Thursday, June 19, 2008

Na Hanyate (Part I)

The other day I had to go to Dehra Doon on Foreign Registration Office matters, and in the course of the visit there, I happened to pick up a copy of the novel Na Hanyate by Maitreyi Devi. I bought the book entirely without realizing what it was about. I had never read anything by Maitreyi before, even though she is a well-known writer in Bengal. Seeing how many of her books were available in Hindi translation made me aware of her pan-Indian reputation and so I became interested.

The title caught my eye, since I also tend to like books that make some reference to Hindu shastras. It is interesting to get the insight that comes from modern novelists commenting in this way on such texts. And, indeed, I have not been disappointed. This blog was started on the date given below, and it has taken my more than a month (July 27, 2008) to assemble my thoughts and finally post it in two parts.

The first thing that happened when I actually started reading the book was I felt a slight shock of discovery, as though an important historical document had been placed in my hand, discovered entirely by accident, for this is the very Maitreyi made famous in some Western circles on account of her brief relation with Mircea Eliade, and this is her account of that encounter and its lasting repercussions in her life. I should say that I have been interested in this story of Maitreyi and Mircea Eliade for a long time, from a distance, without really caring about it sufficiently to track down either her book, which is available in English translation as It Never Dies, or Eliade's personal account of the story, written in 1933, called Bengali Nights.

Somewhat ironically, Eliade and Maitreyi each became famous in their own circles, while remaining pretty much unknown in each other's. Eliade was an influential and popular scholar of religion, and his students at Chicago, including I believe Wendy Doniger (who told me that she learned Romanian just to read this book in the original), pushed for the companion volumes to be published, perhaps as argument and rebuttal, for certainly Maitreyi was in part inspired to write her book as a rebuttal to his, some 40 years later (See A Terrible Hurt).

The plot

The core of the story is that in 1929, the 23-year-old Mircea Eliade came to Calcutta to study with Surendranath Dasgupta, a celebrated scholar of Indian philosophy. At some point, he came to stay in Dasgupta's house. Maitreyi was 16 at the time, something of a brilliant jewel in her own right, being treated by her father, who had given her uniquely intense educational opportunities, as a literary and intellectual prodigy. She came into close contact with Mircea, working with him on cataloguing her father's library, teaching him Bengali while learning French from him.

Charmed by his east-European manners and other qualities, she fell in love with him, and he with her. They were able to associate with a freedom that only a brother and sister could know in India, but their feelings soon became something of an open secret, with everyone except her parents being aware that the lightning of sexual tension was setting off alarm signals past the danger level. Finally, Maitreyi’s jealous little sister cleverly entrapped the two lovers and brought everything out into the open. Eliade was thrown out of the house the next day, piercing his bubble of belief that he could have been accepted as a legitimate suitor for marriage with Maitreyi. Dasgupta may have been educated and progressive, but he was still marching in lockstep with class, culture and society and their expectations. The rapidity of his response revealed the shallowness of the veneer. Again that cursed izzat that makes the woman a prisoner of the men’s sense of honor. A woman may never be free because a man’s shame or pride resides in his ability to control her. Stand tall, hold your women prisoner.

Eliade leaves Dasgupta’s and takes “sannyas,” parting for Rishikesh, where he spends a year in a cave up near Sivananda Swami’s ashram. [The caves, which Maitreyi does coincidentally visit a year or two after Eliade has left, do not seem to exist any longer. As an aside, it would appear that she met Swami Rama’s guru, a former high court judge from Bengal, and in a moving scene emotionally tried to get him to break his vow of silence -- failing -- and tell him whether he could give her any information about the white man who had been staying there.]

Eliade then returns to Romania where his book, Bengali Nights, appears two years later (1933), and tells the story of his adventures, including his love and loss, in novel form. Naturally, Dasgupta is the villain and his Hindu caste mentality is given all the blame. In the book, however, it seems that Eliade embellished a little the extent of his intimacy with Maitreyi, whether for literary effect or for reasons of personal pride. But the novel proves tremendously successful in his homeland, going through numerous printings. And when he became famous as a scholar of religion, it was translated into other languages, beginning with French, and even made into a movie in 1988, starring Hugh Grant and Shabana Azmi.

