It Does Not Die: A Romance
In 1928 Mircea Eliade left Bucharest for India. He was a twenty-one-year-old student of philosophy, and an aspiring novelist. His purpose was to study in Calcutta under Surendranath Dasgupta, a famous historian of Indian philosophy. Dasgupta was so taken with his Romanian student that he invited him to live in his house.
Eliade fell in love with India. As he wrote much later, after he had become a famous historian of comparative religion: “In India I discovered what I later came to refer to as cosmic religious feeling.”1 He took to wearing a dhoti—“the apparel of the people with whom I wished to become one”2—and eating with his hands. He had no interest in other Europeans. He despised the Eurasians, or “Anglo-Indians,” whom he describes as “idiots” and “fanatics.” He did not feel he was a visitor in India: “I felt completely at home.”3 And he fell in love with Professor Dasgupta’s teen-age daughter, Maitreyi, a talented poet already at sixteen, whose first volume was introduced by Rabindranath Tagore. The two talked secretly about marriage. Eliade thought his teacher would be delighted.
But when Dasgupta found out about the affair, Eliade was told to leave the house immediately. He had abused his teacher’s hospitality. He was forbidden to see Maitreyi again. Eliade was devastated. He had tried to live like an Indian, even to become one, and now he had been rejected, like a foreign body in a healthy organism. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I knew that, along with the friendship of the Dasgupta family, I had lost India itself.”4 His romance had come to an end, even if his cosmic feelings had not: he escaped to a Himalayan monastery to “find himself.”
Eliade wrote up the affair as a roman à clef which had considerable success, especially in France. It was recently made into a film, which was less successful. Eliade appears to have stuck closely to the facts, as he saw them. Indeed, you hardly need a key to identify the characters: Eliade himself became a Frenchman called Alain, and Surendranath Dasgupta became an engineer, named Narendra Sen, but most of the other people, including Maitreyi, kept their own names.
Bengal Nights belongs to a popular subgenre of confessional literature. The backdrop can be India, or China, or Japan; the story remains essentially the same: young, romantic Westerner falls in love with mysterious Oriental girl, and through her with the mysterious Orient, only to bang his head on the prison wall of exclusive Oriental customs. It is a genre subject to spiritual melodrama. Only a rich sense of humor can save the author from self-pity. But humor, so far as I can tell, was not one of Eliade’s most notable qualities.
Yet the book is of interest: partly because the author was a great scholar and a controversial writer, but also because of the existence of a kind of counter-book, written years later in response to Bengal Nights, and now published for…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.