Published: Aug. 1, 2001 By

[1]   One desires the archaic and the exotic insofar as it remains the other, but insofar as it retains its ontological difference the encounter with it is liable to be marked by frustration, failure, lack. Narratives with a colonial setting are often marked by such a structure; E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India may be taken as a paradigmatic narrative of this class. Passages to India are often passages into the unconscious, a site of covert desire which could reveal a secret of the Western self not apparent or available to it. A structuring principle of such texts is that the other is denied a speaking part, and registers itself as an absence. The desire/ fear of the exoticized other and the cloaked violence around this issue in Forster’s text receives more direct expression in Bengal Nights, Mircea Eliade’s romance with a colonial Indian setting.

[2]   What is most remarkable in the case of Bengal Nights, however, is that Maitreyi Devi, the protoype for the heroine of Eliade’s novel and the figure in whom Eliade sums up the otherness and enigma of the East, wrote her own version of this romantic encounter in response to what she perceived as her misrepresentation in Eliade’s exoticizing fiction. Maitreyi’s critique shows up Eliade’s narrative of heterosexual romance with her as a disguise for a more primary homosocial relationship that he formed with Surendranath Dasgupta, Maitreyi’s father and Eliade’s mentor during his trip to India. In responding to Eliade’s fiction, Maitreyi draws on archetypes of Indian cultural nationalism, also structured by a trope of discovery or recovery of submerged aspects of self. Reading her Bengali novel Na Hanyate alongside Eliade’s versions of the encounter poses fascinating questions not only of intertextuality and of literary mediations of “real” characters or events, but also of the erotics of the East/ West encounter and of the Indian woman writing back from within a script of cultural nationalism to her representation in an exoticizing fiction.

[3]   Sara Suleri has suggested that narratives of imperialism and Indian nationalism are both implicated in the structure of romance:

a claim [has been made] for the antecedent of imperialism in the construction of British national identity; I make a parallel claim for the autonomy of a similar Indian establishment of nation, but further wish to suggest that both modes of cultural arrival are implicated in the structure of romance, causing their stories to achieve an idea of nation only after dislocation and disbandment have demanded a requisite cost (Suleri, 10).

Building on Suleri’s suggestive and fertile hypothesis, I wish to emphasize simultaneously the autonomy and agency of Indian nationalist discourse, and its mutual imbrication and dialogic relation with Orientalism, which it subjects to effects of strategic appropriation, reversal and displacement. Suleri, however, does not quite address the intricate arena of Indian nationalist discourse in its reciprocal transactions with narratives of Orientalism, and devotes her critical attention exclusively to the work of imperial writers, or postcolonial migrants writing in English, such as V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Reading Eliade’s texts of romantic encounter alongside Maitreyi’s Bengali text allows us to examine, in an instance of actual historical encounter, how these two sets of narratives relate to each other, the dense networks of affiliation and allusion as well as difference and critique which exist between them.

[4]   Bengal Nights, first published as Maitreyi in Eliade’s native Romanian in 1933, proved to be the sensation of the Romanian literary world of that year and went through seven editions over the next ten years (Ricketts, 1:536-37). The naming of the novel and its heroine after Maitreyi is an indication of how closely based the novel is on certain events which occurred in Calcutta in 1930 involving Eliade and Maitreyi. Eliade worked on his doctoral dissertation on Yoga under the tutelage of Surendranath Dasgupta, professor of philosophy at Calcutta University. He also stayed at the Dasgupta residence, where he grew acquainted with Maitreyi. As a young girl, Maitreyi attracted attention as a successful poet and was one of the first women pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at the university. Later she was to become well known in Bengal as a poet, intellectual, social activist and disciple of Rabindranath Tagore. News of Eliade’s novel gradually filtered to Maitreyi in Calcutta through Le Nuit Bengali, the French translation of Maitreyi which was published in 1950. Maitreyi felt offended by the novel dedicated to her; she made repeated attempts to get in touch with Eliade which he rebuffed until one morning in April 1973 when Maitreyi walked into his office at the University of Chicago. Na Hanyate, published in 1974, is based on Maitreyi’s experiences with Eliade from 1930 to 1973.

In Other Worlds

[5]   While Eliade’s scholarly work in the history of religions as well as his enunciation of a “new humanist” mode of inquiry in anthropological hermeneutics has attracted considerable notice and been a focus of debate and controversy (Dudley), very little attention has been paid to his fictional and autobiographical writings, particularly to Bengal Nights. Some critics have pointed to the importance of his literary work for a comprehensive understanding of his scholarly projects, but they have foregrounded chiefly the category of “imagination” at work across Eliade’s writings (Girardot and Ricketts). While apprehending him as an aesthete and mystic, they rarely discuss his literary productions in relation to his autobiographical writings, or consider the politics of gender, race and colony that marks his literary and scholarly oeuvres. Bengal Nights, one of his most significant works of fiction based on biographical events, never comes up for sustained critical analysis.

[6]   While “new humanism” exists as a key paradigm throughout Eliade’s scholarly work, it is also integral to an understanding of his fiction, as I will show in my reading of Bengal Nights. In Eliade’s version of it, the new humanist approach emerges through a hermeneutic of engagement and calls for a broad assimilation of religio-cultural experiences across space and time (“History of Religions,” The Quest). Even though Eliade stresses the importance of dialogue with the other and opening up humanism to mankind’s religious pasts, his message pertains more to the fascination and challenge the other poses to the spirit of discovery of the West:

It is not beyond possibility that the discoveries and “encounters” made possible by the progress of the history of religions may have repercussions comparable to those of certain famous discoveries in the past of western culture. We have in mind the discovery of the exotic and primitive arts, which revivified modern Western aesthetics. We have in mind especially the discovery of the unconscious by psychoanalysis … in both cases alike, there was a meeting with the “foreign,” the unknown, with what cannot be reduced to familiar categories — in short, with the “wholly other.” … The “world” in which preanalytic man lived became obsolete after Freud’s discoveries. But these “destructions” opened new vistas to Western creative genius (The Quest, 3).