Maitreyi’s memoir begins in 1972, 42 years after their love affair had been nipped in the bud when she has a visit from a Romanian student of Eliade’s, someone who has read his novel, who was so moved by it that he felt he had to meet her. The main effect of the visit is that it plunges her into an almost paralytic state of deep meditation on the past. It is so real that she can see and feel the things as though the events of the past were happening right there and then. This book gives an account of the events of 1929, Maitreyi’s reflections on them, the subsequent repercussions taking place in 1972 and concludes with a meeting in Chicago with Eliade himself.

The title

Maitreyi chooses a significant title, taken from the famous Gita verse--

na jāyate mriyate vā kadācin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śāśvato'yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre

The soul is never born, nor does it ever die. Once being, it will never cease to be. It is unborn, eternal, permanent and ancient. It is not killed when the body is killed.
It is, I think, worth quibbling for a moment with the translation of the title, for though it seems that Maitreyi first takes up the writing of this book because she is concerned about her reputation and what Eliade's false ("pornographic") description in his novel of their having consummated their relationship will do to it.

But though she is scandalized by this misrepresentation, the overriding mood of the book is the experience of love's mystery. She is affected by an almost complete paralysis that overcomes her when the memory of her teenage love for Eliade floods into her consciousness. She is overwhelmed by an awareness of the undying and eternal aspect of that love. As her narrative progresses, she becomes more and more reflective about this and comes to think of it as something of a religious experience and the proof of an existence beyond the body.

As such, it would appear that "it is not killed," the more literal translation of na hanyate, is also more appropriate than "it does not die."

Maitreyi and Rabindranath Tagore

At the age of 16, Maitreyi was an extraordinarily gifted person coming into her own in a hectic year. Her father was a world-renowned intellectual. She belonged to the Calcutta elite and had free access to, most importantly, Rabindranath Tagore, who was the leader of this culturally influential group. Her father made her read her poems to Rabindranath and he was so impressed that he wrote an introduction when she published her first book--at the same time that all this was going on.

She had herself memorized all of Rabindranath’s poems; in fact it would not be too much to say that she had saturated her consciousness in his romantic linguistic universe, which she may not always have fully understood, but which transported her nevertheless. These form a kind of sound track to the story, as well as an important counterpoint, the words she already knew revealing their meaning to her when events overtook her.

One of the things that Eliade apparently insinuated in his book was that Maitreyi really was “in love” with Tagore. Not having read Eliade, I would not be able to comment, except to say that she had extraordinary devotion for Tagore, whom she considered her guru, though she falls a little short of proffering him the kind of traditional kind of faith given to a religious guru. He is “kavi,” before being guru, if the two can be distinguished.

She cites a poem that her father liked and had her read to Tagore, which she says was a reflection of an experience she had when she was 11 and sitting near a river, when she suddenly had a kind of mystic experience of timelessness. The poem was really a kind of reflection on the Gita verse about the nitya-dhāma

na tad bhāsayate sūryo na śaśāṅko na pāvakaḥ
yad gatvā na nivartante tad dhāma paramaṁ mama

Near the end of the book, she returns to this poem, as though that insight she had had as a child had come back and been confirmed by her experience. But this experience of timelessness, or what she calls mahā-kāla, or mahā-jagat, where the past, present and future are all confounded, where the subjective overwhelms the objective, is where nostalgia, or rasa, is king.

In this respect, Vaishnava padāvali is not altogether absent, though far less present than Rabi Thakur. At one point I was pleased to see her quote Kavi Vallabha (cited on these pages before):

janama avadhi hāma, rūpa nehāralun
nayana nā tirapita bhela
lākha lākha yuga, hiye hiye rākhalun
taba hiye juḍana nā bhela

Throughout my life I have been able to see his beauty, but my eyes have never been satisfied. I could hold him in my heart for countless eons, and still my heart would never get enough of him.
Vaishnava padāvali tends to be more concrete, Rabindranath more etherially romantic and nature-oriented in the 19th century mystical spirit of Whitman and Wordsworth. Nevertheless, Maitreyi says in one place that where Rabindranath was writing about God, she would take it in a humanist, or even completely materialistic, manner. In the book, it makes an interesting kind of contrast, and perhaps it could be said that in the long run, her resistance to Tagore’s poetic transcendentalism is overcome.

