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Volume 16

Heroes and Villains - Summer 2016


Written by
Torsa Ghosal

Torsa Ghosal is the Associate Editor of Papercuts magazine. She is the author of the novel, Open Couplets (2017), published by Yoda Press in India. Her poems and short stories have appeared in venues such as The Hindu BLink, Aaduna, Poydras Review, Unsplendid, Himal Southasian, and Muse India. She is also a researcher, specializing in narrative theories–-that is, the systematic study of the aesthetic experiences offered by stories across media–-and 20th-/21st- century experimental literary forms. Her critical and scholarly writings can be found in Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, South Asian Review, Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, Post Script, and Latinos and Narrative Media. In the past, she has assisted the editors of the journal, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of post-1945 English literature at California State University, Sacramento.


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Authors as Romantic Heroes: Maitreyi Devi and Mircea Eliade


Note: This is an excerpt. The complete essay will appear in the print edition of Papercuts Vol 16: Heroes and Villains.

In the teakwood bookshelf of our old house in North Kolkata, next to the 27 volumes of the formidable Rabindra Rachanabali, whose composure is rarely disturbed, I chanced upon a Bengali novel entitled Na Hanyate (1974), written by the Bengali author and scholar Maitreyi Devi. I devoured the story—a romance between a 23-year-old Romanian student of Hindu theology and Sanskrit and a 16-year-old Bengali girl, a poet—over the course of two days.

Initially I was propelled by my interest in the heroine alone, who seemed to exude a Rabindrik sensibility [1], but then I was driven even forcefully onward by the discovery that it happened to be a “nonfiction novel,” which meant what I was reading was all “true.” Maitreyi Devi worshipped Rabindranath Tagore during his lifetime and later wrote about his philosophy and encounters with him in books such as Tagore by Fireside (1960). Hence, she would hardly object to the narrator and protagonist of her novel, Amrita, being understood with reference to Tagore’s heroines, even though this heroine is also a thinly disguised version of the author herself.

While Amrita, the heroine of Na Hanyate, takes after the author Maitreyi Devi (1914-1989), the novel’s hero, Mircea Euclid, is based on the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade (1907-86), who also served as the director of the History of Religions department at the University of Chicago. Years before Maitreyi Devi wrote Na Hanyate, Eliade had written a Romanian novel inspired by his relationship with her. His novel entitled Maitreyi (though in Na Hanyate, since the narrator is called Amrita, the novel is also called Amrita) was published in 1933. Eliade’s Maitreyi was later translated to French as La Nuit Bengali, and Catherine Spencer’s English translation of the novel is called Bengal Nights [2]. Maitreyi Devi translated Na Hanyate from Bengali to English as It Does Not Die [3]. (In this essay, I will use the English titles to refer to the two novels.)

The inciting incident for Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die is the arrival of Sergui, a student of the Romanian scholar Mircea Euclid, to Kolkata in 1972. Mircea Euclid had been Amrita’s father’s student and had stayed with Amrita’s family in Bhowanipur, Kolkata from 1929 to 1930. Mircea and Amrita fell in love, but Amrita’s father—Mircea’s guru—forbade their marriage on the grounds of racial and religious differences.

The hero of her virgin romance, Mircea Euclid, thereby becomes the villain threatening to tarnish her reputation and disturb the equilibrium of her married life. Amrita then decides to write her version of the story as well as confront Mircea Euclid in person.

So far the narrative follows a predictable arc as family members represent social forces that sunder star-crossed lovers. We have heard several versions of this story before—Romeo and Juliet, Layla and Majnun, Heer and Ranjha. In these narratives, a family member, usually a patriarch, emerges as the villain for thwarting the romance and paving way for the tragedy. However, the plot of It Does Not Die takes an unexpected turn.

After being separated from Amrita, Mircea leaves India and in 1933, he publishes a Romanian novel about his relationship with her. Here, Devi is actually referring to Eliade’s novel Bengal Nights. Though Amrita hears of the novel’s existence from her father in the 1930s itself, she does not feel the urge to read it until she meets Sergui. From Sergui, Amrita learns that Mircea had intermingled reality with fantasy in the novel to describe how she would visit him every night to consummate their love in the Bhowanipur house. The fact that Mircea Euclid described her naked body without ever having seen her in the nude or making love to her offends Amrita. The hero of her virgin romance, Mircea Euclid, thereby becomes the villain threatening to tarnish her reputation and disturb the equilibrium of her married life. Amrita then decides to write her version of the story as well as confront Mircea Euclid in person.

