My original intent was to write about Tagore’s long novel Gora. As I was scanning Tagore’s biography to understand the historical context of the novel, it began to dawn on me what a perfect role-model Tagore was in his words, thoughts, actions, conduct, compassion, and spiritual detachment. In the end, I came to the conclusion that an unabridged biography of Tagore is required reading for every serious student of the Bengali language. It is often difficult to avoid straying into Tagore’s extraordinary life and non-literary endeavors when discussing any of the longer writings from his mid or post mid-life. I too have not been able to free my writing of biographic details. Recognizing this, I had to change the title of this essay from ‘Tagore’s Gora’ to the current one.
The inspiration to write about Gora came from an essay on the prose writings of the poet Shakti Chattopadhyay that I had published earlier in Parabaas. At that time, I also conducted an informal survey amongst my friends about which novel they considered to be the ‘greatest’ in Bengali literature. My precise question was—if all Bengali novels were to be destroyed except for one, which one should one save? Surprisingly, almost everyone said Pather Panchali – the seminal work on rural Bengal by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. Later, I reasoned that most of my friends were reluctant to deprive the next generation from the communal experience one earns through the collective shedding of tears after reading Pather Panchali. Personally, and purely on literary grounds, I have found Bibhutibhushan’s novels just a bit lacking, especially in fun and romance. Perhaps in my survey I should have asked the following question instead. ‘If you were permitted to take only one Bengali novel with you for a long imprisonment, which would it be?’ I wondered, if like me, many would have said Gora.
It is not that Gora has lost its relevance for Bengalis in a social context. In fact, it is loaded with interesting social and philosophic commentaries. Yet it is not often that Bengali readers will sit down to discuss Gora. There is something special about this book that simply cannot be enjoyed in a group. One must be alone for that. There is no need to toil for it, but one does need a certain mindfulness. It may cause one to reflect on their own thoughts and actions. Reading Gora at work may make one neglect their chores. Reading it at home may cause one to brood. A reader might say that the Bhagavat Gita has the same effect at a certain age. I will go a step further and suggest that Gora is the Gita of our times—suitable for keeping in a drawer of the desk, or under one’s pillow, no?
I have often thought that even an abridged Mahabharata is quite comparable to Gora, and as a writer, only Tagore is comparable to Vyas. Rising above subjects like love, hunger, or social and family problems, Tagore has pondered questions of a more sublime nature that no other successful Bengali novelist, before or after him, has dared to do. Not just only in Bengal; Tagore is possibly the only successful philosopher- novelist in all of India after Krishna Dwaipayana Vyas. Both were bountifully talented. While Vyas was working on separating the Vedas and writing the Puranas, he was also training students in his school so that a colossal book like the Mahabharata would not be lost in time. Like Tagore, he too was a one-man-institution. His book abounds in questions and debates. Debates are everywhere in the Mahabharata—in royal courts, in gambling sessions, in battle arenas, even in remote forests. Discussions and arguments have brought drama into the narrative. Philosophical questions too are resolved through them. A similar ploy can be seen in Gora, where the human story and the philosophic debates stand supporting each other. Interestingly, the questions raised in Gora about nationalism, caste distinction and scriptural obedience are not highly debatable subjects in the Mahabharata, as if Vyas could not think of a serious question arising on these issues. On the other hand, the fundamental philosophic inquiry of the Gita on the destruction of the human body and the immortality of the soul never bothered the writer of Gora, as if all those questions were already resolved long ago.
Gora has been compared to some European novels. Even in the early days there was a claim that its plot resembled that of a novel by George Eliot. Comparisons have also been made with Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I always thought that in the dramatic point-counterpoint debates, Gora was more reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. But none of these books cast a direct or conscious influence on Gora. Of course, these questions cannot be fully resolved without asking the writer himself. In its stead, we have to do with indirect clues and educated guesses only.
Some observations about Gora also apply to other novels by Tagore. There are no redundant characters in any of his novels, nor are there any unnecessary scenes or dialogues. The dialogues are sometimes essay-like long discourses. But in Tagore’s novels, they usually strengthen the narrative rather than weaken it. Besides, most writers in the nineteenth century had the common sense that the main ingredients of a novel are the storyline, the characters, and the events. Bengali novels were afflicted with superfluousness only in the twentieth century.
