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 the first time in the US together with Eliade’s novel. The counter-book is Maitreyi Devi’s account of the same events, which gives a Rashomon-like spin to the story. She had become a well-known poet in India, and wrote books on Tagore, philosophy, and social reform. She read Bengal Nights more than forty years after the event, and was so furious at the depiction of her as the willing partner in a sexual affair that she decided to respond. “In the innocent heart of a little girl there was no dirt. The filth has been created by that man in his imagination.”
Whether or not they actually “did it,” only she and Eliade would have known (she maintains that they did not), but I can see why she objected to his overheated prose:
As though mad, driven, she offered her breasts to me, doubtless awaiting the thunderbolt that would annihilate us both… Maitreyi was desire incarnate, her face immobile, her eyes fixed on me as though I were the embodiment of some god.
Her angry response is naive, and rather Indian: “Why did you not write the truth, Mircea? Was not truth enough? Did you write for financial gain? Yes, you did—that is the way of the West—books sell if they deal with lust, not love.”
Maitreyi is so distressed that “I feel hot in the face and go and splash water on myself under the tap.” She cannot sleep, for the “fire of anger is burning and along with it are burning many other things, my honour, my good name.” The prose, left exactly as it appeared in the first English-language edition, published in 1976 in Calcutta, has the stilted feel of a period piece. And Maitreyi Devi’s sense of humor is not much more in evidence than Eliade’s. But read together, the two books are a source of rich and entertaining ironies.
The India into which the young Eliade plunged was a good deal more complex than his description suggests. The Dasguptas were hardly paragons of Indian tradition. They were upper-class Bengali intellectuals, known as Badhralok, who prided themselves on their liberalism, rationalism, and cosmopolitanism. Although they were looked down on by the British and the Eurasians, who called the Indians “negroes” or “blacks,” the Badhralok were in fact far more sophisticated than most Europeans in India—or in Europe, for that matter. The women in educated Bengali households were not in purdah, but mixed freely with male guests. Maitreyi even visited boys’ colleges to recite her poetry. She worshiped Tagore and read “forbidden” books by such progressive Bengali writers as Bankim Chandra. So far as mysticism is concerned, Maitreyi writes that “especially in the late twenties and early thirties, the higher middle class hesitated to show credulity. They were ‘rational’ not ‘superstitious.”‘
She tells an interesting story about a visit to Calcutta by a Russian couple, who performed telepathic feats in a theater. Professor Dasgupta called them “jugglers,” but was sufficiently intrigued by their act to wish to test them further. He asked them to perform for the great poetic guru himself, Tagore, who believed “it was more scientific to enquire into unusual matters than to reject them outright.” Perhaps inevitably, the “magic” failed to work in Tagore’s skeptical presence.
These, then, were hardly the sort of people with whom one would expect cosmic experiences to occur. And to judge from her book, Maitreyi was far from being the “primitive and irrational” creature depicted by Eliade, nor was she the “pure” Indian goddess he described at other times. She was something far more interesting: an intelligent young woman who knew every detail of the customs and traditions that ensnared her, yet was unable to free herself from them. Eliade, in her view, understood too little of Indian life:
He does not know how much even our family is bound by these irrational rules. And father, who is learned, who knows so much, does not know that happiness never depends on a person’s caste or clan name. And me? I don’t care about these things. Never, never will I enter into the prison house of prejudice. Even if I am not married to him I will prove with my life that I don’t care for these silly customs. I don’t care for anything in Hindu society.
But of course it was not to be as simple as that. After her relationship with Eliade is severed, she enters into a perfectly orthodox arranged marriage with a man, who is by her own account, decent, humorous, tolerant, and loving, but for whom she can never muster the same passion she felt for Eliade. The coolness with which she accepts her fate is impressive, however. When her mother asks her whether she wants to meet her prospective husband before marrying him, she answers that there is no need for that. When her mother expresses surprise at this refusal of a modern innovation (brides never used to meet their husbands before the ceremony), Maitreyi answers:
“Why should I see him? Suppose I say I won’t marry him, I don’t like him, I would rather marry Mr. K., he is of another caste, but never mind, I like him, will you then listen to me? You will begin to argue, won’t you?”
“Well, why won’t you like him? Looks are not everything in a man, there are many handsome nitwits.”
“Stop talking nonsense, ma. You are all the same. You have no courage to face the truth and specially you, you are to be blamed more than anybody else. You keep your eyes shut.”