Even though Eliade wrote Bengal Nights many decades before Devi wrote It Does Not Die, I chanced upon Devi’s novel first. Curious about the novel that prompted her narrative, I then sought out Bengal Nights. Bengal Nights, as Ginu Kamani observes, presents a “Colonial Fantasy.”[4] Eliade’s narrator and hero Alain is a Romanian engineer who visits India, lives in his supervisor’s house in Calcutta, and falls in love with his daughter, only to be torn apart from her as well as India by the rigid norms of Indian society.

Given Mircea Eliade’s reputation as a leading historian of religion and philosopher in Euro-American academia, several commentators on the novels such as Ian Buruma[5] offer precedence to his story and depend on Devi’s novel to supply episodes that transpired after the 1930s, which Eliade’s novel could not have mentioned. When the University of Chicago Press published English translations of both novels in 1994, they classified It Does Not Die as a rebuttal to Eliade’s Bengal Nights, as though its literary interest and merit were derivate of Eliade’s original. Though Maitreyi Devi would not have written It Does Not Die if Eliade’s Maitreyi had not existed, as a reader I can attest that her novel can stand alone. It does not depend on Eliade’s version of the story or his repute for its distinction.

Authors as romantic heroes - Lali Khalid - We walk away in a fake empire, 2011- 6 x 9''- ink jet print on paper

Artwork: We walk away in a fake empire, 2011- 6 x 9”- ink jet print on paper by Lali Khalid

For more on the history of both novels, Ginu Kamani has traced the hurdles Devi faced when publishing her story and the vastly different socio-cultural pressures that the female Bengali author had to cope with to publish a nonfiction novel based on a love affair of her youth as opposed to the situation in which Mircea Eliade, a European male scholar, found himself. Instead, I want to focus on how the two novels represent the heroes of this romance—Mircea and Maitreyi.

Whenever the two novels are analyzed, a contest begins that ends with the critic exalting one novel over the other as is the case in Richard Eder’s, Ian Buruma’s, Anita Desai’s, and even Ginu Kamani’s articles. I will not claim to be objective per se, but I will say that I am not interested in demonstrating the aesthetic superiority of one over the other. Rather, I am interested in how the two authors shape their texts’ protagonists in order to make sense of their personal histories.

Eliade’s Alain and Devi’s Mircea

“The deeper I ventured into this wild domain, the more consuming became a hitherto unconscious notion of my superiority, the more violently assertive a pride of which I would never have believed myself capable”—Alain in Eliade’s Bengal Nights (15)

“This is not my biography, this is just a story in which Mircea is the hero”—Amrita in Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die (168)

The journey of Bengal Nights’ hero and Eliade’s own journey have a lot in common. Their modes of reasoning also seem to overlap. Alain is obsessed with myths and is keen to understand everything and everyone he encounters in India in accordance with images and icons from the Hindu theology he reads. Bengal Nights bears the hallmarks of European Modernist literature, complete with the perception of eastern cultures as more primal and primitive and hence, closer to the depths of the human subconscious. Like Alain, mythology also fascinated Eliade. This is seen in his other novel Domnisoara Christina, where the protagonist is a strigoi, a vampire-like figure from Romanian mythology. In his academic career too Eliade extensively wrote on the nature of myths and time in monographs such as The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (1954) and Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (1975).

Despite these similarities, Alain does not thoroughly align with the author Eliade; this gulf between the hero and the author comes across most clearly in the opening and the closing sections of Bengal Nights. Alain, we are to recognize, not only stands in for Eliade but also embodies several clichés that Eliade associated with the Anglo-Indians he lived with in Calcutta’s Ripon street prior to moving in with his guru and Maitreyi Devi’s father, Surendranath DasGupta. Eliade deplored these habits of the Anglo-Indians that Alain, a Romanian, seems to pick up. In other words, Alain is a device used by the author to distinguish his knowledge of India from the clichés of the Anglo-Indians:  from the beginning, Eliade makes it clear that Alain has a limited understanding of the culture and the events he is recording.

