Monday, February 10, 2014

Bengal Nights, by Mircea Eliade

"The sin was not in allowing our bodies to explore more and more of each other but in putting a limit on our physical love." -- Mircea Eliade, from Bengal Nights

You never know how one thing will lead to another. There was some chit-chat on Facebook about the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (usually called Straight from the Heart in the US) -- much of it unhappy with the depiction of gender roles. Which I said just highlighted how shallow I really am, since my main opinion is that it's star Ajay Devgan at his yummiest. In the course of that, someone mentioned that the story was based on a real-life experience of anthropologist Mircea Eliade, famous for bringing shamanism to the attention of the Western world. He had lived with an Indian family as a young man, and he and the daughter had fallen in love, which ended about as well as the romance does in the film.

The best part of this information: he and the girl, respected Bengali poet Maitreyi Devi, eventually wrote his-and-hers roman-a-clefs about their love affair, Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die, which have been published in matching volumes by the University of Chicago Press.

Interestingly, in each book, the author changes his or own name, but gives the love object the name of the real person. So in Mircea's book, the lovers are Alain and Maitreyi; in Maitreyi's, they're Mircea and Amrita.

Devi's novel was written in direct response to Eliade's, in a mode of setting the record straight, and a mood of deep offense that in his fictionalized version, she was sneaking down to his room for a full-on sexual relationship. If it hadn't been so clear that the novel was based on real-life events, down to using her real name, none of this would be so problematic, but it is, and it is.

Which is very unfortunate, because as a novel depicting the contradictions of first love, and the devastating effect of first heartbreak, it's really good. A character in It Does Not Die will say "His suffering, his agony fall through that book like droplets of blood" (p. 13), and that's an apt description.

Bengal Nights (originally published in French, 1950), begins in 1929, when the narrator, a young European engineer, gets taken under the wing of his Indian boss, who invites him to live in his house, to help him "learn to love India." (p. 21) He's treated like a member of the family, and has a great deal of freedom to associate with Maitreyi, already an accomplished poet with a "rebelliously expressive" face. (p. 53). The two grow close, with a whole series of teasings, arguments, and misunderstandings between them before their attraction is openly addressed. Then, for a time, they revel in their secret relationship, until a chance mishap exposes them. (How that plays out, by the way, is very different from the film).

In the beginning, I was put off by the narrator's blithe arrogance and assumption of superiority, and he says some awful things, for example, about how Maitreyi's skin color is "unfeminine" (p. 2). He admits that "for a long time, I was to flatter myself by thinking of our relationship as that of civilized man and barbarian." (p. 32) However, he is contrasted from the start with the more open racism of the Anglo-Indians he parties with. He isn't alone in his ignorance, and his initial callowness is that of someone who's going to have to learn better.

Eventually, in an emotional moment of "heat and sincerity," he will proclaim "the white world is a dead world. I have finished with it," (p. 103) and ultimately, "The youth ... who had arrived in India believing he was bringing civilization with him, had long since died. All that seemed useless now, illusory and useless." (p. 158)

But let's get to those "droplets of blood." Here's a few examples:

"I had suddenly woken up alone in a cemetery, with no one to hear my woes or comfort me. I had been broken into a thousand pieces, my body nothing but a gaping wound, my soul destroyed." (p. 135)

"The apparent reality of my body, stretched out on the bed, the cigarettes I was smoking, seemed to me absurd -- because I was going to die, because I had to die." (p. 140)

"I could not accept that I was no different from the wretched thousands who love and who forget." (p. 170)

After their inevitable separation, the ficional Alain accuses Maitreyi of "mythologizing" him: her letters call him her "air" and "flowers," and "my sun, my life!" (p. 160) Let's keep that in mind when we continue our discussion, only focused on Devi's book.

Until then, here's my review of the Hindi film Raat Aur Din, to explain why I cheered when the narrator mentions how we wants "to stop off at Firpo's on the way back and listen to its jazz with a cocktail in my hand." (p. 21)

 Eliade, Mircea. Bengal Nights: A Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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