Maitreyi Devi was sixteen years old in , the year Mircea Eliade, then twenty-three, came to Calcutta to study with her father. A counter to Eliade's fantasies, it is also a moving story of what happens to young love when enchantment and disillusion, cultural difference and colonial arrogance collide. I first saw a paperback version of Eliade's Bengal Nights in I recognized Eliade's name from texts assigned in a survey course on World Religions that I had taken as a university freshman, and I also recognized the title because I was aware that a French film with that same title had been made in , in Calcutta. Seeing that the book was about a "passionate love affair" between a Western man and an Indian woman, I purchased the book. Inter-racial relationships pique my curiosity, as I navigate my own thriving marriage with a Westerner.
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In a young Romanian came to Calcutta to live and study with a renowned Indian philosopher. Eventually their love was discovered and the young man was thrown out of the house. Three years later Mircea Eliade--who was to become widely known as a writer, philosopher and historian of religions--published a highly charged novel about his experience. He barely altered the external facts: The narrator, also named Mircea, is a young draftsman; his host and mentor is a senior engineer and the daughter retains her first name and her poetry.
But he turned what evidently were fervent but limited caresses into a lavishly sexual affair, with Maitreyi paying nightly bedroom visits as a kind of mystically inflamed Hindu goddess of love.
Forty years after that, Maitreyi Devi, now a grandmother and known at home and abroad as a social reformer and Tagore scholar, was told the details of the book whose contents she had only been vaguely aware of. She was horrified that her adolescent love story, strung tightly between desire and inhibition, had been turned into a full-fledged sexual romance and that she was so plainly identified in it. Besides the pain and anger, there was something else: a need to fill in a silence in her life and make a better ending to what had been so abruptly broken off.
In the days after her father banned Eliade from the house and forbade him to communicate, the young man had ignored the desperate messages Maitreyi contrived to send him.
Many years later, he had failed to respond to two or three brief friendly notes she wrote after meeting people who knew him. Now, in a turmoil of feelings, she resolved to seek him out. Taking advantage of a paid invitation to visit America, she tracked Eliade to the University of Chicago, where he was a professor.
The meeting between the eminent and determined Maitreyi, in her 50s, and the even more eminent and utterly panicked Mircea, in his 60s, is the extraordinary climax of the book she wrote upon her return to India.
It tells of the painful romance, of the life she lived after it and of her pilgrimage to confront the past over a book-strewn library table. Each book is remarkable in its own very different way but by itself each would be something of a curiosity. Together they set off a brilliant, often astonishing detonation of the classic bipolarities: East-West, life-art, woman-man. The young Central European is intoxicated with India: the light, colors, smells, rituals and passions, and the religious and philosophical sense of life that underlies them.
Eliade was an artist as well as a thinker. His novel portrays a young man who stumbles into a magic kingdom: a household whose every detail and custom are a mystery that conceals a treasure. Its master, Narendra Sen--in real life he was the philosopher Surendranath Das Gupta--is a kind, solicitous man whose love for the West leads him to open his home to Mircea; later, with an age-old taboo violated, he will take harsh and implacable steps while avoiding personal confrontation.
Physically overwhelming, she is elusive, shy and bold by turns, easily brought to tears and absorbed in the poetry for which her mentor, Tagore, has praised her. Mircea, a romantic Western male, thinks troubadour thoughts of siege and conquest. Wholly conquered, she sneaks in at night for vividly depicted sexual feasts. A little sister sees them in a minor embrace, but this is enough for banishment.
The book has Maitreyi brutally beaten; it has Mircea accepting the banishment and going to the Himalayas to rage and recover. For Maitreyi it never was a story. Her account of the real Indian girl and her real European lover is more diffuse, more veiled and less dramatic.
Art is total revelation; life can never entirely figure itself out. There were kisses and perhaps a little more, but not a lot more. The father was neither as kind--fairly awful, in fact--nor as harsh as the novel depicts. When a Romanian disciple of Eliade visited her in and told her what was in the book, her first reaction, after fury over its distortions, was to demand:. A whole middle section of her memoir tells of her subsequent life, married to a humorous and saintly compatriot, living on a tea plantation and acting as hostess for the aged Tagore, who would go there for refuge--one regularly interrupted by such admirers as Henri Bergson, Romain Rolland and Bernard Shaw.
It is an enchanting account. Still, there is an unsatisfied void. Stories end, and Eliade ended his; for this admirable Indian woman all of life is always present. It is necessary to go see him. She enters the reading room. He gives a cry, stands and turns his back; he knew she was coming but cannot face her. Eyes to the wall, he says he had never forgotten her. So why did he never answer her notes? Suddenly this Pirandello-like scene--character calls author to account--falls, comically and touchingly, into humanity.
I am not that dark. You always belittle my looks. He will meet her someday by the holy Ganges, he calls out as she goes. Hot Property. About Us. Brand Publishing. Times News Platforms. Times Store. Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options. March 27,
A Terrible Hurt:
A twenty-something Romanian student with Fascist associations who happens to be quite fluent in French and has a bit of English arrives in Calcutta in British India to study with a renowned Bengali scholar. The scholar takes an interest in the young European and invites him to stay at his home as a member of his large household. Over the course of a number of months of miscommunication across cultures, everyone speaking their second or third language but never their first, the two young people fall in love — or think they fall in love — which amounts to the same thing. Alas, her parents discover their star-crossed love in the delirious beri beri ravings of her younger sister.
Love in The Bengali Night Does Not Die: Maitreyi Devi and Mircea Eliade
Skip to Content. Narratives with a colonial setting are often marked by such a structure; E. Passages to India are often passages into the unconscious, a site of covert desire which could reveal a secret of the Western self not apparent or available to it. A structuring principle of such texts is that the other is denied a speaking part, and registers itself as an absence. Suleri, however, does not quite address the intricate arena of Indian nationalist discourse in its reciprocal transactions with narratives of Orientalism, and devotes her critical attention exclusively to the work of imperial writers, or postcolonial migrants writing in English, such as V.
A very long Engagement
Its most famous translation is the one in French , published as La Nuit Bengali in For many years, Maitreyi Devi was not aware that the story had been published. After reading it, she wrote her own version of the relationship in Entitled Na Hanyate , it was originally published in Bengali.