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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

Going back to Gora

Friday 31 December 2010, by Amiya Dev

“In May next year the country will observe Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. The following piece is being carried here as a token of our tribute to that extraordinary personality who, while being rooted in Indian ethos and culture, transcended the barriers of nationalism and attracted several of our national leaders, notably Jawaharlal Nehru, while engaging in lively debates with Mahatma Gandhi. Incidentally the centenary of Tagore’s novel Gora (on which the ariticle is written) has already been observed.”

It is time we went back to Tagore’s Gora. Its hundred years (1909/1910-2010) have not dated its spirit. Of course, when one sits down to read it, one is taken back to the second half of the nineteenth century, but that is only with regard to the narrative. But the issues it brings up, at least the crucial ones, are still relevant.

Let me take up the one most crucial: what makes an Indian Indian? Is it his or her blood? We remember that not all Gora’s immediate readers were happy about its hero’s parentage. Why did it have to be Irish? Couldn’t Rabindranath think of something nearer home? One could offer a subtle reason for the Irish blood, but the issue was really of non-Indian blood. I vaguely recall a Westerner rendering Gora into ‘paleface’. But Gora was Gora (English soldiers were also called by that name, but any hint that way would indeed be a case of reverse irony) not because of his colour but because his name was Gaur, abbreviated from Gaurmohan. Not only was he born in an Indian home, though under the force of circumstances, but he also grew up Indian, but not like the average Indian gentlemen, his elder ‘brother’ Mahim, for instance, by his foster father’s earlier marriage. He grew up Indian with a dedication, the mission that India must wake up from her torpor, but not by compromising her glorious tradition. By no means should she plead inferior to her White masters—in fact it was patriotism (quite early in the day he took up a Christian Missionary’s challenge to defend Hinduism, reminiscent of the famous Hastie-Bankim debate) that first put him to vindicating his ‘Bharatbarsha’ and protecting her from any facelift from above. This was Hindu revivalism with a difference, for while it emphasised the past it didn’t rule out the need for change, though that must come from below.

Half-way through the novel, in spite of his fervent rhetoric, Gora came to realise how fragile this Bharatbarsha really was, how vulnerable, but the more he knew that the greater grew his compassion for her, and the greater the compassion the stronger was his determination to stand by her. Sacrificing all personal emotions, his friendship and love, he was gearing up for the ideal leadership he felt he had been called to give, when the bolt came: from his apprehended deathbed Gora’s foster father revealed his identity to him. He had what can be called, in existentialist terms, an experience of nothingness.

In a single moment his whole life became an absurd dream. … He seems to have no such thing as past, and his future, so long set up with such singular determination, has utterly vanished. Like a moment’s dew he is floating on a lotus leaf. He has no mother, no father, no homeland, no race, no name, no clan, no deity he could worship. All he has is a mere ‘No’. What is he going to clutch at, what is he going to do, wherefrom is he going to begin again, from which angle is he going to set his goals, how again is he gradually going day by day to put together his agenda? In this strange emptiness without any hint of a direction Gora sat speechless.

BUT not for long, for he realised that he had so long been under a borrowed identity that induced his idealisation of Bharatbarsha and concomitant inability to come to terms with the real and everyday India. It had been like an unassailable fortress in which he had been guarding his devotion. ‘Today, in a single moment, that idealised fortress has evaporated like a fantasy and being released on all sides, I have come into a great truth. All Bharatbarsha’s weal and woe, happiness and misery, wisdom and ignorance have today come and hit me with a thud on the heart—today I have gained the true right to serve her … This morning with all covers lifted from over my soul, I have had my birth taking place on Bharatbarsha’s soil …’

This realisation too has an existentialist ring: utterly denuded of an identity, his inchoate ‘being’ looking him stark in the face, he now ‘becomes’—Indian by choice. The issue is not of nationality or domicile, but of the identity he takes on. Again it is not identity in the communal sense, for by definition he is an outcaste now, outsider to every religion practised in India, never ever to be let into any place of worship or any social fold—the most untouchable of all untouchables.

Yet he has found his dharma, the identity that holds him together, and that consists in dedication to the country that has borne him—given him the air to breathe in, the soil to stride on, the sky to look up at—no ideologies, no rhetoric, but Bharatbarsha of its millions. The word now is service.

Of course, this is symbolic and we will do injustice to Tagore by claiming literalness. But we will do a graver injustice to Tagore if we overlook his identity ideal embedded in this. Mere biology doesn’t make us Indian, we have to exercise a conscious choice to be Indian. The idea of choice or adoption has as such an importance in Tagore: it is the opposite of blind compulsion.

Besides choice, Indian-ness entails experiencing India. This is no less true today than it was a hundred years ago. India everyday at this instant is so intense that without living it ourselves, we cannot possibly grasp it fully. Distance turns it into analysable data and data are such staff as history is eventually made of. The Indian à la Tagore is not probably the historian round the corner, but to begin with, a conscious partaker of the experience. To say this is to give priority to the local against the global but not courting cultural relativism in a big way, though a minimum of it may be in order.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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