This is the same woman who seemed at first to Eliade like “a child, a primitive. Her words drew me, her incoherent thinking and her naïveté enchanted me. For a long time, I was to flatter myself by thinking of our relationship as that of civilized man and barbarian.” By making this admission, Eliade does not flatter himself.
The truth—and the irony—of the Dasgupta household is that the learned professor cannot match his liberal ideas with deeds. He is as bound by the rules of caste and creed as the next man, no matter how much he has traveled abroad, or conversed with other learned men, in English and French. It is an old and common story, to be sure. What is good for others doesn’t apply to one’s own. Besides, knowledge can deepen prejudice as well as diminish it. Maitreyi’s mother has read Maupassant, so she knows all about the immoral behavior of Europeans. How could she condone a marriage with a Frenchman, after reading Necklace? Maitreyi sees through her parents, and feels betrayed by Eliade when he fails to put up a fight. But then she doesn’t put up much of a struggle either. Perhaps she counted the odds and realized the game wasn’t worth the candle. But the Eliade affair had shown her possibilities she could never forget.
Eliade’s version of the thwarted love affair is so self-obsessed that he misses the irony of Dasgupta’s contradictory attitudes. He confesses to a rather lame mea culpa. Asked whether he hates the Dasguptas for what they did, he says: “Why should I hate them? It is I who have done them wrong. What have they done? The only wrong they did was in bringing me to the house.” You begin to see why Maitreyi felt betrayed by him, as much as by her father. But in the context of his story, Eliade’s response is plausible, even logical. For he turns everything into a great myth, in which all the characters behave according to type. There is little room for ambiguity. The Eurasians, or Anglo-Indians, living in their seedy boarding houses, are all oversexed, vulgar, and racist, as well as being idiots and fanatics. And Dasgupta behaves like a traditional Indian pater-familias.
Eliade is a mythomaniac who presents himself as a European rationalist. In some wonderful vignettes, Maitreyi takes her former lover to task for his pedantry. In a childish caprice, she writes a poem on a favorite tree, addressing it as a friend. Eliade calls this “pantheism.” Maitreyi’s retort: “He could not believe that this was no ‘ism’ but just soaring poetic fancy.”
A simple walk with Maitreyi in the country elicits this reverie from Eliade: “Relentlessly, I forced myself to keep awake, to resist the enchantment of the fable that surrounded us. The rational being inside me was floundering in the unreality and the sanctity of our presence at the edge of that silent lake.”
A prolonged fit of passion, in which he kisses her hands, and they both shiver with desire, prompts the following flight of exultation:
We had lived, confirmed, that miracle of human ascent into the supernatural through touch and sight. The experience lasted two hours and exhausted us.
And when the deed is finally done:
While I retained my lucidity, handling my experience of love with rationality, she gave herself up to it as though it had a divine origin, as though the first contact of her virgin body with that of a man were some supernatural event.
This is not the language of a rationalist at all, but of a romantic to the core. Yet Eliade professes to be annoyed by his lover’s irrationality and mythomania. After he has left the Dasgupta house, he receives a letter from Maitreyi, in which she tells him that she felt his presence when she kissed a bunch of flowers. She writes that she worships him. He is to her “like a god made of gold and precious stones”; he is her sun, her life!
That escape into mythology pained me; it was extremely strange to see myself increasingly idealized, transformed from man into god, from lover into sun…. I did not want her to disappear into unreality, to become an idea, a myth; I did not want to console myself with an eternal, celestial paradise.
So both pride themselves on being rationalists. Eliade’s claim rests on his status as a European intellectual, and Maitreyi’s on her status as a Badhralok. Both accuse the other of mythomania, and both are deeply attracted to the irrational. On the one hand, Maitreyi, the Bengali intellectual, says it “was my habit to analyse everything.” On the other, she turns to spiritual melodrama, when the memories of her early passion haunt her. She cannot understand why this “completely alien person” still exerts such a pull on her. Why does she have this irrepressible urge to see him again?
Can he be the reason for it all, or is it some other power, from some other place who is moving me towards an unknown destiny? Can there be someone who is the source of all knowledge and all love, and the message is coming from that direction? My agnostic mind does not like to admit it, but the doubt is never eased.
In a mood of acute anxiety about her future, Maitreyi even resorts to an astrologer. But ever the rationalist, she is horrified at her own “degradation” in doing so.
