Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
I do not wish to spoil this plot too completely for you (though odds are I will by accident later on in the blob anyway!) so I will just share a snapshot from each of the three main characters/narrators. The story takes place in Bengal, which is now Bangladesh (and I think another part of land which is part of present-day India).
Bimala, a wife
- Shall I tell the whole truth? I have often wished that my husband had the manliness to be a little less good.
- To win in an argument does not lead to happiness.
- 'I truly believe my country to be my God.'
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
In case you, like I, needed a refresher on where Bangladesh is, here's a little map of that part of the world. It's tucked in there by India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar.
Since this story centers on a fight for Bengali independence, I did a little digging. Here is a brief summary of what I learned.
- India became a republic in 1950 (after it was colonized by Great Britain)
- For a time, there was an East and West Bengal, then later, an East and West Pakistan (though I think one of the Pakistans may have been where Bangladesh is now? This got a little fuzzy for me.)
- West Pakistan was not so keen on Bangladesh becoming its own country. In March of 1971, West Pakistan began a military crackdown on its eastern wing in an attempt to suppress Bengali calls for "self-determination rights". The war for independence lasted 9 months, and it is estimated that members of the Pakistani military and supporting Islamist militias killed up to 3 million people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women.
- In 1972, Bangladesh (literally meaning country of Bengal) - finally becomes its own country. Pakistan bans Bengali literature and music in state media, including the works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
- Present day Bangladesh is home to roughly 163 million people, and it is the most densely-populated large country in the world.
New Words I Learned (I'm including this first because many of the words pop up later on, and it's helpful to review their definitions first)
zenana - literally meaning "of the women" or "pertaining to women," it refers to the part of a house belonging to a Hindu or Muslim family in South Asia which is reserved for the women of the household. The Zenana are the inner apartments of a house in which the women of the family live.
zamindar - in the Indian subcontinent, a zamindar was an 'aristocrat.' Typically hereditary, zamindars held enormous tracts of land and control over their peasants, from whom they reserved the right to collect tax on behalf of imperial courts or for military purposes.
meed - a deserved share or reward
anodyne - (noun) - a painkilling drug or medicine; (adj) not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, and often deliberately so
calumny - the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone's reputation; slander
shibboleth - a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important; sometimes, a watchword
lucre - money, especially when regarded as sordid or distasteful or gained in a dishonorable way
nabob - a Muslim official or governor under the Mogul empire; a person of conspicuous wealth or high status; a person who returned from India to Europe with a fortune
dacoities - an act of armed robbery committed by a gang in India or Burma (Myanmar)
All right, let's dig in, shall we? I quite enjoyed this book. It was lyrically stunning, and somehow beautifully contemplative, even though not a terrible lot happened. I definitely feel like it belongs on our list of classics, though I'd love to give it a little feminist updating. ;)
Since the story centers on three characters, and we hear from each of them in turn, I think it only makes sense to share some moments that encapsulate each of them.
Bimala, the Queen Bee, in her gold-bordered sari
- I was no longer the lady of the Rajah's house, but the sole representative of Bengal's womanhood. Bimala finds herself in a love triangle situation when Sandip, the revolutionary friend of her husband, Nikhil, decides to stick around and falls for her hard. She's seduced not only by Sandip himself, but also his oratory and calls for independence.
- Never before had I had any opportunity of being present at a discussion between my husband and his men friends. There's a lot of interesting exploration of spaces in this book - Bimala gets access to many spaces that she would never have been privy to if Nikhil hadn't wanted to expose her to a more modern world experience.
- Bimala has no patience with patience. Her love is for the boisterous. Nikhil, on his wife.
- There must be two different persons inside me. One of these in me can understand that Sandip is trying to delude me; the other is content to be deluded.
- 'What I want is, that I should have you, and you should have me, more fully in the outside world. That is where we are still in debt to each other." I loved that Nikhil wanted to offer Bimala the world in its fullness, and I loved this line.
- 'If we meet, and recognize each other, in the real world, then only will our love be true.'
- From the time my husband had been a college student he had been trying to get the things required by our people produced in our own country. Nikhil is just as devoted to Bengali independence as Sandip, but he goes about his politics in a more practical and patient fashion, which is dramatically less sexy to Bimala.
- "My life has only its dumb depths; but no murmuring rush. I can only receive: not impart movement. And therefore my company is like fasting." I loved this line, and poor Nikhil thoughtfully imagining that it makes sense that Bimala looked elsewhere for company, because spending time with him was a kind of inaction.
- The light in his eyes somehow did not shine true.
- 'My country does not become mine simply because it is the country of my birth. It becomes mine on the day when I am able to win it by force.'
- 'I ask for whatever I want, and I do not always wait to ask before I take it.' This is Sandip in a nutshell.
- Bimala, on Sandip: "I could not be sure whether he was a person, or just a living flame."
- Sandip, on Nikhil: "He has such a prejudice in favor of truth - as though there exists such an objective reality!"
