Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi

"Life is beautiful; so is my sorrow." (p. 130, It Does Not Die)

Mircea Eliade's novel Bengal Nights was written with some degree of distance from its events, long enough for the narrator to revisit journals "written with the very blood from my veins," only to find them embarrassingly "cold and banal." (Bengal Nights, p. 150). But it still reads very much as a cri de coeur from a young man with a freshly-broken heart.

In contrast, the perspective of It Does Not Die, the book written by Maitreyi Devi in response to it (published in 1974, and translated by her into English), is more reflective, with memories of a long-ago love coming back to a mature person, who's had a full life and a happy marriage to a different man. As such, its subject is more Devi's whole life, including philosophy, her poetry, and her upbringing in a then-modern family that was breaking with convention, but not enough, than it is her ill-fated first romance.

When she's visited by a student of "Mircea Euclid," she's spent the years thinking of him as a coward: "If he really was so much in love, why did he run away at one snubbing from my father? Had he no duty towards me? Have you ever known of such cowardice?" (p. 14) He didn't listen to her about the obstacles in their way, and then, when faced with them, he left, never responding to her letters "He should be contacting me and sorting it out -- instead he runs off to the Himalayas! Fat lot of good will come of it!" (p. 130)

Then, of course, she feels slandered by the sexual material in his novel, saying "I am ready to accept the truth, but why should I accept the burden of a lie?" (p. 42) Euclid's student says "he took shelter in the world of fantasy" (p. 14), which is no excuse,  but Devi gets the last word in a confrontation scene when her former lover can't bring himself to look at her. "Why do you speak of putting me beyond time and space? Have I become a ghost? ... I belong to this real world. I am the Amrita of flesh and blood standing in your study -- this is the truth ... Fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible ... I was no enigma. The mystery is your creation." (p. 253, 255)

I'm reminded of Kate Winslet's speech in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind."

Apart from sex, the narrator (and it's hard not to assume Devi by association) is clearly stung that people think of her as a tragic teenage Juliet, who life was "spoilt" by her father's prejudice. "I was astonished ... Who can spoil my life? My life is rich." (p. 14) She admits her life would have been different if she and her first love had been able to stay together, and the memory still has the power to move her, but she isn't defined by any experience she's moved on from.

As in Eliade's book, Devi's emotional reactions and conflicts are vividly described: "To whom was I praying? Only to myself. Oh, save me, save me from myself! Yet I did not want to run away." (p. 65) And: "I know what he wants -- the curtain is moving slowly and I am getting a glimpse of of the unknown mysterious world ... I am certain there is no sin in this. If there was, I would have surely known." (p. 66)

Later, she adds, "My body is so frail -- I have no power to exert my will -- the perfume of his hair has filled my breath ... I also want him -- if he again draws me to him, I certainly will yield." (p. 94) Her awareness of the passage of time is memorably poignant as well: "Who am I? I am also the same me. Indestructible is her sixteen-year old mind. You could seek her even now." (p. 252)

The novel contains an interesting thread about everyday life in India during the time of Gandhi, with the characters reading about events in the newspaper, but not being really involved in it. "What a myth we had created -- that the whole nation rose against the British." (p. 33) And I was amused by her complete obliviousness to the British: "We are not even aware of their presence in the country." (p. 87)

Indian literary icon Rabindranath Tagore, a mentor to Devi in real life, casts a long shadow over both books; in both of them, it's clear that the Eliade character is jealous of him, and thinks she must have romantic feelings for the older man. She shows some irritation that even the man she loves has regressive views on women: he thinks her parents wouldn't allow them to spend time together unless they were willing for them to hook up, and she fumes "to allow two people to catalogue together (in her father's library) is not to permit their betrothal; what was wrong in letting me mix with him?" (p. 84) Even though in case something romantic does develop, I still sympathize!

To finish where we started in Bengal Nights, with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, this book is more clearly related to the film than is Eliade's. The incident with the peppers takes place on pages 101 - 102, although burning oneself with them is treated more seriously. It also contains a version of what will become a major part of the film: the husband who helps reunite his unwilling wife with her true love appears in a story Amrita's husband tells her (p. 170), which makes her understand that "if his friend was like this, certainly he also would be the same. No need to go into the past any more. I will never be able to hurt my husband." (p. 171)

Here's a musical clip of dramatic stuff that is totally not in the novel, but emotionally has the same effect.

Devi, Maitreyi. It Does Not Die: A Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

No comments:

Post a Comment