Gora (1909) is the fifth in order of writing and the largest of Tagore’s twelve novels. It was serialised in a literary magazine Probasi from 1907 to 1909. Being a complex novel, it can be studied and interpreted at different levels. The various themes like friendship, motherhood, love, caste discrimination, woman-emancipation, the play of destiny, nation and nationalism, religion, spirituality, time and space provide a panoramic view of Tagore’s vision. It is rightly said by Krishna Kriplani, “Gora is more than a mere novel; it is an epic of India in transition at a crucial period of modern history, when the social conscience and intellectual awareness of the new intelligentsia were in the throes of a great churning. No other book gives so masterly an analysis of the complex of Indian social life with its teeming contradictions, or of the character of Indian nationalism which draws its roots from renascent Hinduism and stretches out its arms towards universal humanism” (Kriplani, A Life 118).
Identity and Individuality
The novel is a fascinating tale of Gora (literally, ‘gora’ means a white man), set in Bengal- a land of the dark-skinned people of ‘the Indian subcontinent’. From the very beginning to the almost end in the novel, this pivotal character advocates the practices of Hinduism; but, his observance of rituals appears discordant because of his Irish lineage. Even he does not know that he is not a Brahmin by birth. His assertion of identity as a Brahmin stands questionable in the end of the novel, when he comes to know the truth about his descent. Throughout the novel, he seems to live in a virtual-real world that does not actually belong to him. The microcosm of his identity crisis can be viewed on the larger canvas of the native land, which is ‘the white man’s burden’ (Rudyard Kipling). Bengal (or, ‘the Indian subcontinent’) and the protagonist are the epitomes of Hybridity (Homi K. Bhabha) in the colonial era. Thus, the novel is a journey in search of identity at individual and national levels. First, it is about the unfolding of the true self of Gora. Secondly, it is an attempt to concretize the Indianness of the motherland, afflicted by the foreign rule.
Nation and Nationalism
In Gora, the idea of nation and nationalism swings between the two poles (apart ?) – Hinduism and the Brahmo Samaj in the colonial setting. Gora, once a follower of the Samaj, suddenly becomes a practicing Brahmin because he feels that the conventional attitude to the religion gives him a sense of belongingness to his land. Expressing his concern, he says, “You call these customs evil only because the English books you have read and memorized call them so. You know nothing about these customs on your own” (54). It reminds of Macaulay’s oft quoted statement- “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay, 314). Perhaps, this is what Gora hates the most.
It is clear that the British colonization did not affect ‘the Indian subcontinent’ only economically, politically, and geographically, but culturally and psychologically also. In this regard, Dipankar Roy in his paper “Representation of the National Self- Novelistic Portrayal of a New Cultural Identity in Gora” writes,
“Colonization can never be merely viewed as the unleashing of processes of economic exploitation. It has cultural aggression as its necessary corollary. It destroys civilizations. It empties the colonized subjects of all their traditional belief systems, cultural practices, and ritualistic moorings. It undermines their very sense of self. The loss of ‘self’ under colonialism – when humanity reduced to a monologue- results in the colonization of minds.”
When Gora raises his voice against the misfortune of the villagers of Ghoshpara, Haran Babu, an active member of the Samaj, tells the British magistrate, “Most people are not yet able to absorb the best aspects of English education. And some are so ungrateful that they are not willing to concede that the British rule is a matter of divine dispensation. The sole reason for this is, they have learnt their lessons by heart while their moral training remains incomplete.” The magistrate remarks on it, “Their moral training will never be complete until they accept Christ” (180). In this case, Haran Babu is simply ‘mimicing’ (Homhi K. Bhabha) whereas the British magistrate is striking the lash of ‘hegemony’ (Antonio Gramsci). It also alludes to the teaching of English in India as a kind of politics for the construction and sustenance of the British colonies. Simultaneously, it deconstructs the original idea of Bharartvarsha, or, in other words, the contemporary condition makes the idea ‘hybrid’. Hinduism appears to be at stake because of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s the Brahmo Samaj and the English Missionaries’ evangelization.
Interestingly, Gora converts to Hinduism only when he feels bad about the humiliation of ‘his’ land and its people by the British. This shift is noticeable for its motive- it is not religion itself but the idea of a united nation that motivates him to go for Hinduism. Thus, he finds traditional customs and rituals as a means of national unity. When “a British missionary wrote a newspaper article attacking the Hindu community and its ancient texts, and challenged Hindus to engage in debate with him, Gora flared up as soon as he read this. He himself was given to condemning the shastras and popular Hindu customs whenever he found an opportunity to do so. But when it came to a foreigner denigrating the Hindu community, Gora felt goaded to retaliate” (Tagore, 27).
Colonialism and Nationalism are the two important aspects of the novel. All the characters except a few, who are the followers of the Brahmo Samaj, have the feelings of antagonism towards the British rulers. Only people like Pannubabu and Boroda Sundori are very fond of the English way of living and consider the British rule as a blessing of God. On the other hand, some people like Mohim and Karishandayal show a lot of respect to the English officials because of the petty selfish reasons. Simultaneously, one cannot deny that the novelist has also carved a soothing niche for the liberal attitude of the Western mind. The characters of Poresh Babu and Anandmoyi give testimony to it.