Encounters with other cultures here have a status comparable to “famous discoveries” of “Western culture,” and figure ultimately as episodes within the latter’s modernist reinvention of itself. Eliade’s perception of the relationship between the other and the West falls into the pattern described by anthropologist James Clifford when he argues that the modernist moment of engaging the non-West is one of appropriating non-Western difference. The other in this schema is a necessary term to revivify Western aesthetics and humanism and enrich as Eliade emphasizes, the “Western creative genius.” In Eliade’s discourse, articulating the non-West so as to incorporate it within a scheme of universal humanism is a prerogative of the West, while the other largely figures as the West’s “unconscious” or origin of self. The West’s meeting with the other corresponds to how the archaic and the mythic is grafted within the “real” so as to extend its meaning beyond the parameters of empirical or positivist notions. Analogously, the unconscious can be said to be inscribed within the conscious, but requires the conscious in order to be “spoken.”

[7]   Eliade’s articulation of new humanism emphasizes an existential interconnectedness between the subject and object of study. This mode of hermeneutical engagement requires concrete experience of the other’s life-world. Eliade insists upon authenticity of source material as opposed to “dilettantism,” or “improvisation” (“Autobiographical Fragment”). To capture this sense of authenticity, Eliade made use of the genre of autobiographical fiction, featuring actual events and persons. The technique of the “authentic” autobiographical journal novel was to be used by Eliade repeatedly over the thirties (Ricketts, 1:56). Not only doesMaitreyi replicate the structure of a journal, but it is in large part a transcription from Eliade’s Indian journal. As the theme of Bengal Nights elucidates, “love” or erotics becomes an important component of the encounter with other civilizations (Ricketts, 1: 96-97, 109, 583-85).

[8]   Eliade saw myth as the imaginative expression of lived authenticity, and asserted the continuing structures of mythology even in modern fiction and life (Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 23-38; Ordeal by Labyrinth, 165-66). He critiques the project of “historicism,” which privileges empirical historical data, as a system of domination deprived of human impulse (Cosmos and History, 147). In contrast to the irreversible historical time of historicism, mythical time is reversible — it relives, revivifies through repetition (in illo tempore) the time of the “beginnings” (Cosmos and History, 31). It is the denial of the sacrality of being in modernity that has plunged humanity into fragmentation, into the “terror of history” (Cosmos and History, 141). As opposed to mythic/ archaic man who was directly responsible for his history, modern or historic man is a mere cog in the wheel. Eliade claims that Western European rationalistic historicism and materialism such as introduced by Hegel and Marx have neglected the deep structure of unity of the cosmos by failing to acknowledge the enduring spiritual values in cultures across the world. Hegel’s version of history robs human agency by empowering the “Universal Spirit”: he “was obliged to see in every event the will of the Universal Spirit … which, after all, abolishes what Hegel wanted to save in history — human freedom” (Cosmos and History, 148-49). If, however, the perception of a “Universal Spirit” behind every significant action robs the human subject of freedom and agency, the same case might be made for a perpetual repetition of other mythic structures and agents which Eliade sees as essential to the thought patterns of archaic man. Marx in Eliade’s reading refuses the cyclical pattern of history that myth valorizes, but reconfirms “upon an exclusively human level, the value of the primitive myth of the age of gold, with the difference that he puts the age of gold at the end of history … here for the militant Marxist, lies the secret of the remedy for the terror of history” (Cosmos and History, 148-49). Such a reading renders Eliade’s own position extremely confusing. If Hegel places history under the sign of the Universal Spirit, or the Marxist awaits the age of gold at the end of history, it is unclear how they may be reproached with having destroyed sacrality, order and meaning, a case that Eliade makes otherwise. Eliade’s assailing of certain myths of modernity appears arbitrary, as his insistence on mythology and on archaic structures at large does not allow him to elaborate grounds for distinction between different orders of myth.

[9]   New humanism’s effort to project human struggles on a cosmic plane is extremely ambivalent; translated into political terms, it can stand for a conscious class elitism. Eliade, following his Romanian mentor Nae Ionescu’s idea that the nation is primarily a cultural and not a political instrument, believed that the first task of the state, again in Nae Ionescu’s words — is to “allow and assist everyman to create” (Ricketts, 2:897). However, the term “everyman” here is but another name for the intellectual elite. He opposed spending on primary education for Romanian peasants, as he believed peasants would then be separated from their traditional culture, leaving them “half-educated.” Instead, the state should concentrate its efforts in setting up institutes of culture at the higher level, in particular an institute of Oriental studies (Ricketts, 2:897-901; 1:620-21). The new humanism, therefore, is predicated upon decisive occlusions of the creative agency of the other, which has to conform or play up to a schema defined by an elite that inhabits a discursive and political position of power. If archaic/ folk peoples did indeed speak, their mythic creations would no longer remain as primordial archetypes, and that would go against the very project of Eliade’s hermeneutics that seeks to uncover hidden meanings from an undefiled autochthonous base.

Inscribing the Female Gothic

[10]   It is precisely as such an enigma or mythic archetype that Maitreyi appears in Bengal Nights. Her character strikes a European reader of the novel, the French poet Claude Henri Rocquet, as follows:

What affects me most vividly in the story is the image, the evocation of the young girl, the very presence of desire. The story is a simple one, but it shines and burns with a beauty that creates desire, like the cave painting of Ajanta, like the Indian erotic poetry (Ordeal by Labyrinth, 49).

