“I do not love her, I admire her. She disturbs me. Her body and her mind are overwhelming.”
Bengal Nights, or Maitreyi, or La Nuit Bengali by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade is a title I came across by accident. After reading the summary on goodreads, I was quite intrigued, but what drove me nuts was the fact that this book was not available anywhere. This gave Bengal Nights the halo of “the book that I couldn’t have” and like all things we cannot have, it only made me want it more. Otherwise, there is no chance on earth that I would hunt far and wide for a romance. I had given up on ever getting a copy of this book, after searching for it for about a year, when just as unexpectedly, I found it!
Looks like this is the year of romance for me. *secretly hopes not*
Summary <may contain some spoilers>: Alain (Eliade’s alter ego) is a European engineer working in Calcutta. His life is filled with frivolous parties with his friend Harold and “the girls.” While working on a project in Assam, he contracts malaria and is hospitalized. When he regains conciousness, he is surrounded by his friends, all of whom have a prejudice against India and its people. Just then, his employer, Narendra Sen, visits him with his sixteen year old daughter Maitreyi, and invites him to stay at his residence as he recovers. Alain’s friends are convinced that it is a ploy to make him fall in love with Maitreyi and get him married. Alain does not believe it; also, he dislikes Maitreyi’s appearance. However, he accepts Narendra Sen’s offer and moves to his house. Maitreyi is interested in learning French, and soon, he begins to give her French lessons, while she teaches him Bengali. He is sure she is flirting with him, but she assures him that she is in love with Rabindranath Tagore, her teacher, to whom she had once given her word she would never fall in love. Later, however, under the pretext of arranging books in her father’s library, she calls Alain for help and challenges him to invoke feelings in her. She soon realizes she is truly in love with him, and Alain realizes he has been in love with her since the very first time he saw her. Things soon take a turn for the worse when Maitreyi’s parents come to know of the affair, and it leads to a tragic end.
Although this book is set in the early part of the last century, I am unable to call it a historical romance. The main reason being, although most of the customs and traditions mentioned in the story are now outdated, the story could as well have been set in present day India.
Never have I ever read a story of such inner turmoil, such indecisiveness and such passion. Eliade writes in detail about each of Alain’s emotions, his every thought and he employs a rich vocabulary while doing so. The flaw, however, is that it fails to invoke anything in me, as a reader. Why is it that despite such vivid detail, as a reader, I neither sympathized with the tragic situation nor felt any flicker of emotion in my heart? The only reason I could think of is, Eliade’s writing is too much like spoon-feeding. It crosses the thin line between vivid detail and the murder of imagination. It leaves the reader with the sole job of reading, and not imagining – not completing threads in his or her own mind.
Yet another thing I do not understand is, whilst Eliade has published this as an autobiographical work, he gives himself an alias. He mentions Maitreyi (and her guru, the well known poet Rabindranath Tagore) by the real name, and also writes about every little thing they experienced, with, seemingly no thought to consequence. Why then has he adopted an alias for himself alone?
I would recommend this book only for the setting – Calcutta through the eyes of Alain looks charming, haunting, and beautiful, though he was, at the beginning, filled with prejudice against the land and its people. As a literary piece on the whole though, it leaves something to be desired.
Get it here: Amazon