This tension between rationalism and a fascination for the irrational, evident in both Maitreyi and Eliade, is related to another preoccupation shared by the two former lovers: purity. When Eliade leaves the Anglo-Indian boarding house in Calcutta to start his Bengali life with the Dasguptas, he distances himself from Harold, his Eurasian roommate: “My new life seemed so pure, so sacred, that I dared not describe it to him.” When he first falls in love with Maitreyi, he asks her to recite a mantra given to her by Tagore “as a talisman against impurity.” As we know, the life of the Badhraloks was neither particularly “pure,” nor especially “sacred,” but Eliade typically contrasts Indian purity with Eurasian impurity.
Maitreyi applies a similar conceit to the simple peasants she meets when she and her husband move to the countryside. She admires the rustic “music in their throats and poetry in their mind.” She contrasts their purity with the crude British planters. “Being a globe-trotter,” she writes, “I have seen many nations and races, but in innocence and faithfulness that hill-tribe surpasses many.”
India being India, the idea of purity is never far removed from the color of people’s skins. This is sometimes transcended by attitudes molded by class and education. Maitreyi admires the dark-skinned hill tribes and despises the white, or, more accurately, red, British planters. But at the same time she worships the beauty of Eliade’s skin, “white as alabaster.” She also wants to be white, she says: “Is it possible, do you think?” Eliade answers: “I don’t know, but I suspect not. Perhaps with powder…”
One of the fine ironies in the two accounts of the Eliade/Maitreyi affair is that “blackness,” in a negative sense, is represented by the man who acts all the time as a messenger between the lovers. Khokha is a poor relative living in the Dasgupta house. Eliade discovers him playing footsie under the table with Maitreyi: “I could not bear it. I saw that black, dirty hoof, darkened by the sun and from walking on tar, coming into contact with Maitreyi’s soft flesh…” And when Maitreyi, years later, finds out that Khokha has been a less than honest go-between, she writes: “I watched him intently. Perspiration was glistening on his crude face. In the dim light of the candle he appeared to me like some primitive animal in a cave.” So much for the noble savage. Caliban always lurks in India.
I suspect that Eliade’s interest in purity had something to do with his defense of “Romanianism,” which, in the Romania of the 1930s (and, indeed, still today), had sinister political overtones. Jews, for example, were not true “Romanians.” Eliade’s journalistic support of Romanian fascism in the 1930s has been exposed brilliantly by the Romanian writer Norman Manea. To be sure, India served as a great and enduring inspiration for Eliade’s intellectual life, but its rigid notions of social and ethnic hierarchy might also have appealed to his anti-liberal tendencies.
Eliade’s account of his love for Maitreyi was first published in 1933, so we have to turn to Maitreyi’s book for the extraordinary coda of the affair. Eliade’s novel ends with the sentence: “I would like to be able to look Maitreyi in the eyes…” But when they meet again, after forty-two years, in the library of the Divinity School in Chicago, he cannot bear to see her: he turns his back to Maitreyi. She asks him why he never replied to her letters. He replies that their experience was “so—so sacred that I never thought I could touch it again. So I put you out of time and space.” True to form, he escapes into fantasy and myth. And she, as usual, is a mixture of cool reason and romance. Her trip to Chicago is meant to deal once and for all with this unresolved episode in her life. At the same time she still has hope of rekindling the old passion. She tries to be concrete, to face the truth, to look Eliade in the face, but she also wants to restore “the light of love” in his eyes.
Maitreyi: “Turn around, Mircea, I want to see you.”
Eliade: “How can I see you? Did Dante ever think he would see his Beatrice with eyes of flesh?”
She is angry. She resents being treated as a ghost. She stretches her arms toward him one more time: “My mind is lucid and steady. I will free him from his world of fantasy. We will see each other in this real world. ‘Awake, dearest, awake.”‘
At last he turns around, but still without raising his eyes to her. He quotes a phrase in Sanskrit about the immortality of the soul. She asks him to look at her, telling him she will take him back forty years. He lifts his face, but his eyes are glazed. They look, she writes, as if they have turned into stone. It is too late. The light has gone from his eyes, and she lacks the power to restore it.
September 22, 1994
From Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude-Henri Rocquet (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 56, quoted in Norman Manea’s essay on Eliade, Felix Culpa, published in On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist (Grove, 1992), p. 91. ↩
Autobiography: Volume I: 1907-1937, Journey East, Journey West (Harper and Row, 1981), p. 185. ↩
Autobiography, p. 179. ↩
Autobiography, p. 186. ↩