In Gora, or Tagore’s any other novel, and especially the lightweight ones like Sesher Kobita, every character and event is a necessary constituent of the plot. In Gora, the very first page opens with a dramatic incident—the flipping over of Suchorita’s carriage in front of Binoy’s house. From that incident to the last scene, there is an uninterrupted chain of events. Even in the midst of lengthy philosophical debates, we find two complete love stories, frequent confrontations, and the possibility of rift between every pair of characters. We enjoy Panu Babu’s numerous humiliations despite all his scheming, Lalita making a U-turn at least once on every page, and backdropping all this — the tantalizing possibility that the mystery of Gora’s birth is about to be unveiled. This narrative was strung taut from beginning to end like a bowstring. I also find this tension reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s novels. (And the young women in Paresh Babu’s family remind us of the girls in the Epanchin family). It’s not a peculiar coincidence that like Tagore’s Gora and Bankimchandra’s Bishbrikkho, Dostoyevsky’s novels were also serialized and published in popular magazines. One important reason why these novels evoke each other is that they had the obligation to hold the readers’ attention over many months.
Like most novels of the Victorian era, Gora too is a fat, five-hundred-page book — perhaps the longest ‘Tagorean’ book. (Talking of ‘Tagorean’, the corresponding Bengali word Rabindrik is not in any dictionary that I own, despite its extremely frequent use. Even if we ignore the questionable grammar behind its construction, the word itself sounds odd. Similar constructions like Abanindrik or Rathindrik will explain what I mean. If any reader happens to know the name of the sage who coined this word, please be so kind as to inform us at Parabaas. Thank you.) Gora’s five hundred pages hold within them over two years of hard work by Tagore, and the wisdom he had acquired over the course of his forty-six years. It is almost necessary to read Gora just to understand Tagore. Many of his novels take a question from ordinary life and raise it to the realm of deep, philosophical discussions. In Ghare Baire, the question came from the Independence movement, in Sesher Kobita it came from the love between a man and a woman. In Gora, the central issues were the Independence movement, as well as the rejuvenation of Hinduism—the Revisionist movement. This last topic had worried Tagore all his life, as seen in many of his letters and other essays. According to Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, even though the young Tagore was influenced by Debendranath’s Swadeshi nationalism, in his later life he turned more towards his grandfather Dwarakanath Tagore’s globalist values. The influence seems to have come from specific traits of Dwarakanath’s character and not the entire personality. Tagore did not condone the landowner Dwarakanath’s exploitation of his tenants or his opium business in China.
A notable feature in Gora is the way Tagore had sharpened the pro-Hindu arguments so skillfully that they appear almost irrefutable. Strangely, a hundred years later, one finds that watered-down versions of the same arguments are still used by India’s revisionist Hindu leaders and writers. I can safely bet that none of them have ever read Gora, or else they would be making their case far more convincingly.
Tagore made Suchorita, Anondomoyi, Lalita, and especially Binoy and Paresh Babu, deliver refutations to many of Gora’s arguments. Gora’s principal opponent, Paresh Babu, is a personification of tolerance. Instead of defeating someone in a debate, he is portrayed as someone who respects the opponent’s right to hold a contrary viewpoint and is willing to wait for them to come to a realization of their mistakes. I think that in his own life, Tagore may have followed the same approach. His relationships with Vivekananda and Nivedita are examples that come to mind. Tagore once said the following about Nivedita—
I didn’t like her. She was so violent. She had a great hatred for me and my work, especially here (Shanti Niketan) and did all she could against me. She was so confident that I was unpatriotic and trucking in modern thought.
After Nivedita’s death, Tagore wrote in an essay:
I had sensed her tremendous strength but also realized at the same time, that her path was different from mine. Her talent was multifaceted. And she had a warrior-like attitude. She possessed a power which she forcefully directed at others. She had a strong desire to conquer and control the mind of her opponents. If one could not obey her, one could not work with her.