In general, Gurudev has portrayed the anti-British motion in Bengal under the veil of Hinduism. He shows that the Muslims also hate the British Rulers. Tagore’s famous song in Gitanjali- ‘Where the mind is without fear’ switches light on his ideal vision of India. In “The Religion of Man”, Tagore says, “Freedom in the mere sense of independence has no content and therefore no meaning”. He is of the view that “freedom would have no meaning, if one oppressive power was replaced by another, replicating the structures of hierarchy. The issues of caste and gender discrimination had to be tackled first, to promote social and religious harmony among the various sections of Indian society” (Aikant). The novelist points out the secular character of Bharatvarsha, who has the capacity to embrace all the people irrespective of their caste, color, and creed. The novel ends on a positive note. Gora’s ‘freedom’ helps him to see beyond the narrow vision of sectarianism or any kind of religious groupism. In the end, Gora says, “Today I am Bharatiya. Within me there is no conflict between communities, whether Hindu or Muslim or Krishtan. Today all the castes of Bharat are my castes” (Tagore, 475). And, this is ‘the truth’ (476) of the Creator.
Though Rabindranath Tagore was never actively involved in politics, he never detached himself from current events either. On the contrary, he was unique in his attitude towards nationalism. He inaugurated the meeting of the Congress party that took place in Kolkata in 1896 by singing “Vande Matram” to his own tune. Nevertheless, he does not favour nationalism in its narrow senseii; in fact, he has been cosmopolitan and universalistic in his approach towards humanism. He writes in Nationalism, “India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity” (83). Satish C. Aikant remarks, “For Tagore, humanity is indivisible and societies such as India’s could redeem themselves by adopting the principles of ‘sarvadharma samabhava’ (deference to all religions) or the Upanishadic dictum of ‘vasudhev kutumbakam’ (the entire world as one family) which can be extended to political domain for a state of peaceful coexistence among all nations, and also within the national boundaries. It is in this spirit that he envisions a world “which has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” (Tagore, Gitanjali 27). This is one lesson that India can teach the world: “If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity” (Tagore, Nationalism 78). Tagore is more interested in the demolition of internal social evils of the countryiii, and global unity. In spite of his patriotism and love of his race and people, he, for one moment, cannot forget to emphasise universal love and fraternity as essential to our growth.
Religious conflicts and Tagore’s humanism
Dr Mohammad Omar Farooq says, “In Tagore’s writing, there is no disrespect or denial of religion in general, but a profound protest against what people themselves often make out religions to be” (Farooq). In the novel, there are Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, and Muslim-Christian conflicts. The Christians in the novel have two faces; they are not only Christians but they are also the English colonizers. The setting of the novel pin points the disruptive time when the Bengali society in Kolkata was mainly divided into the traditional orthodox Hindus and the modernized, liberal thinking Brahmos instructed by the Brahmo Samaj. The Brahmos criticized Hindu orthodoxy, idol-worshipping, caste system etc. On the other hand, the Hindus denounced the Christian ways of the Samaj. About the interconnectivity of the Brahmo Samaj and Hinduism, Rabindranath said, ‘I was born in a Hindu family, but accepted Brahmo religion. … The religion we accepted is universal in nature; however, it is basically the religion of the Hindus. We accepted this universal religion with the heart of Hindus”iv (Azad, Abul Kalam).
Some of the opportunistic characters like Mohim, Krishnadayal, Horimohini, and Pannu Babu compromise with the ideologies of their sect or religion for their personal benefits. They follow their religion/sect in a very mechanical way; they basically kill its foundation. Tagore criticizes this kind of ritualistic attitude, which shuns away the basic philosophy of any religion. Going against any kind of sectarianism, Tagore takes the side of humanism. Poresh Babu, his mouthpiece, remarks, “Sectarianism makes one forget the simple fact that human beings are human beings first. It sets up an entirely society-made distinction between Brahmo and Hindu and blows up the distinction into something larger than universal truth” (Tagore, 295). Undoubtedly, Tagore was religious. His concept of religion was spiritual and universal. Tagore, himself, had stated, “My religion is a poet’s religion…Its touch comes to me through the same unseen and trackless channel as does the inspiration of my songs” (Tagore, A Poet’s Religion 25). In his essay “Rajbhakti”(1906), he says, “O my nation…in front of your seat Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, are waiting for a long time, being attracted by the call of the Almighty” (Roy).
The portrayal of women characters reflects Tagore’s idea of woman as a complete
being. He was aware that, “We see Bharat only as a country of men. We don’t see the
women at all” (Tagore, 106).
The heroines in the novel- Sucharita and Lolita are the liberated young women with a strong mind of their own. Lolita even approves Gora’s refusal of any legal help as a protest against the British magistrate (187). Perhaps, it is the fault of characterization that these two girls appear elder and mature for their age. Anandmoyi has been viewed as the symbolic representation of Mother India. Gora, full of emotions, finds Bharatvarsha within his foster mother- “Ma, you are my only mother. The mother for whom I have looked everywhere all this time she was sitting in my house. You have no caste, you do not discriminate against people, you do not hate- you are the image of benediction. You are my Bharatvarsha…. (477).” Tagore glorifies her belief that people are above religion or caste.
Justifying the Muslims
Rabindranath himself described his Bengali family as the product of “a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan, and British. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian influences, and Rabindranath grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature” (Sen, Amartya)v. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons for Tagore’s universalistic attitude. His deep understanding of the Muslim religion is appreciative. The novel breaks the myth that Tagore was indifferent to the Muslims. Gora reminds the old Muslim man, who has been whipped in face by a British, of the prophet’s message- “Because he who submits to injustice is also guilty- he causes wrong-doing to grow. You may not understand but take it from me, being meek and tolerant is no dharma. It only encourages the wrong doer. Your prophet Muhammad knew this; therefore he didn’t go about in the guise of a meek person to preach his religion” (103). Gora praised the Prophet of Islam for his vehement fight against injustice. Tagore also shows that there is unity among the Muslims because they do not have caste system like the Hindus.