- A student of Sandip's - "Sandip Babu rightly teaches that in order to get, you must snatch."
The home and the world
I loved the way the affair between Sandip and Bimala was developed, especially since they only even touch once, and it's not in a sensual way. These lines walk you through its progression:
Sandip: "Ever since my arrival, Nikhil's sitting-room had become a thing amphibious - half women's apartment, have men's: Bimala had access to it from the zenana, it was not barred to me from the outer side."
Thus from bare suggestion we came to broad hint: the implied came to be expressed.
Bimala: "I will not shirk the truth. This cataclysmal desire drew me by day and by night. It seemed deliberately alluring - this making havoc of myself."
Nikhil, to Bimala: "'I tell you truly, Bimala, you are free. Whatever I may or may not have been to you, I refuse to be your fetters."
Bimala"When I came to my room today, I saw only furniture - only the bedstead, only the looking-glass, only the clothes-rack - not the all-pervading heart which used to be there, over all. Instead of it there was freedom, only freedom, mere emptiness! A dried-up watercourse with all its rocks and pebbles laid bare. No feeling, only furniture." I love this line - no feeling, only furniture.
Swadeshi is the term for the Bengali independence movement at the time. I liked this line about Nikhil preceding them in the movement, and yet somehow feeling off kilter with everyone else:
- Then were all eyes turned on my husband, from whose estates alone foreign sugar and salt and cloths had not been banished. Even the estate officers began to feel awkward and ashamed over it. And yet, some time ago, when my husband began to import country-made articles into our village, he had been secretly and openly twitted for his folly, by old and young alike. When Swadeshi had not yet become a boast, we had despised it with all our hearts.
- On the 'Mussulmans' - They must be suppressed altogether and made to understand that we are the masters. They are now showing their teeth, but one day they shall dance like tame bears to the tune we play.
Something that struck me in reading about their deep-seated desire for independence was the idea that there were still deep economic and class-based rifts in their own population, and there was no desire to undo or shift these levels.
- There will always be a large class of people, given to grovelling, who can never be made to do anything unless they are bespattered with the dust of somebody's feet, be it on their heads or on their backs.
As the late autumn afternoon wears on, the colours of the sky become turbid, and so do the feelings of my mind. There are many in this world whose minds dwell in brick-built houses - they can afford to ignore the thing called the outside. But my mind lives under the trees in the open, directly receives upon itself the messages borne by the free winds, and responds from the bottom of its heart to all the musical cadences of light and darkness.
My sister-in-law never failed to get from my husband whatever she wanted. He did not stop to consider whether her requests were right or reasonable. But what exasperated me most as that she was not grateful for this. The familiar relations, and in particular, the relationship/frenemyship between Bimala and her sister-in-law reminded me very much of Mom's sister-in-law in 'Please Look After Mom'. Here's another amazing exchange between Nikhil and his sister-in-law, the 'Sister Rani':
"But what is all this for, Sister Rani? Why have you been packing up all these things?
'Do you not think I am going with you?'
'What an extraordinary idea!'
'Don't you be afraid! I am not going there to flirt with you, nor to quarrel with the Chota Rani! One must die sooner or later, and it is just as well to be on the bank of the holy Ganges before it is too late. It is too horrible to think of being cremated in your wretched burning-ground here, under that stumpy banian tree - that is why I have been refusing to die, and have plagued you all this time.' haghaghaghahgahghaghaghag.
"Now I felt that there was no need to take anything at all. To set out and go forth was the important thing." This reminded me of this exchange from 'On the Road':
Dean: "Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there."
Sal: "Where we going, man?"
Dean: "I don't know but we gotta go."
Q and A Section - A few exchanges where questions are posed, and occasionally answered
Bimala: What do I want with the outside world?
Nikhil: The outside world may want you.
Just a line I really liked:
- "There was no mist in the winter sky. The stars were shining brightly. If, thought I to myself, as I lay out there, I had to steal these stars one by one, like golden coins, for my country - these stars so carefully stored up in the bosom of the darkness - then the sky would be blinded, the night widowed forever, and my theft would rob the whole world."
"Better, surely, to laugh away the world than flood it with tears. That is, in fact, how the world gets on. We relish our food and rest, only because we can dismiss, as so many empty shadows, the sorrows scattered everywhere, both in the home and in the outer world. If we took them as true, even for a moment, where would be our appetite, our sleep?" (Nikhil) Ah, so true! It is overwhelming to feel what it means to be a human in today's world and in today's America. But surely it is better to laugh away these fears and feelings, than to flood our land with tears.
I'll leave you with my favorite line, which reminded me very pleasantly of being a NASTY woman:
"Possibly this is woman's nature. When her passion is roused she loses her sensibility for all that is outside it. When, like the river, we women keep to our banks, we give nourishment with all that we have: when we overflow them we destroy with all that we are."
Onwards to Virginia and some pontification! Keep each other safe; keep faith; good night!