, I preferred choosing an Indian text rather than a western text for this paper. As Africa, India was also a colonised country for almost two centuries and it was not just a country of snake-charmers, elephants and spirituality as the West had long perceived us to be. We had come a long way in our struggle of independence from the colonial forces mainly the British.

                                                    The novel about which a discussion is about to follow was written against the backdrop of the freedom struggle in India.   To be more specific “Ghare Baire”by Rabindranath Tagore (At Home and Outside or The Home and The World) was set in the context of partition of Bengal (1905) and the swadeshi movement. It was written in 1916 and was brought out in book form in English for worldwide readers in 1919. The plot of the novel centres around an upper –middle class Bengali household whose members comprise of a young and educated man Nikhilesh, his plain-looking wife Bimala, his friend Sandip ,his widowed sister-in –law, his old and soon to die grandmother. Other important characters like Amulya and some marginal characters like Panchu help us to have a glimpse of different sections of the society.  It must be difficult for the modern feminist reader to accept any woman character in relation to a man. They might point out that in this characterization, the women are deprived of any identity of their own. But this is exactly how Bimala, the heroine of the text describes herself initially. Bimala remembers her mother’s distinct vermillion mark at the parting of her hair and she views herself only in terms of Nikhilesh’s wife. However , as the story unfolds and Bimala’s eventual ‘emancipation’ takes place, Bimala’s perception changes and  the reader automatically gets to question the patriarchal identity of a woman as a ‘wife’, ‘mother’ or even a ‘goddess’.

                                                      The narrative structure of “Ghare Baire” is three-folded. Three most important characters of the novel Bimala, Nikhilesh and Sandip get their own monologues which give the reader an insight of the characters’ psyche. As the story starts with Bimala’s narrative, we could say that Tagore being a male author, apparently grants his female character precedence over the male characters. Until Bimala is affected by the fire of nationalism or infatuated with Sandip, she continues to have a strong sense of wifehood and unrelenting devotion to her husband. She internalizes the duties of an ‘ideal wife’and it is her conditioning that has led her to think so. She says, “It was my woman’s heart which must worship in order to love.” She thinks that it is through touching her husband’s feet and taking the dust from it that would make her love her husband. Her ‘real joy’was at her husband’s feet. She feels a sense of inferiority because of her poorer background and her darker complexion. However, as she says her husband Nikhilesh ‘was absolutely modern’ his western education has made him feel the need to ‘educate ’his wife so that the couple is presentable to the ‘modern’ society that consists of the bourgeois ‘bhadrolok’ class.  To receive a recognition from the outside world would make Nikhil content that the couple shares the bond of ‘true love’. Thereof he starts Bimala’s lessons in western music and reading by Miss Gilby. Eventually, though with quite reluctance, Bimala comes out of the inner apartments of the house, meets Sandip, a young and handsome man with his fascinating nationalist ideas and involves in a liaison with him. What happens when the ‘caged bird’ is set free and to what extent is she actually free is the main concern of this paper.

                                                  On one hand where some gladly accepts Bimala’s ‘emancipation’ like Nikhilesh and Sandip, some do not. The other women in the household the, grandmother and the sister-in – law do not hold a favourable opinion about Nikhilesh’s decision.  The grandmother thought that Bimala had an inextinguishable fire in herself which would lead to the destruction of the male members of the family. This became an excuse for the old lady to keep Bimala under her ‘shelter’. Interesting enough, Bimala does get repeatedly associated with the image of fire, relating to her indomitable spirit as a very different wife than what was seen at that time. Nikhilesh’s decision about his wife is not agreeable to his sister-in-law either. She is not comfortable with Bimala’s new ‘get-up’. She doubts Nikhilesh’s masculinity, considers him meek as he does not   take any action against his wife’s wayward behaviour. The opinions of these two ladies is very similar to what women and men of that time and before (and quite unfortunately even now at some places) had about women’s education, mostly towards a ‘modern education’.   Such examples can be seen in literatures across countries and cultures .In Alice Walker’s “The Colour Purple”, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s “Rebati” and many more. However it would be faulty in our part to generalise Bimala’s fate to that of every woman in Bengal. Or in that sense to generalise any of the characters in the novel. She was one of the privileged few who wasn’t oppressed by her husband. Therefore, we have to take Bimala’s statement with a pinch of salt when she says, “I was utterly unconscious of myself. I was no longer the lady of the Rajah’s house but the sole representative of Bengal’s womanhood.” We do not get to see the ‘subalterns’ (in a very Spivakian sense), the lower class women and the Muslim women in the novel. Only a few lines were spent in talking about Panchu’s imposter aunt. Through this episode the author not only shows the corruption in the valorised swadeshi movement but how easily poor women get tempted at the face of money.