To Rocquet Maitreyi is an incandescent presence in the novel, which leads paradoxically to generic comparisons with Indian erotic art and to a blurring of any specific features she might possess. Likewise Alain, the hero and first person narrator ofBengal Nights, reacts strongly but ambivalently on being introduced to Maitreyi: “On catching sight of her, a strange tremor went through me, accompanied by a curious feeling of contempt.” Alain is particularly affected by the sight of Maitreyi’s “naked arm and the strange quality of that sombre brown, so disturbing and so unfeminine; it was the flesh of a goddess or a painted image rather than of a human.” Alain has the “vague feeling that the memory of Maitreyi was already connected in some ways to [his] most fugitive thoughts and desires” (Bengal Nights, 1-2). The very opening lines of Bengal Nights thus suggest that its heroine Maitreyi comes already framed through archetypes, and attribute to her an uncanniness and radical undecidability that will haunt the text, into which may be read the tension between a “historical” and “mythic” Maitreyi. Maitreyi glides unpredictably between a real that is physical to the extent of being bestial and evokes “contempt,” and a transcendent being best likened to a “goddess” or a “painted image.” The description enacts an oscillation between mythic fantasy or imagination on the one hand, and ethnographic observation on the other, where Maitreyi functions as an empirical real and is presented in terms of a fetishization of concrete particulars such as a “naked arm.”

[11]   Ethnographic observation is the keynote when Alain accompanies Lucien Metz, an arrogant Parisian journalist, to Maitreyi’s household, on the invitation of her father, named in the novel “Narendra Sen.” At Sen’s house, the following ethnographic scene ensues:

Lucien asked permission to examine Maitreyi’s costume, her jewels and ornaments, more closely and Narendra Sen accepted with good grace, leading his daughter over by the hand: frightened, she had drawn back near the window, her lips quivering, her shawl pulled over her head. It was a strange examination. Lucien weighed up the jewels in his hand, giving exclamations of wonder, asked questions and took down the answers in shorthand. During all this, Maitreyi stood, her face ashen, trembling from head to foot as though stricken with pure terror … then her eyes met mine. I smiled at her. She seemed to have found a haven; fixing her gaze on mine, she gradually became calmer, her spasms ceased and she began to recover her normal state (Bengal Nights, 7).

Several things are noteworthy about the way this scene is organized. Metz’s gaze is that of the objectifying, positivist Orientalist, gathering and classifying data on objects of his interest, subjecting them to minute inspection. Maitreyi, the object of his inspection, shrinks before this gaze. Alain, by contrast, wins her sympathy by directing towards her an empathetic gaze. The exchange of glances with Maitreyi was for Alain a “warm and clandestine moment of communion” (Bengal Nights, 8). The difference between Metz’s and Alain’s approach to Maitreyi mirrors the difference between the empiricist, data-bound methodology in anthropology which calls for observation, inductive reasoning and verification, and Eliade’s own hermeneutic/ phenomenological approach which calls for intuitive insight into and identification with the existential conditions of the other (Ordeal by Labyrinth, 128-135).

[12]   Alain’s quasi-anthropological search for authentic experience of an “other” culture seems to meet with success when, on Sen’s invitation, Alain moves into his household, and gains access to the inner workings of an Indian family. Like the historical Eliade, Alain quickly takes to his Bengali household, adopting Indian manners and costumes (Bengal Nights, 54; Autobiography, 179-85). Alain decides to convert to Hinduism, in the expectation that this will enable him to marry Maitreyi. But Alain is expelled from Sen’s household when his affair with Maitreyi is discovered.

[13]   Apparently, Sen’s despotic treatment of Alain and Maitreyi when he comes to know of their relationship brings the love affair to its tragic end. Sen is depicted as sadistically beating Maitreyi and frustrating all of Alain’s efforts to get in touch with her (Bengal Nights, 143). In order to spare her further punishment, Alain leaves Calcutta for the Himalayas (Bengal Nights, 149). Alain’s hermeneutic encounter with India, figured in his relationship with Maitreyi, thus fails to come to fruition. On a superficial reading of Eliade’s novel, the reason for that failure would appear obvious. In spite of Alain’s attempts at sympathetic identification with Bengali culture, he cannot be allowed to marry Maitreyi due to racial difference. Oriental despotism, in the figure of Maitreyi’s parents portrayed as vengeful and vindictive, comes in the way and frustrates young love. Such a reading of Bengal Nights ignores, however, a host of discrepant elements in the novel. An alternate reading, which takes these elements into account, would have to deal with the problems posed by the romantic Orientalist model involved in Eliade’s discourse itself.

[14]   Clues for an alternate reading can be had from the dedication Eliade provides to his dissertation on Yoga, published around the same time as he wrote Maitreyi. The dedication runs as follows: “To the memory of my illustrious and venerable patronMaharaja Sir Manindra Chandra Nandi … my guru Professor Surendranath Dasgupta … and my teacher Nae Ionescu” (Yoga; author’s italics). He also states in his autobiography — “I dedicatedYoga to the memory of the Maharaja Mahindra Chandra Nandy (sic), Professor Nae Ionescu, and Surendranath Dasgupta, the only persons I considered my ‘masters'” (Autobiography, 308). Eliade’s autobiography, Ordeal by Labyrinth and even Bengal Nights provide corroborating evidence to show that both Alain and Eliade invest more in their relationship with Maitreyi’s father as mentor and benefactor than in their romantic relationships with Maitreyi. In his autobiography, he describes his thoughts while staying in a hermitage in the Himalayas:

I was beginning to understand the reason for the events that had provoked my breakup with Dasgupta … I had to know passion, drama, and suffering before renouncing the “historical” dimension of my existence and making my way toward a trans-historical, atemporal, paradigmatic dimension … it was necessary that my relations with Dasgupta pass beyond the phase of candor and superficiality and know the tensions and conflicts that characterize the beginning of true rapport between guru and disciple (Autobiography, 189).

[15]   Although Bengal Nights claims to inscribe an “authenticity” of experience, and is in that sense closer to a “confession” rather than a novel, the above passage indicates an area of significant divergence between fiction and autobiographical representation. While Bengal Nights stresses Alain’s heterosexual romance with Maitreyi and his extreme suffering upon losing her, with Narendra Sen as the culprit, Eliade in his autobiography foregrounds his bond with his dissertation adviser and scholarly guru at the expense of Maitreyi. His relationship with Maitreyi is seen as an aspect of the less important “historical” dimension of his existence, while his relations with Dasgupta lay on a “transhistorical” or mythic plane, to arrive at which historicity needed to be renounced and transcended. When Eliade discussed events in Calcutta during his 1977 conversations with Rocquet, he once again expressed regret for his separation from Dasgupta, not Maitreyi:

Rocquet: In September 1930 you left Calcutta for the Himalayas. You left Dasgupta …

Eliade: Yes, after a quarrel, which I regret a great deal. He regretted it too. But at the time I felt there was nothing to keep me in a place where, without Dasgupta, I had no reason for being (Ordeal by Labyrinth, 40).