But I was particularly interested in Tagore’s concept of love. In Gora, the two heroines are both in a somewhat modern position vis-à-vis the traditional marriage system, and one naturally roots for them, that they will be joined with the men they deserve and not be left to the vagaries of dubious interested parties, for whom materialistic motivations stand above true love and spirituality, which are intertwined. [At one point while reading, I wondered whether the heroines of Tagore’s Gora had served as an inspiration for Dasgupta’s raising of his daughter. The book would have come out at about the time that she was born.] At any rate, she may have thought that she, like them, had the right to choose her husband—even though she never doubted for a minute that it would not be allowed, even when Mircea seemed to think that it would be easily accepted by her father.

Women and Changing Times

Throughout the narrative, Maitreyi is always comparing the past to the present in terms of morals and behavior. She mixes her own story with anecdotes of other women's lives and experiences of love: one who was married at ten and then rejected by her husband because she was too young to have sex; another who was married to someone against her will and then braved public opprobrium by running off with another man. And the talk that followed.

But the most important example she gives is that of her own mother, who loved Vaishnava literature and often quoted that Chaitanya Charitamrita verse, "Kama is for the pleasure of one's own senses. When it is for the pleasure of another's senses, it is called love." Maitreyi even gives the example of the selflessness of a tree as expressed in a poem by Rabindranath, and how it fit her mother and her selfess service to her husband, who treated her with that familiar mix of entitlement and condescension endemic to patriarchy. In the first throes of love for Mircea and contemplating the destiny of marriage to an unknown man who would be chose for her, Maitreyi bursts into tears when she thinks that this may have to be her lot also. Anything but that! She wanted to be her own woman and make her own choices.

There are signs of hope. On one occasion there is talk of revolution. There is a bit of a student demonstration against British rule at Presidency College, where her father was teaching. A student is shot by the police and the others surround the school and ask for the blood of the principal, an Englishman, in exchange for the student's life. Surendranath Dasgupta intervenes and talks to the students and gets them to agree to let the principal go for an apology. When he hears about this, Mircea decides to go out in the town, looking for the "revolution," because he is afraid that when he goes home, people will ask him what he was doing when the revolution took place in India.

When Mircea finally gets back to the house, Dasgupta says, "It is not just by guns and fire that revolutions take place. There is a revolution going on right here in this house." And then he especially talks about women's issues and how Maitreyi is doing things like public speaking, etc., that women would never have been allowed to do even a generation before.

The irony, of course, is not only that Dasgupta reached the limits of his progressive liberalism where his daughter was concerned, but that a few years later, he more or less abandoned his wife for a mistress.

Needless to say, for all her admiration of her father’s qualities and achievements, Maitreyi was quite ambivalent about him on a personal level. She sees even his commitment to her education as an extension of his own ego, and in this light he could not permit her stepping out of the script he had written for her as a part of his story.

Was Maitreyi’s life ruined?

After Maitreyi’s adventure with Mircea comes to its abrupt end, Maitreyi goes through a period of depression. She finishes her high school exams, but her only thought is of how to leave the house as soon as possible. Her only escape seems to be marriage, and she takes it.

When she is first possessed by the return of the repressed love, Maitreyi is still reluctant to admit that she had missed something or that anything had been lost. Sergei said to her, assuming much, "Because of this [i.e., the loss of this love] your life was ruined." "How dare you say my life was ruined? I have had a good life, good husband, children, etc." "Well, let's just say it would have been different." "Yes, that much we can say."

Maitreyi’s relationship with her husband is a good one, without incident. But at the beginning of that married life she spent twenty years in quasi-exile in the Darjeeling Hills where her husband was a forestry officer. Her talents were put out to fallow for all that time. The couple's married life was a peaceful one, but there it never had the romantic magic of her relationship with Mircea. As a matter of fact, she talks about how, in the isolation of the foothills, she came into a kind of obsessive housewife behavior that overcame her, constantly cleaning the house, arranging the knicknacks, keeping it sparkling, gardening... She was like a 1950's American housewife before Betty Friedan.

Her insights into this come in a discussion about jati for a couple of pages. Usually jati means caste or "endogamous grouping" or something like that. It is the basis of the Indian arranged marriage system, at least as it was. Nowadays, you see many ads with “caste no consideration” written on them. But even one generation ago, people would only marry someone from their own jati. But here Maitreyi is talking about something more subtle, "one's own kind." The comfort of the marriage came from that, despite the fact that she and her husband really had nothing in common. From the very beginning of their marriage they would barely talk.

