On May 3, 1916, Rabindranath Tagore left Calcutta by ship for Japan. He was 55, his reputation as a sage soaring after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for “his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”.

He was about to unsettle Indians and his fans in Japan, with his views on nationalism; he had already ruffled patriotic feathers in America. In 1915 and 1916, readers in Bengal were arguing about the meaning of Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), serialised in the Bengali magazine Sabujpatra a 100 years ago. Today, perhaps more Indians are familiar with Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film, but no better time to read Tagore’s novel on the powerful draw, and the perils of, an excess of patriotic zeal.

In 1899, Tagore had sounded the caution about Western nationalism in rousing poetry:

“The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred.

The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is

dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.

For it has made the world its food…

The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace,

my Motherland…. ”

His closing line was: “And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.”

Ghare Baire  opens with an introduction to Bimala, the wife of a wealthy landlord, Nikhilesh. Her husband sends her letters that she preserves in a sandalwood box and brings in a companion, Miss Gilby, to teach her about the wider world.

Nikhilesh is liberal, modern, a gentle but firm intellectual who wants his wife to eschew purdah and participate in the outside world. His friend Sandip is a fiery speaker and revolutionary. Adept at persuasion, he can bend people to the service of the Swadeshi movement, or to his own ends, often conflating the two things.

Bimala’s first impression of her husband’s old friend is not positive: “The light in his eyes somehow did not shine true.” But Sandip draws her into a world of action, and stirring emotion. It comes naturally to him to transgress boundaries, a quality that is temporarily, but greatly, appealing.

Nikhilesh will not overwhelm Bimala with his arguments — he holds to cool reason rather than forceful eloquence. The revolutionary is a pragmatic materialist; the landlord who eyes revolution in a more critical light is an idealist. He holds the idea of the nation to a higher standard than either his revolutionary friend or his impetuous wife would like.

Quite early on in Ghare Baire, Tagore sets up a tension between the noble aims of the Swadeshi movement, and the means by which these aims are achieved. He argued over nationalism, the charkha and crowd mentality with Mahatma Gandhi in a rousing but civil exchange of letters in The Modern Review and other journals.

Carried away by Swadeshi fervour, Bimala first wants to make a bonfire of her foreign clothes. Nikhilesh agrees that she need not wear them, but asks: “Why not try to build up something? You should not waste even a tenth part of your energies on this destructive excitement.” Their next disagreement is over Miss Gilby; Bimala wants to send her back to England. Nikhilesh says he cannot see Miss Gilby through “a mist of abstraction, just because she is English”, and Bimala, chastened, drops the matter.

But soon Miss Gilby is insulted by a boy on her way to church. The boy is under Nikhilesh’s care; he turns the boy out of the house, despite Bimala’s anger. She praises the boy’s Swadeshi zeal, discounting the hurt to the foreigner under threat. Miss Gilby goes back to England, voluntarily exiled. Ray chose to soften culpability in his film, presenting the injury to Miss Gilby as largely external, but it was otherwise in Tagore’s novel.

Tagore’s position on nationalism is clear in the exchanges between Nikhilesh and Sandip. “I am willing,” Nikhilesh said, “to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”

When he says he is afraid of “the hypnotic texts” of patriotism, Sandip presents his case: “What you call hypnotic texts I call truth. I truly believe my country to be my God…” The consequences of these views are almost deadly. The fires of righteous violence are lit, Nikhilesh’s life is threatened, Bimala starts to see the cracks in revolution. In that decade, Tagore felt free to use Bande Mataram as a running refrain. He questioned and tested Bankim’s phrase, asking what it really meant to love one’s motherland.

In the decades ahead, Tagore would become a far more stringent critic of the British, write more, and fine-tune his nuanced view that love of the country could help Indians develop a true sense of identity, while rejecting toxic nationalism.

On October 11, 1916, he wrote to his son from the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles:

“Whirled along by lectures, I reel from city to city… I have it in mind to make Shantiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world. I have to found a world centre for the study of humanity there. The days of petty nationalism are numbered – let the first step towards universal union occur in the fields of Bolpur. I want to make that place somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography – the first flag of victorious universal humanism will be planted there. To rid the world of the suffocating coils of national pride will be the task of my remaining years.”

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2016)