Thus, both Rocquet and Eliade are in agreement that Eliade’s chief interest lay in his relationship with Dasgupta. Eliade presents the sequence of events as the result of a quarrel between him and Dasgupta, with Maitreyi effaced from the discussion. Surprisingly, even in Bengal Nights Alain restructures his earlier sentiment of outrage to proclaim at one point that he has wronged Maitreyi’s father: “I suffered not simply because I had lost Maitreyi but because I had wronged my benefactor” (Bengal Nights, 158).

[16]   Seen in this light, it is not Maitreyi’s father who disrupts the relationship between Maitreyi and Alain/ Eliade, but rather Maitreyi who disrupts the relationship between the two men. Even though in terms of historical event Dasgupta expelled Eliade from the household and ended his affiliation with the University of Calcutta following the discovery of his affair with Maitreyi, Eliade holds Maitreyi rather than Dasgupta responsible for his departure from India: “Because of M. I lost the right to become an integral part of ‘historical’ India” (No Souvenirs, 189).

[17]   According to Luce Irigaray, exchanges of women between men manifest a structure of homosociality, which underpins a sense of patriarchal social order. In such an exchange “woman’s body must be treated as an abstraction” (Irigaray, 175). Eliade’sBengal Nights subjects Maitreyi’s body to exactly such a force of dislocation and decentering, whereby Maitreyi’s presence either effects a narrative blur or can only be captured in terms of dispersed particulars. As Irigaray suggests, this decentering of Maitreyi is in the service of a pattern of homosocial relationship and exchange, entered into between Maitreyi’s father and lover. The woman serves as a vehicle for a more primary relationship with a male mentor, although this relationship is disguised in the case of the fictional Bengal Nights in order to privilege a narrative economy of heterosexual romance and Oriental difference.

[18]   The pattern of relationship between Alain/ Eliade and Maitreyi, far from being a unique one, is replicated when both the autobiographical Eliade and his fictional counterpart develop a relationship with a European woman named Jenny, who had taken up residence in the Himalayas. The extremes of frenzy and disgust that Alain experiences during their physical intimacy is not unlike what he felt with Maitreyi (Bengal Nights, 171). According to Eliade, the relationship between him and Jenny foundered because his yogicguru, Swami Shivananda, was away and they conducted their erotic experiments without his assent: “Actually, I was not in love with Jenny … And yet I had consented to know her body in a ‘magical’ manner, that is in a lucid and detached way, as only an initiate is allowed to do — and I knew full well that initiation does not exist without a guru” (Autobiography, 199). The structural parallels between Eliade’s affairs with Maitreyi and Jenny are obvious. He approaches both affairs as a series of tests or initiatory ordeals for himself, to ascertain whether he can retain lucidity and detachment; the final arbiter remains his guru or mentor.

[19]   Like Alain’s desire for Maitreyi, his attempts at hermeneutic engagement and “intuitive” empathy with the East also extends to siding with Indians in their political struggle against the British. Once again, however, such a relationship is marked by ambivalence:

Civil war was threatening to break out again, fuelled by the imprisonment of over fifty-thousand nationalists. I had to witness scenes of violence, charges by mounted police, the sacking and pillaging of the Sikh district in Bhowanipore, I had to see children beaten and women hurt before I, too, became caught up in the revolution. In doing so, I lost my clarity of judgement. I condemned the British out of hand and every new brutality reported by the newspapers sent me into a rage; whenever I passed Europeans in the street, I looked at them with disgust (Bengal Nights, 101-2).

Here Alain reports being “caught up in the revolution,” recalling Eliade’s desire “to become an integral part of ‘historical’ India.” In an analogous fashion, Eliade in his autobiography reports going out on the streets of Calcutta in search of political demonstrations: “I was excited by the civil revolution unleashed by Mahatma Gandhi” (Autobiography, 179-80). Alain/ Eliade’s becoming caught up in historical experience suggests Eliade’s category of lived experience, which plays a fundamental role in “new humanist” hermeneutics. Rather than being an instrument of cognition, however, lived experience in this instance causes Alain to lose his “clarity of judgement.” This is echoed by a loss of vision and memory undergone by him at the moment when he and Maitreyi consummate their relationship: “I remember nothing more, afterwards. I took her, blindly, and no trace of the memory has remained” (Bengal Nights, 112). Crucial moments of lived experience in the text lead to a loss of judgment and a blinding of narrative, moments where hermeneutic connection fails.

[20]   Alain desires Maitreyi to the fullest, without the accompaniment of doubt or disgust, only insofar as she is physically absent or separated from him. Maitreyi can only be present as an absence; her bodily presence cannot be reconciled with her absorption as an idea. Thus Alain desires Maitreyi as an innocent “virgin,” but when she becomes available to him, he suspects her of having erotic relationships with virtually all the men in Sen’s large household, including the chauffeur (Bengal Nights, 70-71, 95). He accuses her of seducing all the poets and intellectuals she mentions, including the seventy year old Rabindranath Tagore, who was her mentor (Bengal Nights, 71). The implicit sadomasochistic pattern here surfaces in a narrative will to brutalize Maitreyi, a radical negation of empathy. Towards the end of Bengal Nights, Sen is shown to beat Maitreyi bloody, and thereafter Mrs. Sen — hitherto depicted as a gentle, affectionate and retiring person as is her prototype in Eliade’s autobiography — orders the chauffeur to beat Maitreyi with a birch rod till she loses consciousness. At the end of Bengal Nights, Maitreyi has “given herself to a fruit seller,” is pregnant and on the verge of insanity, to which Alain adds “I sense she committed that act of madness for me” (Bengal Nights, 176).