                                                    The association of “Shakti” with Bimala is a recurrent theme that the novel explores. After her interaction with Sandip, Bimala does not take herself as a passive domestic wife. She believes there is a ‘goddess’, a ferocious Shakti inherent in her. She wants Sandip to see her in those terms and only that would increase her value in his eyes. Although Sandip does regard Bimala as the fiery goddess, he has his own politics in doing so. He wants Bimala to remain ‘disillusioned’ with such nationalist ideas which would ultimately help him to fulfil his ulterior motives. Through Sandip, Tagore sketches the portrait of those swadeshi activists with whose policies he personally wasn’t in agreement. A Foucauldian reading of how Sandip deifies Bimala, (“I shall simply make Bimala one with my country.”) would lead us to think that it was a ‘discourse’ used by the nationalist leaders (and still used in our country to a great extent, with the image of ‘bharat mata’) portray the country as a weak woman who needs the active participation of masculine men to rescue her of her imprisoned predicament. Also, the comparison of the country and the upper – caste rich women to the figure of the ‘goddess’ kindled the fire of nationalism in women’s hearts. This could be very well seen in Bimala and also in Mrinal (the protagonist of Tagore’s short story “Strir Patro”).  This illusion could be seen as a similar one that Marxist critic Althusser talks about regarding religion and how it ‘interpellates’ the masses to give into some kind of an ideology. The ideology of the woman as a goddess and equating her with the country is dangerous because it unnecessarily pedestalizes her and leaves her in an illusion that she is respected and given equal importance as men. Through his rhetoric, Sandip mesmerizes Bimala and is successful to manipulate her.

                                                    Both the men in the novel try to ‘read’ Bimala as a text. Or else, they want to lay down the paths for her which would be inevitable for her to follow. For Nikhilesh, she is seen through the prism of wife.  For Sandip she becomes the ‘beautiful and fearful’, who with the untameable ‘fire’ within herself would cover up ‘the sin of men’. Bimala might seem to act independently but in reality her course of actions is regulated by the men in the narrative. It is either Nikhilesh, Sandip or Amulya for whom Bimala becomes all the more what she is throughout the novel. However, it is only in the end with the ambiguous closure of the novel, that the reader start wondering what would Bimala do now? Would she fall short of her independence once the men in the narrative abandon her? The reader is let to think if Bimala’s ‘emancipation’ comes with certain conditions. On one hand where she gets the touch of the vibrant ongoing political affairs of the country, on the other hand, she is also rendered vulnerable to men like Sandip. We would always tend to appreciate Nikhilesh for not interfering in Bimala’s ‘personal life’ as she does not interfere in his (somewhere equality can be seen here). However could we completely exempt him from blame when he abandons Bimala at quite a nascent stage of her ‘emancipation’? Doesn’t conjugality mean sharing? Or maybe Tagore was critical of this very conjugal responsibility on both the partners unless they were at par? Unless the ‘less emancipated’ becomes equally emancipated as the other?

                                                        Nikhilesh is a foil to Sandip. Where the latter views Bimala as an ‘object’ of desire, something to be to possessed, the former withdraws all ‘authority’ over Bimala, leaving her to decide her life for herself. However Nikhilesh’s extreme aloofness from his wife’s life, makes her a victim of Sandip’s scheming. It makes Bimala regret her decision of crossing the threshold of the house. Engulfed with a sense immense guilt, she declares, “I vowed I would never again go to the outer apartments, not if I were to die for it…” With the help of Sandip’s allegories, Bimala is soon transformed in to a ‘goddess’ in her consciousness. This is where from she gets her confidence to break free the domestic fetters around her life. She projects herself as a ‘creator’, someone who has earned a great deal of worship from her devotee, Sandip. However Bimala’s idea of herself is not completely false. She does have a majestic influence on Amulya. She being a woman commands an authority over him, more than Sandip being a man does.  It is quite interesting to notice that towards the end  when Bimala  becomes prey to Sandip’s conspiracy and she wants Amulya’s help, she speaks out certain lines which make  us wonder about the  idea of ‘emancipation’  that the novel was striving at. She says, “I am a woman and the outside world is closed to me, else I would have gone myself.”  How much of the World has she really seen or experienced? As Nikhilesh’s master says, Bimala’s understanding of the World is only through Sandip. She says, using a modern language, “I discovered myself, how far I have travelled.” But how far has she really travelled? Could she go places like other male characters in the novel? Her journey of experience was from her bedroom to her living room. It was restricted within the four walls of the house itself. Her ‘emancipation’ was in the house itself (quite Victorian in nature).

 However, it would be a misreading of the text to think that Bimala regrets what she becomes in the end of the novel. Unlike her sister-in –law, she has no convictions about not being born a woman again. Towards the end of the novel we might think Bimala is relapsing to her older self when she believes that nothing has changed ,  that everything is just ‘ topsy-turvy’ inside her.  And also when she says, “…But women live on the thrust of their surroundings, this is their whole world”, we might think Tagore is being critical about Bimala’s indifference towards the society. Maybe the author subscribes to certain gender roles prescribed for both men and women. But still, we could not conclude the author’s intentions with Bimala. Since there is no clarification regarding the ending, which is rendered open-ended (a very post – modernist technique), who could say what happens with Bimala after all? Does she take the responsibility of both the ‘home’ and the ‘world’?  Does she get to realise her dream? The one in which “…..she is no mother. There is no call to her of children in their hunger … She has left home , forgotten domestic duties, she has nothing but an unfathomable yearning which hurries her on- by what ,to what goal, she recks not.” Or, maybe the fire which erupts in the end of the novel engulfs her and leaves her alone and broken. Or maybe, the fire, and the anarchy in herself leads to the birth of a ‘new’ Bimala.  Who could say?

                                                                                                                                                                                              – SEEMITA BHATTACHARYA, ROLL NO.: 981, B.A (HONS) ENGLISH, 3RD YEAR.

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One thought on “Crossing the threshold of inner quarters: Bimala and other women characters in Tagore’s Ghare Baire”

  1. The title of the book itself is gripping and the essay has done justice to the work of a magnanimous writer like Tagore. It is a detailed description of what happens in the novel with a critical analysis in connection to various literary theories. Well argued and structured.

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