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Encountering "Otherness":
Synthesizing the East and the West in Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and the World and Aldous Huxley's Island

-- Jyoti Panjwani


Various kinds of literary, religious, historical, and socio-political encounters between the East and the West have led to a reckoning of the different ways of defining and dealing with cultural 'otherness'. This paper, by analyzing the two novels The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, and Island by Aldous Huxley explores the impact of cross-cultural encounters on these two writers’ evaluation of their own religious traditions and socio-political structures in the light of the other's civilization. The focal point of the analysis of the two novels is to enumerate the kinds of critical positions that Tagore and Huxley take with respect to the East and the West and the possibilities of synthesizing the eastern and the western ideologies to create postcolonial and utopian societies respectively.

In his novel The Home and the World (Ghare Baire 1919), Tagore takes the position of the "authentic insiders' "who speak for their culture but ... [are also] licensed to be critical" of their own cultures (Narayan 142). In his last novel Island (1962), Huxley, apart from using the East to represent a practical utopia, positions it as a 'mirror' to reflect the West. It is "a position that requires westerners to take an interest in other cultures without engaging in negative portrayals or moral criticisms of that other culture. ... The position of Mirror involves an injunction to sustain, encourage, and provide confirmation for global predations and depredations of the "Big Bad West". ... The 'Other' in such contexts seems only a "Mirror" that the West uses on its journey to self-discovery" (Narayan 136-138).

The theme of a cultural synthesis of the spiritual East and the scientific West was a powerful trend in the period spanned by Tagore's life (1861-1941). Generally speaking, this East-West synthetic trend was perceived by the Indian intelligentia as the foundation for a modern Indian renaissance. Tagore, like Aurobindo Ghosh, Raja Rammohun Roy, and many other intellectuals of his time, understood this synthesis as a reformative trend but was wary of the mindless emulation of the western technology and its colonizing militant proclivities. In addition, these intellectuals also felt that any kind of East-West synthesis should not stem from a negation of Indianness, but from a need for a reappraisal of Indian traditions in a way that would lead to a conscious rejection of their debilitating dimensions. It was through these two attitudes that the Indian intelligentsia felt they could envision a strong and self-determinant postcolonial Indian society.

In more concrete terms, the kind of East-West synthesis that was being proposed in India in the late nineteenth century has been best explained by Partho Chatterjee in his article "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," where he argues that the struggle towards decolonization in colonial India encouraged the preservation of Indian traditional values and structures as a way of negating westernization. Yet, Indians also felt that Britain had been able to colonize them and so many other countries, because of their superior scientific technology. Hence it was thought necessary to master the superior powers of the West. But on the spiritual level, they felt India/the East was far superior to the West and therefore should be preserved. The domain of culture was, thus, dichotomized into the ‘home’ and the ‘world’ and the rationale behind this division was explained as follows:

The world is the external domain of the material; the home represents our inner spiritual self, our true identity. ... The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world--and the woman is its representation (Chatterjee 237, 239).

This model of synthesis created a binary split between the inside and the outside, man and woman, private and public, and the home and the world. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Tagore titles his novel The Home and the World. He could not subscribe to this model of the East-West synthesis and in his novel Tagore dramatizes his own response to such a dialectical synthesis of the East and the West

Tagore came in direct contact with the West (apart from encountering the British colonial rule in India), three times: in 1879, in 1890, and finally in 1912. The first two times, he sailed to England and the last time, he came to the United States to visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In each of these three visits, two of the most important aspects of the West that caught Tagore's attention were (i) the independence of women and (ii) the western education system which he found to be based on the principles of free thought and action. Both of these issues become major themes in the novel The Home and the World, which depicts the politically turbulent period of Indian nationalism in the early twentieth century. Tagore dramatizes the conflicting Indian attitudes toward the traditional Indian and modern western values through the three characters of his novel. Nikhil, the central male character of the novel, is a humanistic and spiritual synthesis of the eastern and western values and Sandip, his close friend, is the progressive, materialistic synthesis of eastern and western ideals. Both fight for the freedom of colonized India. Poised on the threshold, of these two choices, stands Bimala, Nikhil's wife, who is adroitly portrayed, simultaneously, as the symbol of colonized India, as well as the newly emerging independent Indian woman, weighing the merits of one over the other.