[21]   Alain’s political identification with Indians and outrage at British atrocities in India is reflected in a sense of disgust at all Europeans, a category that included himself. In a reversal of this move, designed to free himself from the influence of Maitreyi and of Indian culture and reiterate his “Western” identity, he effects a separation by imagining a scene of violence against Indians by Indians, where Maitreyi is subjected to sadistic brutality by her family. To master the scenes of colonial violence that Alain had been forced to witness, Eliade’s text inflicts its own violence from whose scene the Westerner has been effaced. The spectacle of Maitreyi’s ravaged body and mind pertains to the Gothic force dominating the text’s narrative mode, by reinforcing the sensational value of the other necessary to preserve self-other oppositions. As over the question of educating peasants in Romania, the forging of hermeneutic connections breaks down.

[22]   Although Eliade claimed that Bengal Nights was written as a confession and included records of actual events directly transcribed from his journal, he admits as well to dramatic modifications of the story: “I drastically modified the conclusion as if I wished to separate myself definitively from Maitreyi. And of course I bathed that faraway world in a pale golden light, radiated from memories and melancholia” (Autobiography, 240). The admission undermines his claim to authenticity of lived experience, from which the novel has now veered away. It also deconstructs the “new humanist” emphasis on the creative capacity of imagination to breach difference, as imagination is now used to effect rather than breach a separation. What emerges, therefore, is a strategic rather than creative use of imagination, where the other is immured in exoticism.

[23]   At the end of the novel, Alain undermines his own authority by withdrawing all claims to veracity and knowledge of events:

My soul is troubled, very troubled … And yet I want to write everything, everything.
And what if it had all been nothing but some huge farce? A fine trick played on me by my passion? … What do I know of the truth?
I would like to be able to look Maitreyi in the eyes … (Bengal Nights, 176).

During an initial encounter with Maitreyi their eyes had met, suggesting a moment of warm communion. That moment had conveyed the promise of Eliade’s alternate anthropological approach, calling for the forging of hermeneutic connections with the other. Despite Alain’s desire to “write everything, everything,” the text yields at this point to narrative exhaustion. The fragmentation of Maitreyi’s body in the narrative, and the blindness that afflicts it at crucial moments, all attest to the partial nature of the text’s apprehension of Maitreyi, its inability to break out of a specular and exoticizing discourse of the East by which she is framed. With the blindness of narrative and the failure of Alain’s gaze, Eliade’s exotic quest comes full circle. The aporias of such a quest are manifest both at the levels of Eliade’s theoretical formulations of “new humanism,” and the working out of such a vision in closely allied works of fiction and autobiography.

The Struggle for Language

[24]   If Maitreyi is a cipher difficult to visualize in Eliade’s exoticizing and Orientalist text, Peter Hulme has pointed at a related difficulty in visualizing Caliban in William Shakespeare’sThe Tempest: “The difficulty in visualizing Caliban cannot be put down to a failure of clarity in the text. Caliban, as a compromise formation, can exist only within discourse: he is fundamentally and essentially beyond the bounds of representation” (Hulme, 108). An obvious issue that emerges out of a reading of these texts is: what if these figures at the margins found a way of articulating their own discourse? How would they then position themselves as subjects? It is useful to look in this way at the questions posed by Maitreyi Devi’s Na Hanyate, translated into English as It Does Not Die.

[25]   Maitreyi’s battle to repossess language takes place within the representational frames available to her. Addressing the relationship between writing by women and feminist theoretical analysis, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita have argued that

women writers are clearly imbricated in the ideologies of their times; patriarchies take shape and are transformed in specific historical circumstances. Not all literature written by women is feminist … Besides, even when the writing is specifically feminist, oppositions to the dominant ideologies of gender can be discomfitingly class or caste bound and draw on assumptions about race or religious persuasion that reinforce the hold of these ideologies and collaborate in extending their authority (Tharu and Lalita, 2:38).

[26]   Tharu and Lalita’s strictures will serve us as salutary reminders of what is at stake as we consider Maitreyi’s text, which struggles to break free from certain representational frames, particularly that of the “new” woman emerging from projections of femininity and the female body in Orientalist as well as nationalist rhetorics about India, even as it remains marked by them. Discussion of the issue of women’s status in colonial India was subject to considerable ideological overdetermination and nationalism formulated its own distinctive countermoves to colonial ideology. According to Partha Chatterjee, nationalist ideology proposed a series of dichotomies which may briefly be expressed as follows:

West = material = outer = world = masculine
East     spiritual      inner     home     feminine

In terms of the nationalist agenda, “what was necessary was to cultivate the material techniques of modern Western civilization while retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture … The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world — and woman is its representation” (Chatterjee, 238-39). The new model of Indian femininity “contrasted not only with that of modern Western society; it was explicitly distinguished from the patriarchy of indigenous tradition. Sure enough, nationalism adopted several elements from ‘tradition’ as marks of its native cultural identity, but this was a deliberately classicized tradition — reformed, reconstructed” (Chatterjee, 244-45). Thus we have the emergence of a powerful feminine archetype of the “educated” woman as the upholder of moral and aesthetic order, signifying a domain of sublimated cultural identity.

[27]   Paradoxically, while nationalism was essentially reinventing Indian womanhood in the image of the “proper lady” of mid-19thcentury Victorian England, it desired also to align women with classical Sanskrit texts, which are steeped in bodily and erotic descriptions of women. Extending Chatterjee, therefore, it is possible to detect a certain schizophrenia latent in the nationalist subject position. If nationalism privileges the East over the West, this also amounts to a privileging of femininity over masculinity. The nationalist agenda may also be seen as desiring to remake the nation as home, the public in the image of the private. The inner domain of femininity then had to be rearticulated for the public domain. The apparently extra-political and moral domain of femininity thus became an appropriate space for politics, albeit one seen as more legitimate than politics as colonialist (masculinist) power play. In response to a pervasive colonial ethos where race is effectively gendered, nationalism thus speaks in a voice that is at least partially feminine, and opens up an undecidable space in which masculine and feminine writing play together.

