Women and Nationalism
Tagore's Ghare Baire
Sometimes, when addressing a woman, the term "fair sex" is used as a substitute. It has several connotations, starting with her being physically weaker than men to being the symbol of grace and elegance. A third one could imply that a woman is "fair" in her judgment. She cannot make errors and therefore, in siding to Partha Chatterjee's context, in The Nation and its Women, the reason of a woman's existence becomes to purify the household. Thus she should not be exposed to the selfish material world or more specifically to the 19th century -- the colonial world.
After taking a look at Satyajit Ray's portrayal of Rabindranath Tagore's novel Ghare Baire on screen, one questions the judgment made by Bimla. Did her exposure to the colonial world benefit her? Was she able to judge when liberated? Was she ever liberated? And finally, is she accountable for the death of her husband, Nikhil? It is through the answers of these questions where we can try and place the concept of a "bhadramahila" (lady) in the middle class societies under British colonialism. With that in mind, we then look at the consequences that come with it.
The "fairness" in judgment does not depend on the woman. It is and has been the men who decide what is acceptable and what is not. V. Spike Peterson, in his Gendered Nationalism: Women and War Reader attempts to explain the "battle of the cradle" during the formation of nationalism in which case there is a debate on reproductive rights. The woman's participation in nationalism becomes to reproduce the population of her state and through teaching her children the accepted culture; she reproduces social ethnicity as well. In this manner she is excluded from the political arena and according to Peterson, "denied the status of 'personhood' attached to group decision making."
The character Bimla becomes an exceptional case because she joins the Swadeshi activism and that is also because her husband allowed her. Let us not forget, she was on her way to becoming a "bhadramahila" -- a modern woman who resembles the British upper class lady. She was mastering the art of British folk songs, she wore fashionable embroidered blouses but as soon as her husband demanded her to switch from singing English songs to Hindi ones, she had to abide his orders. Therefore she was stopped at the path of idealising western women. Chatterjee notes this as a normal case: "The movement toward modernisation [is] stalled by nationalist politics."
V. Spike Peterson in his essay also identifies three faces of Nationalism: liberation, exclusivity and domination. Therefore in order to find an identity of one's own, they exclude anything that is foreign -- or Swadeshi Andolon.
According to Chatterjee however, the "renaissance reformers […] were selective in their acceptance of liberal ideas from Europe." Doesn't it ring a bell to those who claim to be modern with their religious beliefs? You tend to take some parts of the religion and overlook the rest.
But what happened while reconstructing the ideologies of the state in India? The women got allocated to serve for the "inner domain of sovereignty" or their role to the political movements took place in their homes. She was removed and isolated from the political arena and placed into the sphere of her home, from where she has no contact with the physical world and from where she can work (reproduce) without interference!
In the case of Bimla, she was allowed to look beyond her home and the puppet masters of the novel and movie quite amusingly turned that freedom into betrayal.
"Day and night must women be held by their protectors in a state of absolute dependence. A woman, it is affirmed, is never fit for independence, or to be trusted with liberty." (Partha Chatterjee, Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialised Women). The "trust" may imply here the "fairness" in judgment. She is known to be incapable of judging well by herself and we notice this in the movie as well. When Bimla is left to decide for herself, she inclines to the liar, Shondip, over her husband Nikhil. But here Bimla is educated. She has followed the social systematic apparatus and yet without her husband there to tell her what to do, she becomes a reason for his destruction. She fails to recognise the hypocrisy Shondip is playing. He teaches others to avoid foreign goods but takes pleasure in drinking from an imported cup!
This is the naivety of women shown through Bimla where her virtue gets taken advantage of in the materialistic world, eventually turning her into a traitor. Bimla herself claims that she has learnt from society never to think of another man and so feels perplexed to think of Shondip. The social ideas have been embedded in her subconscious through, and when she questions her society, she becomes equivalent to a villain where the community doubts her and the scoundrel takes her in!