By intertwining the issues of nationalistic awakening and feminist liberation in the figure of Bimala, Tagore addresses the problems pertaining to the 'women's question' and Indian colonization. The colonizers had used the 'women's question' as one of their critical tools to justify their colonial rule. By pointing to the native practices of Sati, child-marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, the British colonizers were able to label the natives as barbaric, backward and therefore urgently in need of being civilized by the superior western powers. As a way of overcoming this colonial justification, many colonial reforms initiated by Indian men, educated in England or locally in English, centered on the emancipation of women. The novel The Home and the World, shows how Nikhil, an educated aristocrat, educates and liberates his wife Bimala from a cloistered existence in the home and encourages her entry into the world where she comes in contact with the materialistic dimensions of the West through her relationship with Nikhil's friend Sandip.

Like all writers of decolonization, Tagore struggles to announce the contours of "an imagined or ideal community, crystallized not only by its sense of itself but also of its enemy" (Said 86). Despite portraying Sandip as selfish, manipulative and aggressive, Tagore imbibes in him the admirable qualities of fearlessness and enterprise. In other words, the western ideals of progress and materialistic success are portrayed as alluring and exciting. When Bimala, newly emergent in the world outside her home, meets Sandip, she comes under the spell of his fiery eloquence and this admiration turns into an attraction for his vitality. But through her continued interaction with Sandip, she finally understands him for what he 'really' is. When he forces her to rob her husband's treasury to provide him the money to bribe the officials and the landowners, Bimala perceives his hollowness, his distorted sense of success, and his insatiable need to dominate. She sees him mimicking the colonizers and replicating the colonial ideology in new nationalistic terms. Sandip clearly represents the nationalistic bourgeoisie "that were partly formed and to some degree produced by the colonial power; ... [and it is these neo-colonial forces that] … have often replaced the colonial force with a new class-based and ultimately exploitative force" (Said 74). This revelation, of seeing Sandip in his true light, allows Bimala to understand the eminence and magnanimity of Nikhil's character who has freed her unconditionally. But this realization, which is the focal point of the novel, comes to Bimala too late. The reconciliation between Nikhil and Bimala is obviated and remains unsettled as Tagore leaves the end intentionally ambiguous. The reader is informed that Nikhil has been seriously wounded in his struggle to stop the uprising between the Hindu and the Muslim members of his tenantry. His chances of survival are rendered precarious when the doctor informs Bimala, "Can't say yet .... The wound in the head is serious" (280). His life is threatened by the aggressive and militant modes of retaliations that nationalists like Sandip have ingrained in the minds of the natives. Tagore sounds the ideal nationalistic note through Bimala's recognition of Nikhil's grandeur and yet, we find that, he "stands finally at the very threshold [that he] cannot actually ever cross" (Said 89). Through Nikhil's impending death, Tagore points to the inviability of maintaining clear cut demarcations between spiritualism and materialism, the home and the world, and between the duties of man and that of woman, as proposed in the nationalistic synthesis of eastern spirituality and western scientific advancement. Tagore critiques this model of East-West synthesis by showing that the liberated, educated Indian woman cannot be bound within the walls of the ‘home’ and be represented as the sole protector and perpetrator of Indian traditions, because the 'world'/West will inevitably encroach upon the inner sanctum/'home'/East to the point of destroying it. Although rejected by Bimala, Sandip, the undesirable synthesis of eastern fundamentalist parochialism and western materialism remains safe, and his survival reveals Tagore's fears of envisioning his country drift toward a dangerous cultural future where neo-colonialism may thrive in the place of postcolonialism.

In contrast to Tagore, Aldous Huxley's aim in synthesizing the East and the West is towards presenting a vision of a practical utopia to a western audience. He achieves this goal by using the East to reflect the plight of the modern western civilization. In Island, the Third World functions as a mirror that allows the westerner, Will Farnaby, a British journalist to go through a process of evaluating himself as a product of the western civilization. In other words, in Island one sees the colonial process of defining the "self in contrast to the other" turned in the reverse cycle (Narayan 165). Instead of the westerner looking down upon and civilizing the 'barbaric' native, he finds himself being civilized by the eastern 'native' and, thereby, looking down on his own civilization in the light of his true understanding and appreciation of the 'other’s'. The colonial rule which was justified as a civilizing mission of the barbaric native is shown to be founded on a lack of comprehension of the eastern/native civilizations, a point which has been made repeatedly by many postcolonial writers and critics like Chinua Achebe, James Ngugi, Girish Karnad, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said.