[28]   For Eliade, the name Maitreyi marks “the very presence of desire.” Within a nationalist frame, however, “Maitreyi” carries a reverse signification: it evokes the name of a legendary woman philosopher during the Vedic era, the imputed golden age of Hindu womanhood. Maitreyi is mentioned in the Rig-Veda as having merited the knowledge of the divine from the great sage Yajnavalkya, and consequently became a favorite among nationalist writers who argued that she proved the case for the high status of women in ancient India (Chakravarty, 33, 43). Whereas to Eliade and his interlocutors Maitreyi might signify the primitive, the physical and the elemental, within nationalism Maitreyi could stand for the sublimated cultural authority of the educated woman. Maitreyi’s own upbringing reflected this “classical” heritage: from very early on, Maitreyi was encouraged by her father to be a poet and a philosopher. In Eliade’s version, his protagonist Alain is lucid, chaste, withholding from sexual excess; in Maitreyi’s reorganization of the encounter, her heroine is the pursuer of chastity and truth. Amrita, the Maitreyi like protagonist of Na Hanyate, claims that she has derived her moral force from Gandhi, while “Mircea Euclid” (Mircea Eliade renamed) stands in for the promiscuous West.

[29]   The pursuit of chastity and truth aligns Maitreyi’s novel with the Gandhian program of satyagraha or non-violent non co-operation, literally the “desire for truth.” Gandhian techniques ofsatyagraha required people to curb their passions, to restrain themselves when provoked — analogous to prescribed “feminine” codes of conduct. As Spivak astutely remarks, the root of the words sati (“good wife”) and the first half ofsatyagraha (satya or truth) are the same. The satyagrahi or passive resister partook to some extent of the aura of the sati or self-sacrificing wife. According to Ashis Nandy, Gandhi “implicitly defined his goal as the liberation of the British from the history and psychology of British colonialism. The moral and cultural superiority of the oppressed was not an empty slogan to him” (Nandy, 48-49). In this reversal of the civilizing mission, Gandhi thus operates another reversal of the signs of Orientalist discourse. If Bengal Nights can be read as a political allegory of the East-West encounter, in many respects Na Hanyate operates a reversal of it; the final episode of the latter novel, in which Amrita travels to Chicago in order to confront Euclid/ Eliade with the “false writing” of Bengal Nights and bring him into the light of truth, reiterates a Gandhian pattern ofsatyagraha as a reverse discourse of civilization.

Na Hanyate: Interrogating Orientalism

[30]   Na Hanyate, like Bengal Nights, is a thinly fictionalized account of autobiographical events. Bengal Nights had changed a few names but significantly preserved Maitreyi’s; mirroring this move Maitreyi changes her own name to “Amrita,” but modifies only very slightly Eliade’s name to “Mircea Euclid.” The name “Euclid” is consistent with the novel’s portrayal of Eliade as a scholarly/ anthropological eye seeking to integrate his Indian observations and experiences within a rationalistic, quasi-mathematical frame.

[31]   Unlike the opening of Bengal Nights, where Eliade’s hero Alain claims a loss of memory while attempting to narrate his encounter with Maitreyi, Na Hanyate insists on historical verisimilitude by providing specific dates of the events that it narrates, thus countering Eliade’s projection of her as an ahistorical being. Maitreyi’s narrative records that on September 1st, 1972, a Romanian student of Euclid named Sergei Sebastian visited Amrita in Calcutta, desiring to know more about her relationship with Euclid. Amrita solicits details of Euclid’s book from Sergei, and is angered to learn that she is supposed to have been sexually intimate with Euclid, and that her father is reported to have destroyed her life by intervening to stop their affair. Many of the episodes recounted in Bengal Nights return differently inflected in Na Hanyate, providing a better sense not only of Maitreyi’s perspective on them, but also of how Eliade’s interpretation of events is shaped by a quasi-anthropological perspective. Euclid in the novel is shown as always searching for “a deeper meaning behind everything” (Na Hanyate, 8). On hearing a poem that Amrita has written to a tree standing in front of their house

Mircea … was amazed, exclaiming “pantheism.” I did not know then what pantheism was. The line “A tale of love between a girl and a tree” had him bemused … He could not see that this was no “ism,” just a poetic fancy (Na Hanyate, 34-5).

Thus Amrita is aware of and resists being apprehended in terms of the reified categories of religious anthropology. She registers a keen sense of disappointment when Euclid compares her to idols on the walls of temples (Na Hanyate, 91). She also notices how the erotics of the guru – disciple relationship can overdetermine Euclid’s romantic relationship with her. In a conversation which took place in 1953 with Mrs. Stanescu, the wife of an émigréRomanian scholar in Paris, Mrs. Stanescu handed her Euclid’s book on Yoga which grew out of his dissertation with Amrita’s father:

I leaf through the book in my hands — I am stunned as I turn the page. The book is dedicated to my father. It is written there — “To … my reveredguru.” Well then? Even after what happened, did he retain contact with my father. … After so many days I see why he did not write to me, he needed more to write his book, and be a specialist on India. … A curse on such scholasticism, such lust for fame and glory (Na Hanyate, 188).

Amrita suspects that Euclid invests more in his scholarly relationship with her father; and that although Euclid never replied to any of her letters, Euclid and her father had kept in touch. She also draws an unfavorable parallel between Euclid’s silence to her and novelistic productivity around her: “though he does not have the courage to reply to my letters, he has been making money by selling my flesh for the last forty years! This is the West!” (Na Hanyate, 206). In a nationalist articulation of signs which resists colonial typologies, she identifies the West with materiality, profanity, lack of trust and sexual excess, the obverse of the East’s spirituality.

[32]   As Partha Chatterjee indicates, however, nationalism itself operates certain archetypes of the female subject, and the narrative of Na Hanyate shows how Amrita was socialized into these archetypes during early adolescence, chiefly through the agency of her father. Early in the novel, Sen takes the fourteen year old Amrita along with him to visit Rabindranath Tagore. Upon her father’s instructions Amrita began reciting poetry, her own as well as Tagore’s. On being asked whether she understood his poems, Amrita repeated what she had heard of Tagore’s philosophy from her father:

With great self-confidence I … spouted off the inner meaning of “The Golden Boat” and the philosophy of the jivan-devata, as I had heard my father explicate them. But [Tagore] stopped me midway. I know now how comical such high philosophy sounded coming from a wisp of a girl of fourteen. He said, “Enough … read for your own enjoyment, others’ explanations cannot be of help to you” (Na Hanyate, 17).