Thus we understand Chatterjee's observation of literary figures (like Tagore) ridiculing Indian women who wanted to become bhadramahila. "To ridicule the idea of a Bengali woman trying to imitate the ways of a memsahib […] was a recipe sure to evoke laughter and moral condemnation in both male and female audiences," Chatterjee points out. So Bimla is not supposed to be sympathised with because she was fooled by another man but she is supposed to be laughed at for her own foolishness in not complying with the values of the new nationalism.
In fact, one of the key things to notice was that we too, as a modern audience, find her attitude disturbing and problematic. Chatterjee pointed out that the modern women should be "the image of a woman as goddess or mother served to erase her sexuality in the world outside her home." Quite humorously, we find her physical attachment with Shondip irritating. We undeniabley enjoy Hollywood movies full of intimate scenes, even between two wrong people but to find "traditional" and "cultured" Indians kiss each other openly on screen disgusts us -- we are unable to accept the distortion of cultural boundaries. We instead laugh at how two people idealising a western couple result in foolish awkwardness!
Bimla is thus caught in between "nationalism" and "patriarchy" (or the male dominating society) where one demands that she steps forth for her nation but the other suggests she does so within her domestic boundaries.
As Chatterjee himself writes, the women was subjected to a "new patriarchy" where "the new woman was not only contrasted with that of a modern Western society, it was also explicitly distinguished from the patriarchy of indigenous tradition." In such matter, Bimla can be found trapped under the new patriarchy where she seems to be empowered with the modern education but really she is being suppressed by her male counterparts.
She refers to her husband as "sir" which adheres to the old tradition and yet she is literate enough, compared to most women. When she initially wonders about joining Shodip, it seems that he lures her to come to him: "Nikhil may be your husband, but you are not his shadow," Shondip analogises her life to a mere grey nothingness. Her not impressed enough by this remark leads him say "come to the group, I will quit smoking" and "welcome to the group, you don't need to do much, in fact I will come to you when necessary."
In the movie, the issue of nationalism in the background arises since it becomes a class-based movement. The poor people cannot simply give up foreign materials from which they make their livelihood, and we find that the upper class becomes vocal of this movement but themselves stick to hypocrisy. The bigger problem shown in the movie though is the movement in the domestic scenery. The widow, representing tradition suggests to Nikhil to destroy the "root of the problem" -- Shondip. Nikhil being a modern man trying to remain a nationalist is put in a dilemma.
Now that Bimla is supposedly exposed to the outside world, she is no longer considered pure. Her sexuality, her presence was therefore the only reason for her to be a part of Swadeshi as we never find her really doing anything. At the times when we do see Bimla and Shondip, especially towards the end, they meet in the dark and in secrecy. As Gita Sen says: "Working in proximity to strange men often carries a moral stigma and suspicion of promiscuity" -- and the movie proves it right. Thus her presence in the whole activist movement becomes romanticised and she becomes a commodity of lust, seduction, and moral perversion.
What remains confusing is the function of Bimla's real "self." We find that Bimla has failed to understand anything that her surrounding has given her. She learns to be a memsahib because her husband allows her to and she joins the activism because Shondip asked her too. But when left on her own, Tagore shows her to be incapable of understanding the "good" man and the "evil" man. She becomes a victim of the dichotomy of "inner domain" and the "worldly outdoors," and her innocence which was more productive inside the barriers of her home means nothing in the "men's world." She has no role to play there except win the heart of the wrong man and herself be trapped in it. We never find her actually working for political activism.
What Tagore shows, here, is that education has not taught her any practicality. To be fair, rather than judging Bimla to be responsible for her husband's death, we can also say that Nikhil's characteristics are visibly unrealistic. Can a man be so open-minded and not wonder where his wife goes every night? Can a man not understand when another man is flirting with his wife, and, more importantly, can a man be so easily bluffed as to blame the other man for his wife's unfaithfulness?
Why doesn't Nikhil target his wife and not the "other" man? This "perfect" idol is non-existent and full of flaws. On top of that, a woman cannot simply watch her husband or any other person run towards death and not attempt to even stop him. It is, of course, never right to directly assume that fiction literally reflects reality, and so perhaps Tagore is just subconsciously telling his male audience not to liberate your women or they too will be responsible for your death!
(R) thedailystar.net 2008