I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.
This review will contain spoilers.
The Home and the World
This was the first book on the list that I had not previously read. I was excited to read it, as, with the exception of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I have not read any books by Indian authors.
The book itself deals with three principal characters: Nikhil, a wealthy Indian who typifies rational, ‘modern’ thinking and is opposed to violence, Sandip, who seems to represent the Swadeshi Movement, and upholds greed and strength as positive traits, and Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, who initially loves her husband as a traditional Indian wife but is then charmed by Sandip and becomes passionately attracted to him. The book is made up of different chapters, written by these three main characters in first person.
I struggled with this book for two reasons. The first is that I’m ignorant of much of the political background of this time. Basic research tells me that various factions within India were trying to throw off British rule, but the more subtle variations of this are something I haven’t encountered before. This, of course, is entirely my own problem. As a white westerner, I was taught a lot about European and American history and very little about the history of other places. As a book that revealed my own ignorance and encouraged me to do more research, I am glad I read it.
The second reason I struggled was the writing itself. I found it melodramatic. Some people will love the poetic, rich language and endless metaphors, but I personally found it exhausting to read.
I could not understand why Bimala was attracted to Sandip, and could not emphasise with Sandip at all. Even Nikhil, who seems the most rational and likeable, veered awfully close to martyrdom. This may be, in part, because Sandip and Nikhil are mouthpieces for political positions that I am unfamiliar with.
I thought one of the most interesting background characters was Bara Rani, Bimala’s sister-in-law. Whilst Bara Rani can be cutting and sarcastic, she is also clearly lonely. I felt that if Bimala had tried to form a relationship with her, she would not have been so isolated and would have a much better perspective on what was happening with her and Sandip. Instead, Bimala was torn between a powerful man and her husband, who, although gentle, still had a lot of power over her due to the traditional marriage structure. Bara Rani ended up as fallout, and at the end I felt far sorrier for her – who had possibly just lost her last important friend in the world – than I did for Bimala, whose concern for Nikhil was never more than what tradition demanded of her, and seemed to have no substance.
The book, as the title suggests, revolves around the domestic sphere, that of the home but follows the impact that the outside – the political world – has on this home. We, as the reader, don’t go outside the house at all; we essentially experience purdah. The tales that come back are twisted through the first person perspective of the various narrators. The outside world is violent, and many citizens experience poverty. Sandip, who initially comes across as overly grandiose and full of bravado, is revealed to actually wield extraordinary power. He inspires his followers to acts of violence and intimidation, but in the end his power fails within the home.
When Bimala’s ‘motherly’ instinct kicks in, to try and free Amulya of Sandip’s influence, there is a turning point within the novel. Bimala suddenly acts under her own initiative – not performing the role of dutiful wife, or obeying the every command of Sandip, but instead setting about trying to right her wrongs. There is a moment where we sense that the love between her and Nikhil may be restored, stronger this time as Bimala will fall in love of her own free will.
But then the end of the book happens. It is sudden and inconclusive. Nikhil, attempting to be heroic, is injured and possibly killed as he tried to service a higher ideal. Nobody really wins.
I’d be interested to know how the reception of this novel has changed over time – it was originally written in 1916. It obviously dealt with some highly charged political issues, and the character of Bimala is particularly interesting given the timeframe, and the fact that it was written by a man. In many ways, the freedom of India seems to be mirrored through the freedom of Bimala; not to be swayed by any extreme political posturing, but instead a kind of pragmatism about what to keep and what to leave of her own traditions and those of her country.
I would be very interested to hear what other people thought of this novel! It’s definitely inspired me to find out more about this period of Indian history.