Evident in the above exchange is Amrita’s father’s desire to make her conform to a particular script of female subjectivity. The poetic/ philosophical persona that Amrita is sought to be molded into by her father corresponds to the rhetoric of the educated and expressive female self, upheld by nationalism as an icon of cultural identity. The passage quoted above also brings across, however, the narrator’s troubled apprehension of her own construction as a subject, which is a recurring feature of the text.

[33]   The ambiguities of the feminine subject are compellingly underscored when, as a means of improving both Euclid’s and Amrita’s Sanskrit, Sen decides to administer jointly to both of them lessons in the erotically charged Sanskrit play Shakuntala. The play evokes, on the one hand, a classical Sanskrit heritage, and is therefore a desirable adjunct to Amrita’s education from Sen’s point of view. On the other hand, it is suggestive of erotic meanings, and is taken as such by other members of and visitors to the household. While the classical education imparted to the “new woman” is a sign of her advanced spirituality and iconic value for nationalism, the context within which it is imparted creates a highly erotic setting from which Bengali men are excluded, but Euclid allowed in, suggestive of the sublimated erotics of the scene of East-West encounter.

[34]   Although Sen encourages association between Euclid and Amrita, he expels Euclid from the household when he discovers their romance. Negative stereotypes of the “exotic” foreigner come to the fore, as in the following conversation between Amrita and her mother:

    “Your father said we know nothing about them — who knows what his lineage is, what his father and grandfather are like? He could have some foul disease.”
I’m amazed, this is a strange thing to say — “Mother, he’s been here for almost a year now, and never fell ill even for a day. Why should he have a disease?”
“Not that kind of illness, you’re better off not knowing about it. You’ve no idea how bad these French can be, entirely uncivilized.”
“But he’s not French — ”
“They’re all the same — their civilization is French. … There is no loyalty among husbands and wives — they’re perpetually deceiving one another — marrying someone and going away with someone else, you’ll not be able to survive in such an obnoxious society” (Na Hanyate, 111-2).

[35]   While Sen had perceived Euclid as a civilizing figure in his household, the polarities of the civilizing mission now stand inverted. Where Euclid had previously been seen as philosopher, scholar and guardian of “high” knowledges, he now becomes a figure of promiscuity and degenerate excess, perhaps harboring unnamed sexual diseases. This dramatically foregrounds the aporia present in nationalism’s construction of the educated woman: while a sublimated erotics on a plane of “culture” and ideas is permissible between East and West, romance is tantamount to a desublimation that radically destabilizes identities.

The Rhetoric of Blindness and Sight

[36]   In response to her father’s or Euclid’s duplicities, Amrita emphasizes a politics of “truth-telling,” which is contingent upon a feminization of the political. She specifically cites the Gandhian text of satyagraha as the force behind her epic journey to meet Euclid. The aspect of Amrita’s quest as satyagraha is dramatically staged in the climactic encounter of the novel, in which she travels to the country where Euclid lives, and breaks in upon him unannounced:

[Amrita]: “is it easy coming to see you after forty two years!”

[Euclid]: “certainly not. I could not have done it myself. How many times have I had the opportunity to visit India, the land of my dreams, but I did not go — how could I?”

[Amrita]: “Why? Is it because of me?”

He nodded: “that is so …”

“And I came precisely because you are here. Where do you think I received my courage from? … From Gandhi. I thought if he could do it, why couldn’t I? …” (Na Hanyate, 244).

In clearly linking her personal predicament with Gandhi’s political struggle conceived as a quest for “truth,” Amrita reconceives political relations between India and the West in personal terms. Her journey West to establish the truth of her personal relations with Euclid, allegorizes the triumph of Gandhi’s reverse discourse of civilization over Western values. In her playing out of the Gandhian paradigm of moral certitude, Amrita seeks to bring Euclid into the light of truth which he has lost sight of owing to his investment in pedantry and scholasticism removed from human feelings. From the moment Amrita enters Euclid’s office, he refuses to look her in the eye. When he finally does so in response to her urgings she sees her worst fears have come true: the light has left his eyes, and he is blind.

[37]   The novel sustains a register of historical verisimilitude almost till its end. But from the point of Amrita’s discovery of Euclid’s blindness, there is a leap into allegorical fantasy. As Euclid’s voice floats up from behind, Amrita finds herself swept up by a phoenix. The novel concludes with the phoenix’s speech to Amrita: “Never fear Amrita, you will restore the light in his eyes … the day you meet in the Milky Way, not very far off now …” (Na Hanyate, 247). Although during their final encounter Amrita tells Euclid that she is not to be apprehended as myth or symbol, this alters at the end of the narration when she aspires to a kind of disembodied, mythic immortality. This aspiration is present in the title of the novel itself; the phrase Na Hanyate is taken from theBhagavad Gita, and figures as well in the epigraph of the novel:

ayo nitya sasvato ‘yam purano na hanyate hanyamane sarire … nainam chindanti sasatrani nainam dahati pavakah [Unborn, eternal, everlasting, primeval, it does not die when the body dies … whom weapon cannot pierce, fire cannot burn].

The phrase na hanyate [it does not die] suggests aspiration to a quality of existence beyond the earthly and material, which undercuts Amrita’s insistence to Euclid that the worldly aspects of her existence should not be overlooked. She cites this verse from the Gita to Euclid during their final encounter, telling him “I have come to see that you which weapon cannot pierce, fire cannot burn” (Na Hanyate, 246). At this point she invites Euclid to cancel time and history and enter a mythic mode of being; there is a move to attain immortality through the spiritualization of erotic love. The name “Amrita” signifies “immortal” and is related to amrit or the elixir of life, a drink of the gods which confers immortality. The scene of final encounter between Amrita and Euclid reveals a mode of articulation that is radically split and ambivalent. On the one hand, there is a critique of Euclid’s scholarly and bookish mode of existence, on the ground that it aspires to a kind of ethereal abstraction cut off from historical existence. But on the other hand, Amrita herself aspires to a dissolution of the barriers of space and time, a kind of classical immortality and spirituality that is equally textually mediated.

