|Sunday, 26 January 2003|
Returning to Tagore's 'Gora'
Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake
Re-reading Rabrindranath Tagore's 'Gora' after 40 years brought back nostalgic memories of a time past. Although I say re-reading I had first read the novel in Sinhala (translated by the Ven. Urapola Hemaloka and Dharmadasa Gunawardena) and here I was reading the English translation by W.W. Pearson. But the flux of time and the nuances of the language could neither change nor stale the infinite variety of Tagore's tale originally told in his native Bengali and hailed in the back-cover blurbs as his fifth novel and generally considered his masterpiece.
To return to my original autobiographical strain it had been given to me in December 1963 as an elocution prize and it opened up incredible intellectual, emotional and spiritual vistas which still dazzle and bewilder my mind several decades and many immersions in the trough of life later.
Indian intellectual life
To understand the exhilaration which 'Gora' induced in a pre-teenager (I was only nine years old when I first read it) one must understand the tremendous social, cultural and political canvas against which Tagore places his monumental work and the life he infuses into his novel of infinite ideas. Set in urban middleclass Bengal in the late nineteenth century it captures the convulsions of social life in colonial India as it moves from the twilight of British rule to the threshold of Independence. Written in 1910 when the Nobel Prize winner was himself on the verge of turning 50, it examines from the perspective of Calcutta, the epicentre of Indian intellectual life, the saga of an entire era.
To return to Calcutta with Tagore in the rainy season. The morning clouds had scattered, he says, as the novel opens and the sky overflowed with clear sunlight. Standing on the upper verandah of his bachelor house is Binoy-bushan, a reflective young man who had finished his MA but had yet to find a purpose in life. He is a fluent English writer, a forceful orator and an idealist but like Romeo before he met Juliet in Shakespeare's famous work, a young man in a sentimental haze. It is in this state of mind that he witnesses an accident on the street involving a hackney cab, which carries a young girl and an oldish gentleman. He summons them to the house and sends for a doctor and fortunately all is well and this is how he is introduced to Paresh Babu and his adopted daughter Sucharita.
Some moons later we see Binaya at Paresh's house in the company of his friend and soul mate Gour Mohan, known to all as Gora. Gora is a volcanic young man, very fair for an Indian, a hulk of a figure and a fiery orator who is always ready for a fight. Unlike Binaya he thinks with his heart rather than his mind. He is a fierce Hindu and the liberation of India is his mission. He is not portrayed in the novel as a fundamentalist in the present day sense of the word although he is an orthodox Hindu. Rather for Gora Hinduism is a part of the ethos of India which he places in an antagonistic position to British rule so that even practices like casteism he defends as being essential parts of the all-embracing Hindu religious cultural order.
Paresh on the contrary is a member of the Brahmo-Samaj and displays a picture of Jesus Christ in his home. But he is shown here as a humanist, an elderly man who has seen the light. He is keen that his daughters (four in all including the adopted Sucharita) should associate with people of all types and opinions and this is why he throws his home open to Binaya and Gora. To the two Hindu young men who have been brought up in an orthodox environment this is an exhilarating experience and their emotional life is stimulated as a result.
most moving writing
The two young men react to these emotional stimuli in different ways. While to Binaya it opens up a wholly fresh territory of the heart, Gora although overwhelmed by the same sentiments seeks to stifle such feelings by summoning a commitment to a higher duty-the destiny of India no less. For hasn't he consecrated his life to a higher purpose, namely the liberation of his countrymen and women, a purpose which should transcend all other claims and particularly the claims of the heart? For precisely this reason Tagore's description of the incipient love awakening in the hitherto barren wastes of these two young hearts are among the most moving of his writings.
What Gora and Binaya represent here is the dilemma of Indian civilisation as it collides with western culture. Tagore is too sensitive a writer and intellectual not to realise the need for modernisation, the need for India to emerge from the trough of age-old dogmatism, bigotry and superstition (often typified by Hinduism) if she is to play her destined role among the nations of the modern world. However, he also realises that this modernisation is not merely western but also colonial which means India's continued serfdom to British imperialism.
Hence the dilemma of the emerging Bengali intellectual. Both Gora and Binaya are English-educated and possessed of a modern outlook but they are passionate nationalist and for them their nationalism has necessarily to be rooted in their religion which is Hindu, aware though they are of the many retrogressive features of Hinduism.
On the other hand modernity is represented by the Brahmo-Samaj with its adherence to Christianity but Christianity here comes as the religion of an oppressing nation, namely Britain, and is thus tainted at the source. This reactionary nature of the religion of the west is represented not by Paresh Babu (a man of a wider vision and ultimately the novel's real hero) but by the narrowly pedantic Haran Babu, the principal of the Brahmo-Samaj schools (who has romantic designs on Sucharita) and the Magistrate Brownlow, the representative of colonial law and order.
polarises the family
The novel's crisis is reached when Gora who is on a walking tour of the villages is arrested and produced before Brownlow following an altercation with the Police. He is sentenced to prison. At the same time the girls of Paresh Babu's family accompanied by Binaya have come to the Brownlow residence to perform a concert in aid of a charity in which Mrs. Brownlow is involved. Following Gora's sentence Binaya, and Paresh Babu's more spirited daughter Lolita rebel and desert the concert.
Binaya who is travelling back by ship to Calcutta is taken by surprise when Lolita comes on board at the last moment. They have not planned this escapade together but the fact that these two unmarried young man and woman had returned on the same ship by night creates a scandal in the Bramoj-Samaj and Calcutta society. It polarises the family of Paresh Babu and finally leads to the marriage of Binaya and Lolita.
Brownlow first meets Gora before their encounter in court while he is walking on the river bank with Haran Babu discussing how best to reform the Hindu social system. For imperialist like Brownlow the Bramo-Samaj is their chosen instrument (with its modern, Christian baggage) for the reform of the archaic Hindu society wedded as it is to superstition, casteism and idol worship. When he sees Gora, who has come to make some representations on Police brutality in a Mussalaman village which he had visited during his walking tour, the supposedly enlightened English Magistrate begins to bridle.
He sees Gora as a modern youth whose brains had been turned by education not realising for the moment that this education had been British. He turns to Haran and expostulates: "What is all this a symptom of in your countrymen nowadays?" To which Haran replies unctuously, "It simply shows that their education is not going deep enough. There is no spiritual and moral teaching at all. These fellows have not been able to assimilate the best in English culture. It is because they have learnt their lessons by rote and have not had any moral training that these ingrates will not acknowledge British rule in India to be a dispensation of Providence."
Here we have Tagore in his many facetedness and complexity. Certainly learning by rote has made the ex-colonial people into mimic men but what value can be attached to a morality or spiritual teaching which blinds the student to the kind of injustice and oppression which Gora discovered on his walking tour and which eventually brings him into collision with the imperial law?
Here then is the essence of the colonial Indian problem. What Gora and Binaya represent are the forces of nationalism battling the British Raj but this nationalism itself is mixed with the backward-looking traditions of ritual Hindiusm. Modernism is represented by the Christian Brahmo-Samaj but that is allied to the forces of an oppressive imperialism. The via media, the way forward, is represented by Paresh Babu who although a Brahmo combines in himself the best of both worlds. But for that way to be opened up Binaya the Hindu has to marry Lolita the Brahmo, Gora has to be awakened to reality and Paresh himself has to be ostracised by the Brahmo-Samaj.
(To be concluded next week)
Produced by Lake House