Vivekananda and Tagore mostly avoided each other. One learns from Nivedita’s comments that till the end, Vivekananda did not carry a favorable opinion about Tagore. Perhaps the reason behind this was that Tagore could not practice his Swadeshi nationalism with a ‘warrior-like mentality’. Indeed, Tagore’s style was the exact opposite. He sometimes wavered when the choice was between claiming a tradition as a heritage and rejecting it as a superstition. Hesitation, and a reluctance to be inflexible, were some of his main characteristics. He was the happiest when he could appease both sides and come to a peaceful conclusion. In a 1908 essay titled “Homeland”, he writes—
Marrying girls off at a young age is necessary for the Hindu community, just as it is necessary for widows to remain unmarried. That is why despite fears of immorality, widows are not permitted to marry again, and despite the possibility of harm, girls are married off at a young age. Marriage at an older age and remarriage of the widows are accepted in European societies out of necessity. There, it is not possible to establish households with young unmarried girls, and widows do not find shelter in any family, so there is a need for them to get remarried.It is almost embarrassing to read, how in a single breath, Tagore took stands that are so glaringly contradictory. On the one hand he wants to endorse traditions that his countrymen follow with obvious pride, and on the other hand he also genuinely admires the opposite traditions across the oceans. It is hard for a truly tolerant and balanced person who can simultaneously hold divergent views, to impose their opinions on others or take part in political skirmishes. They run the risk of antagonizing both sides. Why else do we find moderates repeatedly labelled as traitors in history? Tagore had angered both the Hindu revisionists and the Adi Brahmo people by writing Gora. No wonder then that the ‘moderate’ characters are under attack from all sides in his story too. The combative characters (that is, Gora on one side and Panu Babu on the other) are constantly pushing the moderates to a corner. From his personal experience, Tagore had already realized that Paresh Babu would never win an argument and was destined to be disgraced by both sides.
Given this setting, how would the writer of Gora express his own opinion? I shall come to that soon.
In real life though, Tagore had arrived at the conclusion that there was no benefit in expressing his opinions in the political arenas. He started distancing himself from active politics from the time of writing Gora. On 11th-12th February, 1907, Tagore, after many requests, (and much abuse from the opposition) agreed to chair the Bengal Provincial Conference at Pabna. Afterwards, in a letter addressed to Ramendra Sundar Tribedi, he writes—
After getting the news of my chairing the conference, I received so many anonymous, invective-laden letters from followers of different political parties that I found it hard to fathom which one I actually belonged to. I decided if someone threw a chair at me during the conference, I would plead with him, “Sir, please tell me which party you belong to so that I could be sure which one is mine.No chairs were thrown at him, but Tagore recognized that there was no place for the moderates among the fired-up warriors. The above incident is a good example of the experiences that explain why he stepped away from politics.
In Gora, where Tagore wielded the power to bestow victory to the side of his choice, he revealed his own views at the climax through an interesting turn of fate. Tagore first shows how mass appeal is the lifeblood of any extreme and divisive doctrine, including revisionist Hinduism. There is an incident in Gora, where after Gora bows his head in pranam inside Harimohini’s puja room, Suchorita asks him—
“You feel devotion for this idol?”
Gora responded with an almost unusual forcefulness, “Yes. Of course, I do.”
Suchorita bowed her head and remained silent. Her gentle, silent distress touched Gora. He quickly added, “See, I will tell you the truth. I can’t say for sure whether I am a believer or not, but I am devoted to the devotion of my country. I worship the idol that has received the worship of the entire country over millennia.
What Gora says above captures the essence of the five hundred pages of the novel. Lacking any other corroboration for idol worship, Gora brings in the devotion of the populace, instantly imparting a political hue to what was a purely philosophic debate. His action is designed to silence a peace-loving person. A century has passed, and we still see the same ploy being used to promote falsehoods in the name of popular appeal. This ostensible ‘respect for the devotion of the country’ conceals a larger harm and a defeat of humanism. Tagore uses the secret behind Gora’s birth to expose this deception. At the end of the story, Gora—the loudest advocate for the purity of Hinduism—comes to know of his Irish Christian parentage and recognizes that by his own beliefs he is not a Hindu at all. The story ends in a clear, simple, and almost mythical conclusion. This too is a modern epic, like the legends of Karna, Krishna, Sita, or Shakuntala, where the birth of the central character is shrouded in mystery. There is no plainer way to show the emptiness of the claim of superiority by one’s birth.