[38]   Both Eliade’s and Maitreyi’s writings mark out a problematic of truth. In Eliade’s case he found it necessary to graft the “authentic” in his writing, which was the ground for his inclusion of Maitreyi’s name and other “true” particulars. Yet his narrative suffers from indirection and is afflicted by a certain blindness, till in the end his hero Alain withdraws all claims to truth. Likewise, the professed intent of Maitreyi’s text is to give body to a reserve of “truth,” to embody the essence of Indian femininity, as opposed to the promiscuous scattering (of seed, meaning) that takes place in Euclid’s writing. Yet her text is afflicted by a similar force of dislocation: the “spiritual” aspects of Indian femininity get rewritten as something else, as articulating instead the truth of a desire which destabilizes identities.

Satya-[a]graha: Desire for Truth and the Truth of Desire

[39]   In Na Hanyate, even the most virulent denunciations of Euclid’s actions by Amrita are almost always followed by a confession of desire:

Mircea why did you write lies? … Such lies were composed to rack up sales in the bazaar … I am an Indian woman, honor is dearer than life to me … you have disrobed me in front of many — is this love? … [the artist] Nandalal has a painting, the shadowy figure of a captive Sita is gripping a windowbar at the dead of night … I am in a similar situation — take away these bars — let me cross the ocean of time, leaving behind my household of forty years, leaving behind my name, fame, duties … Mircea I want to see you once more (Na Hanyate, 32-3).

Amrita starts out in this passage by aligning herself with a cultural nationalist position and affirming the spiritual identity of the Indian woman. Within moments however, the narrative issues a disclaimer rendering meaningless the calls of reputation and duty. Interestingly, Amrita’s disclaimer is mediated by the figure of Sita, Rama’s chaste wife in the Ramayana. Amrita’s citing of the Sita legend has the force of a catachresis, wrenching it free of its usual contexts and signification. In the Ramayana, Sita is abducted by the demon Ravana and pines to return to Rama and her household. But in Amrita’s case it is her very household that has become a prison, and she seeks an exile from her professed identity and selfhood. Citing Sita, she achieves a precise inversion of the Sita myth. Sita constitutes, therefore, an ideal bridge figure, which condenses both the senses of pining for a lost beloved and lost time, as well as of being a sati (good wife), therefore etymologically linked to the satya (truth) that Amrita, following Gandhi, seeks. While nationalism, particularly in its Gandhian version, valorized Sita and sought to make her a cultural role model for Indian women (Jayawardena, 86-96), Amrita’s use of the Sita figure articulates simultaneously a cultural nationalist identity and its discontents.

[40]   As the alienation of the narrating persona deepens Amrita also alienates herself from her educators. There emerges in her text an “other,” manic voice which angrily disrupts and disfigures all the authorities to which she owes her subject construction. Reflecting on the mediations of Tagorean literary and aesthetic discourse, she asks:

Who fashioned our minds in this way? Who is responsible for this division of jati [race/ caste/ group]? Who else but Rabindranath Tagore? For those of us who have seen the world through his songs, there is no doubt that our universe differ from those who don’t … I lack connection with the greater world … alone, so completely alone …” (Na Hanyate, 165).

The manic voice reaches a crescendo in the following passage, where writing turns parricidal and displaces all her former authorities:

I returned home to find mother waiting for me at the door. Anger surged in me at the sight of her, this woman is the cause of all our troubles. She destroyed my life, because “he” [Amrita’s father] might be hurt! … Other people’s joys and sorrows don’t matter … despite knowing everything, this woman married me to a man without speech, fourteen years my senior … She even says, “My son-in-law is a great yogi” … he may well be a saint … but I did not want a follower of the Gita, I wanted a human being of flesh and blood, a human being (Na Hanyate, 194).

Amrita’s voice dispenses here with the niceties of feminine performance. The very sight of her mother causing her to flare up suggests, however, a moment of recognition where she perceives in her mother her own mirror as self-sacrificing womanhood; her anger therefore is also a displacement of the Gandhian figuration of Indian woman as nurturing mother and as self-effacing and martyred womanhood, which inscribes a blueprint for national identity. Apart from her parents Amrita also lashes out against her husband, whom she sees as embodying the ideal of disinterestedness in the Bhagavad Gita, due to his calm demeanor and detachment from passion. We have noted the derivation of the title and epigraph of the novel from the Gita, suggesting that theGita plays a prominent role in the novel’s conceptualization. At this point, however, Amrita’s displacement of the Gita reinforces the split evident in Na Hanyate‘s narration. By criticizing the Gita she also displaces Gandhi, whose notion of spirituality and its application to politics was founded on the ideal of disinterested duty he read into the Gita (Sharpe).

[41]   Through a displacement of the patriarchal authorities which constitute her self and define the discourses and idioms in which she speaks, Amrita’s text seeks to articulate a sense of women’s agency, albeit complex, problematic and shot through with contradictions. If we are to regard Na Hanyate as analogous to Caliban’s text, it is clear then no uniform subjectivities or teleologies of resistance may be read into it. As it stands, Caliban’s entry into language cannot promise us a complete transparency of communication nor a complete displacement of available ideologies that have made Caliban’s enunciation possible. What emerges, instead, is a multiplicity of voices, not necessarily consistent with each other, but effecting an estrangement of the signs of dominant discourse. Amrita’s rewriting of the dominant tropes of “truth” and “fidelity” suggest it is possible to reinflect and appropriate the signs of dominant discourses to assert a complex sense of agency and empowerment. Very importantly, Caliban is available here as a witness to her construction, and shows up the contingency of signs through which it is effected.


Works Cited

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