The novel opens with a British journalist, Will Farnaby, finding himself ship-wrecked on the island of Pala, a hypothetical island between Sumatra and Sri Lanka, which on the thematic level is inhabited by a kind of Eurasian race who speak both Sanskrit and English. The Scottish doctor, Andrew Macphail and the old Palanese king have turned Pala into a combination of oriental and European, ancient and modern civilization. The islanders on finding Will Farnaby 'wounded and lost' take him through a physical, as well as a metaphysical journey of healing and growth by exposing him to their own culture. The themes of happiness and the overall quality of human life dominate the voyage that Will Farnaby takes, both inside and outside himself.

Yet, what is disturbing in Huxley's use of the East as a mirror to the West, is that he puts the East "out of countenance, makes it lose face" (Narayan 141). East is treated as a remote and an isolated space, far away from the West, where the author introduces one corrupt westerner and reforms him by pointing out to him the negative aspects of the western civilization and by exposing him to a synthesis of eastern and western values that Huxley hopes will be recuperative for the West. So the East in the novel is not 'really' the East but the author's perception of what is desirable in the East as far as the West is concerned.[1]   Replicating this desire, we see that the Palanese/eastern characters in the novel are constructed as missionaries, with the mission of rescuing westerners from their own dehumanization. In describing modern Pala, Huxley, therefore, focuses only on those aspects of their life-style that he finds are impaired in the West.

In political terms, Pala is defined as a democracy, "a federation of self governing units". It owes its economic well being to remaining primarily an agrarian civilization. Huxley attacks the extensive reliance of West on advanced technology and industry by showing how the Palanese use scientific knowledge not for making armaments or building heavy industries or generating other goals of life, but for improving agricultural production. Similarly, in describing their formal education, Huxley shows how major emphasis is placed on the sciences of life and mind which, he thinks, are missing in the western education system. A child's education, therefore, in Pala, begins at birth. Huxley illustrates this by showing how they are made to hear the word "good" while being nourished and loved, with the belief that they will grow up knowing only good and that in its turn will evoke only good. Children are also conditioned against fear. To help them overcome depression and anxiety, children have access to a mutual adoption club, based on the concept of the eastern extended or joint-family system, which ends up giving every Palanese child about twenty different homes. The detection of human variation and mutual acceptance of different human temperaments are some of the other important premises of the Palanese education system. The Hitlers and the Stalins, the Peter Pans and the musclemen belong to two dissimilar groups [the preponderance with the West is revealed through these names that are part of western history and do not belong to the eastern world]. They are initially segregated in Palanese schools and then gradually introduced to one another in a way that teaches them to adjust to one another. The weak and the strong are taught to know that they are of different temperament and physique and not as inferior or superior beings. Another outstanding feature of Palanese education is its non-verbal dimension, in which they have improvised exercises that can transform the energy built up from negative emotions into specific kinds of physical actions that take the power generated by fear or envy or anger and, instead of repressing it or turning into violent actions, they redirect it along channels where it can be useful or at least less harmful. Rock-climbing, wood chopping, deep breathing are some of the exercises that serve this purpose. The underlying goal of these exercises is the Hindu and Buddhist urge of defocusing and dispersing one's preoccupations with one's narrow self. The importance of visual imagination is emphasized in alleviating one's mind from painful memories and anxieties about the future. An example of this technique is illustrated early in the novel when the young Mary Sarojini makes the injured Will repeat the story of his climb up the snake-infested ridge until the sting of the experience is purged and he laughs. In describing their work ethics, Huxley points out how the Palanese have preferred to sacrifice mechanical efficiency for human satisfaction. They partake of their share of all the available work and their rationale behind this sampling all kinds of work is that it removes monotony and is an extension of their education. In analyzing their religious beliefs, which is described as a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist teachings and labeled as Tantric Mahayana Buddhism, Huxley blends his perceptions of various eastern philosophies. The synthesis of the East and the West, in all these instances, can be seen as a process of incorporating the ‘other’ into the ‘self’ but on the self’s terms (Narayan 165).[2]

