Imagine a story like this:
It’s 1930. 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.
The Bengali scholar’s sixteen-year-old daughter, herself already a revered poet and philosopher, becomes the object of the European’s fascination. 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. They visit her elderly guru, they witness the beginnings of the Indian Independence movement, they go to the theatre and see Ravi Shankar’s older brother dance.
Alas, her parents discover their star-crossed love in the delirious beri beri ravings of her younger sister. Her father orders the young man out of the house and threatens to have him deported if he tries to contact his daughter.
The young man goes to a monastery in the Himalayas for a bit and eventually becomes an important scholar of world religions.
The young poet grows up to be an older poet, novelist, social activist, wife, mother, and grandmother. Unknown to her, the object of her youthful infatuation, two decades after the events, writes a novel based on his experiences in Bengal. Showing an unbelievable lack of judgement, while he gave himself a pseudonym in his novel, he uses her real name, and injects extra physical passion into the story.
The unfortunate lady does not know for another 20 years that she has been named by a famous man as his under-aged Bengali sex-partner. Horrified by the distortions of her experience (it had not been a physical relationship), in 1974 she publishes a novel, forty-four years after the events, giving the true story. Two years later she publishes her own English translation. As well, she contacts the now old man and he agrees his novel will not be published in English until after her death.
And then, in 1988, a largely French team makes an English language film based on the European’s novel. The film stars a young English actor destined to be famous both for his performances on stage and screen as well as public performances of a licentious nature on Sunset Boulevard.
Imagine a story like that!
Well, truth seems to be stranger than fiction.
In 1930, Mircea Eliade, Romanian, Fascist sympathizer, student of religions, and future professor at the University of Chicago, did, in fact, move into his professor’s house in Calcutta. Eliade did spend time in the company of the then sixteen and already famous Maitreyi Devi. The young friends did go to visit her elderly guru. The witnessed Indian Independence marches, and they did go to a performance of dancer Uday Shankar, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother. And Eliade was asked to leave the house in some haste.
In 1950, Eliade published La nuit bengali. It by agreement with Devi, it was not published in English until 1993, when it appeared as Bengal Nights: A Novel .
In 1974, Devi published Na Hanyate and, in 1976, her English translation titled It Does Not Die: A Romance.
And the film.
In 1988, French director Nicholas Klotz and French producer Philippe Diaz released their version called The Bengali Night, based on Eliade’s French novel, without any consideration of Devi’s novel. The film stared Hugh Grant as the Eliade character, now a British Engineer building dams or something. In 2009 an absolutely awful print of the film was packaged as a DVD.
Now, I’ll review these three versions of the same few months in the lives of Mercia and Maitreyi.
Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, translated by Catherine Spencer
Eliade’s work on Comparative Religions was a massive influence on my thinking as a young scholar. He continues to be one of the giants upon whose shoulders I perch unsteadily. I’ve long known about his early Fascist leanings. Bengal Nights shows him to have been, at least in the first half of his life, a petty White man fully and unquestioningly steeped in an ugly colonial superiority, even after he falls in love with the “dark” Bengali girl.
The novel has little to recommend it as a novel. It is a pedestrian version of the young summer love story that has been done thousands of times and usually far better, from Shakespeare to Trevanian. Bengal Nights never rises to anything lyrical and is often ugly. Perhaps it is never more ugly than when Eliade, at the end of the novel, goes off to the Himalayas to purify himself like a yogi on a mountain top, and finds cleansing in the bed of a blonde Nordic Valkyrie!
About the only interest Bengal Nights can has is for the student of Eliade’s scholarship — he slips in ideas which became important in his later work — or for the student of Maitreyi Devi who want to see what she was so pissed off about.
It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi, translated by the author.
It Does Not Die is a beautiful, poetic, aching novel. Here a born-poet is at the height of her powers and maturity and yet is still that vulnerable, joyful sixteen-year-old girl. Devi slips back and forth in time, not simply remembering 1930 and all the years since, but living them again, even as her family life, her political and charitable work, and her poetry swirl around her. It Does Not Die is a meditation on memory, and investigation of motivation, a study of the tragedy of self-delusion, and, in the end, a profound philosophical statement on Love and Truth.
At the end of the novel, when Devi meets Eliade for the first time in forty-two years, it becomes a confrontation because Eliade refuses to look at her, preferring the fantasy vision in his memory to the reality in the room with him.
“Mircea, you have read so much, but you have acquired no wisdom! You don’t speak like a wise man. Is love a material object that can be snatched away from one and given to another? Is it a property or an ornament? It is a light, Mircea, a light — like the light of intelligence, like the light of knowledge is the light of love.” pp 253-4
But Eliade has always refused to face the reality of Devi. He has never returned to India because he has clung to his fantasy of her and of her land.
“Mircea, I am telling you, fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible. Your book is a nightmare for me. I was a simple little girl who sometimes played philosopher. I was no enigma. The mystery is your creation. You love the fantastic and unreal. But now I have really come, to perform an impossible deed.” p. 255
I’ll stop there; no further spoilers.
It Does Not Die by Maitreyi Devi is a simply glorious novel.
The Bengali Night
starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak
directed by Nicolas Klotz
written by Nicolas Klotz in colaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere
What a hash of a film!
Supriya Pathak is marvellously natural as Gayatri, the Maitreyi Devi character but is obviously older than sixteen. Hugh Grant is somehow both slack-jawed and wooden throughout, and his accent wanders back and forth across the English Channel. The rest of the Indian cast is professional and comes across as having mysterious depths, one of the few positives of the film. John Hurt and the other European cast members have pretty much phoned in their performances. Thankfully, the story ends before Grant meets the cleansing blonde Nordic Valkyrie.
The version in the DVD package from Cinema Libre Studio is visually flat, almost colourless. Everything is washed out. And the sound is as muddy as the water of the Sacred Ganges. It is physically difficult to watch.
While the film is merely dull, the DVD “Extra”, a monologue by producer Philippe Diaz is, at best, an uncomfortable experience. Diaz strangely regularly punctuates his description of making the film with statements that “India was a wonderful experience for the cast and crew” and “Go to India!” But most of what he says between the punctuation is either condemnation of or superior laughter at Indians and their culture. And he makes a remarkable point of dismissing Maitreyi Devi, her novel, her upset over Eliade’s novel, and her opposition to the film.
The Indians were all running on Indian-subcontinent Time, not caring whether shooting got done each day, Diaz says. They’re all used to the Indian film industry which has such quaint, backward little methods. They aren’t at all like our Western civilized way. According to Diaz, Eliade’s book is a masterpiece. Devi’s is just a bitter little backward girl’s foot-stomping response. Diaz admits he never read Devi’s book “because it’s in Bengali”. Of course, Devi’s English version had been available for a decade and more.
Diaz’s entire monologue is a European dismissal of Indians, their cultures, and their concerns, despite his half-hearted, ass-covering “Go to India!”
Mircea Eliade’s pedestrian Bengal Nights is an early-middle-aged man’s extremely soft-core paedophilic sexual fantasy based on his youthful myopic brush with a culture much deeper than his own and with a young woman far wiser at sixteen than he ever got to be.
Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die is a brilliant, angry, gentle, loving, beautiful, generous, poetic novel. When Devi translated her novel into English, she gave a gift to the West that the West hardly deserves.
The Bengali Night, starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak — If you must see it, see it for Pathak’s performance; the rest is a horrid mess.