Each did their own thing. There was comfort in their relationship, a certain amount of personal freedom. She never talks about the sexual aspect of that life, but one has to wonder: if they did not talk, then what was that part of conjugal living like? How far is it possible to have sexual fulfilment without the kind of intimacy that comes of intellectual closeness? She, who lived in a poetic world of images, and he who was kind of a easy-going scientist type, living their separate, closed, prescribed woman/man lives.

For Maitreyi, one redeeming feature of their stay in the Darjeeling Hills was that Rabi Thakur came to stay with them for extended periods several times in the last years before he died (1943).

So she said to Sergei, "I have led a full life." And there was no shortage of truth to this. Her talents and upbringing made of her an exceptional person, which led to authorship and social service. Had she gone with Mircea she would perhaps never have done those things, so we have to give some credit to Fate, which had another purpose to carry out. And who could predict what misfortunes or changes of direction a Mircea-Maitreyi relation might have taken — even when one message in this whole story seems to be that exceptional persons like these two cannot be held down or back by any misfortune.

Nevertheless, as one reads Maitreyi's account of the power of this love to haunt her through her life -- how every time she puts thoughts of Mircea aside and becomes absorbed in her everyday life -- family, social work, writing, etc. -- the moment something stirs up those memories, she finds herself calling his name and suffering again from the hurt of her loss and separation. Indeed, one gets the impression that we are being given a modern example of the classic svakiya/parakiya division of love, for when we look at things from the classical Vaishnava perspective, Maitreyi's adolescent experience of love leads her to the threshold of the mystical devotional experience. Her insights are great, and even useful to us as students of this mystery of divine prema, even if we consider it to be only a threshold.

Part 2.


Speechless said...

"It is, I think, worth quibbling for a moment with the translation of the title, for though it seems that Maitreyi first takes up the writing of this book because she is concerned about her reputation and what Eliade's false ("pornographic") description in his novel of their having consummated their relationship will do to it."

Typical uptight Indian.

She had a romance with the guy starting at age 16 in 1929 and
43 years later in 1972 at the age of 59 she is still so hung up on her "reputation" that she is writing a book to save her "honor"?!?! What the....?!

Get over it, lady. So you two had sex. Next? Move on.

Prem Sharaabi said...

Come to think of it - this sense of shame and desire to assert her will in protecting her reputation via writing a disclosure in order to obscure the sexual nature of their relationship is indicative of Maitreyi's failure as a true-blue premikaa. Indeed, for the real lovers, the shame lies not in loving, but in NOT loving.

A soul which is not clothed with the inner garment of love should be ashamed of it's existence.

Be drunk with love, for love is all that exists.

Where is intimacy found - if not in the give and take of love?

If they ask what love is, say: THE SACRIFICE OF WILL.

If you have not left your will behind, you have no will at all.
(and thus, with what are you loving?)


So there you have it, from the Sufi poetry of the Persian Empire, to Indo-Pak's much loved Urdu ghazals, to Bengali Vaishnava padavali, to the Bhagavat itself - the true premiks, the real rasiks, don't give a damn about their reputation in society. Lajja, pratistha, gotra, kula dharma, stri dharma, sanskriti - all are thrown to the wind. Sacrifice of the will to the will of the Beloved and to the direction of LOVE itself!

Regarding aropa, or even ahangropsana;

When my Beloved appears, with what eye do I see him?

With His eye, not with mine. For none sees Him except Himself.

My heart is capable of every form;
A cloister for the monk,
a temple for the idol,
a pasture for gazelles,
a votary's Kaaba,
a table for the Thora,
a cloth for the Quran.

Love is the creed I hold.

Wherever turn His camel, love is still my religion.

-Ibn Arabi


Jagat said...

It's a bit late, but those are good comments. Thank you.

Sampurna said...

Interesting post. Waiting for you to cotinue.

I read this book when I was maybe eighteen or nineteen, and I loved it. Although, even at that age, it did not escape me that despite her education, the only comfort she was allowed in life (and in many ways, she voluntarily conformed to) was the life of a housewife.