As readers, when we go through descriptions of the various belief-systems of Palanese people through the eyes of Will Farnaby, we watch the West returning to focus on itself again and again, each time "perhaps with more critical self-awareness, but nevertheless with a self-awareness that remains devoted to only understanding itself, even if refracted through the critical lens of its encounters with its 'others'" (Narayan 138). It is, therefore, not surprising that the very moment Will Farnaby comes face to face with the horror of his own mechanical existence and shows signs of being transformed from a corrupt journalist into a compassionate human being, we are informed of Pala's impending destruction. The devouring embrace … takes the ‘other’ in until there is nothing left of "them"[the East] but "us"[the West] (Bammer 47). The novel concludes by showing the infiltration of militant capitalism into Pala as its new king Murugan, the grandson of the old king, in his desire to westernize this utopia, invites alliances with Colonel Dipa, the ruler of Renga, the neighboring industrialized country. Once again, like Tagore in The Home and the World, Huxley too questions the tenability of a humanistic synthesis of the East and the West as it remains threatened by the western greed for domination and the Third World’s urge to mimic the powerful West. The 'mirror', in that sense, is shown to become what it started to reflect. The East slowly vanishes at the end of the novel, reminding one of the "cheshire cat's grin" in Alice in Wonderland.

In conclusion, the ambiguity and skepticism of both the eastern and western writers in this analysis show how the process of encountering 'otherness', despite having the potential of synthesizing utopias, actually ends up in potentially destroying them. The cross-cultural responses of these writers, perhaps, remind us that today there is only the West.

Jyoti Panjwani
Eastern Illinois University


[1]  In his book, Aldous Huxley and Eastern Wisdom, B.L. Chakoo explains how Huxley seems to have performed the job of gathering up the various aspects of the East and the West to create his vision of a realistic utopia. Mahayana Buddhism and Tantricism are from the eastern philosophy. The cooperative economics of the island exists in Israel and the Scandanavian countries. The systematic improvement of agriculture is based on the Rothamstead agricultural station in England (268).   (back)

[2]  Both Uma Narayan and Nupur Chaudhuri in their books, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (1997) and Western Women and Imperialism (1992) respectively, discuss the western fabrication of the East as a process of incorporating the ‘other’ into the ‘self’. They use the example of the British/western ‘fabrication’ of the Indian curry powder to symbolize the western ‘fabrication’ of India as an entity that could be incorporated as a ‘familiar fare’ in the West.   (back)


Works Cited

Bammer, Angelika. "Xenophobia, Xenophilia, and No Place to Rest". Encountering the Other(s): Studies in Literature, History, and Culture. Edited by Gisela Brinker-Gabler. State University of New York: Albany, 1995.

Basak, Kakoli. Rabindranath Tagore: A Humanist. Classical Publishing Co.: New Delhi, 1991.

Bowering, Peter. Aldous Huxley: A Study of the Major Novels. University of London: The Athlone Press, 1968.

Chakoo, B.L. Aldous Huxley and Eastern Wisdom. Atma Rama and Sons: Delhi, 1981.

Chakrabarti, Mohit. Rabindranath Tagore: Diverse Dimensions. Atlantic Publishers: New Delhi, 1990.

---. Rabindranath Tagore: A Quest. Gyan Publishing House: New Delhi, 1995.

Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. Rabindranath Tagore and the Modern Sensibility. Oxford University Press: Delhi, 1996.

Chatterjee, Partha. "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question". Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. Edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. Rutgers University Press: New Jersey, 1990.

Huxley, Aldous. Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization. Harper and Brothers: New York, 1937.

---. Island. Harper and Row: New York, 1962.

Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1987.

Majumdar, Swapan. "The East-West Colloquy: Tagore’s Understanding of the West." Rabindranath Tagore and the Challenges of Today. Edited by Bhudeb Chaudhuri and K.G.Subramanyam. Indian Institute of Advanced Study: Shimla, 1988.

Meckier, Jerome (ed.). Critical Essays on Aldous Huxley. G.K. Hall & Co.: New York, 1996.

Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism. Routledge: New York, 1997.

Said, Edward. W. "Yeats and Decolonization". Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, Edward W. Said. University of Minnesota: Minneapolis, 1990.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World. Macmillan India Limited: Madras, 1992.

Watts, Donald (ed.). Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London,  1975.

Watts, Harold H. Aldous Huxley. Twayne Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1969.