Somehow or another I found myself reading Gora, which I found in the Gurukula library. Written in 1910, this novel is sometimes said to be Rabindranath's masterpiece. I started reading it 20 years ago in Bengali but never finished it. translation, done in 1924 by W.W.Pearson, is in the literary English of the period and keeps the spirit of the original quite well. The overall flavor seems to have been touched by the feminine social and romantic mood of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or even Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps more Dickensian social overtones would have been welcome, and where Rabindranath uses irony, it seems insufficient. Indeed there is enough earnestness in this work to make me wonder if it was not written by a much younger man than the 50-year-old Tagore was in 1910.
It is also quite clear from the historical references that the events described are taking place in a Bengal of a few decades earlier, when the Brahmo Samaj was a greater force in Bengali society than it was by the turn of the 20th century. Since the name of Keshab Babu (Keshab Chandra Sen) is mentioned, it would appear that it is set in the time before that movement split in the 1860's.
Rabindranath's account seems to reflect the tensions present in the Brahmo Samaj during that time. On the one hand he describes genuine wisdom in the group--the individual (Paresh Babu, পরেশ বাবু) who is accepted as the "guru" in the end is a longtime Brahmo Samaji liberal--its decadence is represented by the same man's wife, Boroda (বরদা) and of theis more or less blacklisted by the more dominant conservative factions represented by one of the book's less pleasant characters (Haran, হরণ), a militant preacher of the organization.
Paresh and Boroda have two daughters and a son, as well as two adopted children. His own daughter Lolita (ললিতা) and the adopted daughter Sucharita (সুচরিতা) are the young girls whose romantic sentiments are at the center of Rabindranath's concerns about women's issues. The two girls, though not as young as typical Hindu girls of the period would have been when marriageable, are nevertheless in their early to mid-teens, i.e., past 14 but not much past. As such, Rabindra seems to make them, their thoughts and sentiments rather more mature than we could reasonably hope girls of that age to be. But he is clearly speaking approvingly of the Brahmo Samaj opposition to many of the social restrictions placed upon women--including widow remarriage, suttee, increasing the legal age for marriage, and so on. The Brahmo Samaj also approved of women's education, and clearly these young girls are educated far beyond what Hindu society would have permitted. This is important in the story, because our male heroes, who are vigorous and committed to the nationalist movement of the time, will be attracted to these women, not only for their physical attributes, but because they are worthy intellectually and are themselves able to engage with their ideas.
The two heroes are the eponymous Gora (গোরা) and his friend Binoy (বিনয়). Though Gora is named after our Gaurachandra, Rabindranath makes no allusions to that antecendent anywhere. Indeed, there is some question about whether Rabindranath was very familiar at all with Mahaprabhu. We know that he was inspired in his early life to write poetry after reading the Mahajan padavali, but as far as I know, he wrote little or nothing indicating a familiarity with Chaitanya Charitamrita, etc. In this book, for what it is worth, Vaishnavas seem to be almost completely assimilated into the orthodoxy, and Rabindra makes no practical distinction between them. If Vaishnavas had any heterodox elements, like Sahajiyaism or Bauls, there is no indication of any such thing in this volume. Indeed, Bengali society has been reduced to two monoliths, Hindu orthodoxy and Brahmoism. Whether this is a simplification for the sake of narrative or whether it is a true representation of the state of affairs, at least in Calcutta in 1880.
The only Vaishnava character, a widow who took up the religion on being cheated of her position in her in-laws' family home after the death of her husband, shows a certain kindness and humility (or obsequiousness) as long as her social status is precarious, but as soon as money and a restoration of her family position are held up as possibilities, she becomes increasingly hypocritical and scheming.
To return to Gora, though. (TO BE CONTINUED)
The two main themes of the book are Hindu nationalism and the condition of women.