…Even though Alain resents his Anglo-Indian friends for treating Indians as inferior and uncivilized, he adopts the same attitude and gaze from time to time.

The distance between the author and his protagonist is rarely, if ever, noted by reviewers of Bengal Nights. Richard Eder of LA Times, for instance, seems to even miss that Bengal Nights’ narrator is named Alain when he writes, “He [Eliade] barely altered the external facts: The narrator, also named Mircea, is a young draftsman….”[6] But if we read Bengal Nights without identifying Alain as Elaide’s mouthpiece, then we discern an ironic undercurrent that runs through the narrative, putting some of the features of the intercultural romance into a different perspective. We only need to take a closer look at some of the scenes in which Alain and his friends encounter Maitreyi and her family to trace Elaide’s ambivalent attitude toward his novel’s hero.

In the first chapter of Bengal Nights, Alain mentions that his acquaintance, “the uncultured, arrogant journalist” Lucien Metz was writing a book about modern India but was having great difficulty in writing about women because he hadn’t met “real Indian women” (4-5). Lucien accompanies Alain to his supervisor’s house and meets Maitreyi. There he obtains permission to inspect Maitreyi’s attire and a farcical scene follows. It is ironic then that Alain, who is so critical of this episode, eventually ends up like Lucien. He takes Maitreyi to be the prototype for “real Indian women” and after accepting her father’s invitation to live with the family, Alain writes, “no white man, to my knowledge, had ever experienced at source, the life which Lucien’s research had revealed to me as magical” (23). While Alain’s similarity to Lucien and his tendency to look for the exotic in the east do not automatically vilify him, they certainly complicate his status as the hero of the novel by showing him to be as deficient in cultural knowledge as the other European characters he critiques.

Likewise, even though Alain resents his Anglo-Indian friends for treating Indians as inferior and uncivilized, he adopts the same attitude and gaze from time to time. He shares his friend Harold’s pompous sense of superiority. To him Maitreyi is initially ugly, while Maitreyi’s father looks like a frog. He is disconcerted around the darker-skinned lower class kin and servants who live with Maitreyi’s family.

As the romantic hero of Devi’s It Does Not Die, Mircea is a curious, self-mortifying man, and a jealous lover. He is always looking for inner meanings of utterances and is eager to neatly classify his experiences. When Amrita recites a poem about trees, he takes her to be a pantheist. When he is mesmerized by Uday Shankar’s dance, he exclaims “This is India!” even though Shankar was the disciple of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. He worries that Maitreyi is in love with and sexually attracted to the seventy-year old, Rabindranath Tagore, and is desired by her lower class cousin, Khoka. At the same time, whenever Amrita rebukes Mircea he inflicts pain on himself. On her part, Amrita tries to make sense of Mircea’s self-destructive passion for her in terms of the pride associated with sati, the ritual in which windows were burnt to death on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

…Though both authors try to imbue their romance with a quality of timelessness in their own way…the heroics and the limitations of Alain of Bengal Nights and Mircea of It Does Not Die actually betray socio-political assumptions about race and racial purity.

Most frequently, Maitreyi Devi uses the image of the knight errant to describe Mircea’s encounter with the “strange land”: “he had walked through lanes and by-lanes of Calcutta in search of adventure, but nothing calamitous had befallen him. Someone threw an empty clay pot of sweet curd but unfortunately that too missed him” (49). This tongue-in-cheek description of the hero gives way to the recurrent image of a “European hunter” in the latter sections of the novel, when Amrita suspects Mircea of having betrayed her. She wonders “Why did you not write the truth…was truth not enough? Was it for financial gain…” (42) and then laments “shame on me that I still think of him. Skilled hunter of Europe” (153).

In the concluding pages of It Does Not Die Amrita walks into Mircea’s office in Chicago after forty-two years but he refuses to face her. The poignant episode is narrated with a tinge of humor—Amrita repeatedly asks Mircea to turn, he stubbornly looks away, and when he does turn, she realizes he has lost his vision, and turns her back to him, he calls her out, and they promise to meet in the Milky Way. In this scene Mircea is hardly the “European hunter” Amrita had pictured him to be and he regains his position as the protagonist of a transcendental romance, which does not begin or end with sexuality—just as Amrita had initially envisioned.