Gora, despite his imperfections, is the star of Gora. Tagore did not refute all of Gora’s arguments. As one can find traces of Vivekananda and Nivedita in Gora’s character, Tagore too is present there, as the author is present within the characters of Binoy, Suchorita and Paresh Babu. Their mutual arguments repeat many points already discussed elsewhere in Tagore’s essays and letters. In those essays, as I have already mentioned in the context of child marriage and widow remarriage, Tagore often tried to make both sides win.
As a composition, Gora is much like a soap opera. Most of the novel is in the form of dialogues. Almost all the scenes are indoor scenes. If television were available in those days, the producers would have jumped at the story. Despite heavy philosophic debates, there are plenty of dramatic scenes like the romantic conflicts between Gora and Suchorita, and between Binoy and Lalita, Panu Babu’s repeated attempts to dislodge these romances, and Lalita’s recklessness jeopardizing of social modesty. I can only conclude that Gora is proof that even soap operas can be excellent literature.
One reason why Gora is my favorite is that at critical moments in the middle of a passionate debate or a romantic exchange, nature walks in, throwing an ethereal light on the scene. Fascinatingly, the characters do not have to roam into a forest or climb a mountain for this to happen, everyday settings in the verandas or rooftops in Calcutta suffice. One recognizes that ordinary urban scenes too can exhibit a splendor that is no less enchanting than what one finds in Nara Baihar or Labtulia of Bibhutibhushan’s celebrated novel Aranyak. One only needs an appropriate mental preparedness to discover it. Almost all friendly debates in Gora have concluded in this way.
The very first paragraph of Gora carries the urban life to a great celebration of nature—
The clouds had dispersed on this Shravan morning, leaving the Kolkata sky full of clear sunlight. There was no pause in the traffic on the roads; the hawkers cried their wares untiringly. Fish and vegetable sellers had already visited households which would be sending people off soon to colleges, offices and law courts. Smoke from kitchen fires rose in the air. In spite of all these commonplace happenings in a city as large, busy, and hard-hearted as Kolkata, the golden sunlight streamed into its hundreds of streets and alleys like the flow of some unprecedented youthful impulse.
(— from Gora, translated by Sujit Mukherjee)
No one but Tagore, (who referenced again and again in his writing the transcendental experience he had undergone as a youth while watching a sunrise on Sadar street), would confidently launch a large philosophic novel with that unabashed paean to nature. This is also not the grand ‘nature’ of Labtulia. City dwellers will forever be grateful to Tagore for using Calcutta’s humble natural scene to evoke a larger perception in the reader’s mind.
Even while being old-fashioned and restrained in the description of romantic scenes, the writing is stylishly delicate in places to remind us that the author is not an insensitive man. In one place we find—
Suchorita’s arm was placed on the table. From the creased edge of her blouse’s sleeve, the bare arm looked to Gora like a benevolent message from her gentle heart.The use of ‘benevolent message’ might be a tad excessive, but ‘the creased edge of the blouse’s sleeve’ brings the whole scene into a sharp focus and makes it difficult to move one’s eyes away. In another place, when Binoy and Lalita are traveling together (unheard of, in those days) to Calcutta by steamer, we discover—
When Lalita went to sleep in her first-class cabin, Binoy could not go to bed. He took his shoes off in the deck outside his cabin and silently paced back and forth…The night was deep and dark. The cloudless sky was full of stars. The dark line of trees on the banks stood still as pillars under the inky sky. Below the wide river flowed on silently. In between, Lalita slept on. Nothing else, tonight she had surrendered just this perfect, trustful sleep to Binoy to keep. And he has taken the responsibility of protecting it like a priceless gem.
Reading these passages I thought, if Gora is not a love story, what is?
I have always had two regrets about Tagore in Gora. The first is related to Tagore’s attachment to the elite class, and his landownership. In Gora, embarrassingly, not a single character is seen to work for a living except Gora’s older brother Mahim. Yet, Tagore has portrayed Mahim as a weak, timid, and self-centered creature. Paresh Babu is a prosperous investor; Gora and Binoy seem to get by with inherited wealth, although Tagore avoided writing a scene about the pair receiving their pocket money. Lalita would love to spend her own money to run a girls’ school, but even that proves impractical (no one would send their daughters). These rich people, who cannot even earn a living, are principal characters in the ‘greatest’ Bengali novel? This almost seems like a joke on the ever-poor Bengalis. In this regard, Vivekananda would never consider himself as an inspiration for Gora. He was well acquainted with poverty.
Perhaps Tagore could write only about this class. As I finished my studies and discreetly slinked into the parade of a capitalist economy, it became easier to sympathize with Tagore’s dependence on his own class’s experiences. It was therefore a delightful surprise when I chanced upon a letter written by Tagore in Prasanta Kumar Pal’s long biography while working on this essay. Shortly after finishing Gora, Tagore was preparing to travel abroad on 18th December 1911 and made a Will leaving all his property to his son Rathindranath. This Will was not registered but there was a letter with it addressed to Rathindranath, titled— ‘My wishes and desires’. The last two sentences of the letter go like this— “I have advised Rathindra multiple times to use the income from the zamindari for the benefit of the tenants, not for his own pleasure. It will fulfil a long-standing desire if he can gladly channel his inheritance to this cause.” During the writing of Gora, Tagore was immersed in the responsibilities of his school Santiniketan. He was already supporting 55 students in the beginning of 1907. Despite his reluctance, Tagore had to depend on the income from his estate to meet expenses in Santin iketan. I have not found a source that reports how much that income was, but one knows from his biographies that his elder brother Dwijendranath used to trade his share to Rabindranath and received about forty-five thousand rupees. Tagore’s own income was reportedly less than that. Furthermore, it seems that he too, like Gora, was a keen patron of various developmental projects in his land.
My second regret was Tagore’s deep-rooted faith in God. For a long time, I had considered this to be his greatest weakness. I sorely missed a rationalist atheist character in Gora. Wouldn’t a rationalist young man also be interested in the company of charismatic Brahmo girls like Lalita and Suchorita? Later, this regret too became tolerable for two reasons. First, it is hard to say how strong was Tagore’s devotion to (and confidence in) God towards the end of his life; and second, in his mid-life, this devotion seemingly endowed Tagore with a super-human strength to endure the succession of tragedies in his life. He had lost his wife a few days before beginning his work on Gora. During its writing, he also lost his youngest son, the eleven-year-old Shamindranath, to cholera (24th November, 1907). Tagore spoke of his son’s loss as the most heart-breaking event of his life. Yet, he never missed any of the monthly segments of Gora. Nor did the quality of his writing suffer. (How could his hand not fail while writing about the eleven-year-old brother of Suchorita?) Whether one should think of this super-human detachment as a benevolent or a malevolent force is beyond my comprehension. All one can say is that its power was only consumed in constructive ways through his writing and development work of Santiniketan.
Gora is not just a soap opera. For one thing, no one takes the trouble to present a significant idea in a soap opera. Much of what Tagore wanted to say through Gora is also seen in the story of his own life. Written by a great poet, Gora is not only exceptional for its outstanding use of language but also for a vitality and ambition which, like Tagore himself, is unparalleled in Bengali literature. An indefatigable life-force had taken possession of Tagore when he was writing Gora that drove him to the monumental task of building Santiniketan and to immense literary creativity year after year. The desire to vicariously savor a slice of this vast, productive and busy life is what has ultimately brought me back and will always bring me back to Gora and Tagore’s biography.
[The facts and citations in this essay are taken from Rabijiboni, the biography of Tagore by Prashantakumar Pal, Tagore’s Collected Works, and Rabindranath Tagore—The Myriad Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson.]
Published in Parabaas, July 15, 2022