However, though both authors try to imbue their romance with a quality of timelessness in their own way—Eliade turns to myths and Devi turns to the archetypal virgin love story—the heroics and the limitations of Alain of Bengal Nights and Mircea of It Does Not Die actually betray socio-political assumptions about race and racial purity, which were characteristic of the period between the two world wars. It is not accidental that Alain both identifies with the colonial British figures as well as critiques Anglo-Indians. Being a Romanian, he knows he is perceived as “white” in India and is easily conflated with the British, who the swadeshis want to drive out of the country. Arguably, racial purity informed the idea of the nation-state exalted during the swadeshi movement, which forms the backdrop of the 1930s romance in Devi’s novel. Eliade himself was at a time deeply concerned with the idea of racial purity and hence, this surfaces as a concern in the novel—Alain would rather chase after the impossible goal of being an “Arya” Hindu than become one of the Anglo-Indians derided as “cross-breeds.”

The DasGuptas of It Does Not Die do not group Mircea with the Anglo-Indians. Amrita recognizes Mircea hated his life in Ripon Street but Amrita’s father, Mircea’s guru, thinks of him as “French.” Initially Amrita’s father asks her to learn French from Mircea because it represents high culture. When they discover the nature of Amrita’s relationship with Mircea, her father turns Mircea out of the house because he then exemplifies the decadence of civilization. Amrita’s father, refusing to let Mircea marry Amrita, remarks, “he might have some foul disease,” (122) using the rhetoric of hygiene to enforce racial purity and malign the racial “Other.” Eliade’s allegiance to fascist politics of the Iron Guard remains documented but we ought to also recognize the prevalence of similar discourses, pathologizing racial differences, among the Bengali elites of the 1930s.

At one level, Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die champion seemingly different notions of romance based on how the Romanian Mircea and the Bengali Maitreyi understand the world around them.

While Eliade wrote Bengal Nights soon after he left India, Maitreyi Devi wrote It Does Not Die forty years later. However, even her novel continues to be concerned with “purity”. Devi is committed to establishing the virginity of Amrita, the purity of her love. In matters of race, of course, Devi points out the shortcomings of her father’s arguments about Mircea’s ill-health. In addition, though she is drawn to Mircea’s “white skin” as a young girl, the older Amrita, who is the narrator of It Does Not Die, recognizes the enemy within as she says, “we Bengalis are no less prejudiced against dark skin than Europeans” (158).

Yet Amrita is also nostalgic for the 1920s and 30s when the “masses” had not made forays into public discourse and the literary world, dominated by the elite, was pure. She laments, “As equality grows, quality diminishes” (202). When recounting the years (late 1930s to 1950s) she spent with her husband in Mungpoo, at the foothills of the Himalayas in North Bengal, Amrita narrates her encounter with the Gurkhas in terms that are reminiscent of Alain’s interaction with the Bengalis. She thinks of the Gurkhas as coolies and of the tribal population as repositories of primitive joys. When in their midst she says, “the primal forest and the primitive tribal man are entering slowly into my consciousness” (182) and suggests that the tribal and the folk arts possess “pure creative spirit.”

At one level, Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die champion seemingly different notions of romance based on how the Romanian Mircea and the Bengali Maitreyi understand the world around them. The novels also reveal how the power dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized, West and East, Occident and Orient translate into the power dynamics informing the relationship of the ruling and the working classes, racial majorities and the racial minorities in post-Independence India. Accordingly, traits such as purity and cultural superiority continue to be identified with the heroes in both novels.




[1] Rabindrik is an epithet derived from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s name. It is used to describe the styles of dance, music, writing, and painting that Tagore inspired. So Rabindrik not only denotes Tagore’s own art but also connotes an aesthetic, which generations of Bengali artists and authors have followed and repurposed.

[2] See Mircea Eliade, Bengal Nights, Trans. Catherine Spencer, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1994.

[3] See Maitreyi Devi, It Does Not Die, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1994.

[4] See Ginu Kamani, A Terrible Hurt: The Untold Story behind the Publishing of Maitreyi Devi, Toronto Review, 1996.

[5] See Ian Buruma, The Missionary and the Libertine, New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

[6] See Richard Eder, Two Tales of Love,” Los Angeles Times, 1994.



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