Sunday, 1 June 2008
Who was Maitreyi Devi?
Today I am curious about something I read about a long ago but forgot, Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade's (1907-1986) book Bengali Nights (1994) that was published in English only after her beloved Maitreyi Devi's (1914-1990) death.
Maitreyi was Tagore's discipline in Kolkata, who got involved with the Western scholar, and also herself a promising intellectual, poet and social activist. Eliade came to study with Maitreyi's father in Kolkata in 1930, and because of the tremendous trust the father had on her genius daughter, 16 at the time, he let her study together with the 23-year old university man from Europe.
Maitreyi and Mircea's knowing was not long and apparently did not proceed to sexual intimacy, yet Mircea took the liberty to write about the sexual fantasies Maitreyi's presence caused in him. He had published some of it in French, and Maitreyi only found out about this at the mature age of 57. She was then married and a woman of prominence. I read that she even took the trouble of travelling to the US to meet Eliade to discuss the feelings she had when finding out about the revelations in French. Eliade had then promised he will not publish any more on the topic during Maitreyi's lifetime.
In 1974, Maitreyi published her own version of the affair in Bengali, Na Hanyate (title refers to the soul that cannot be killed). She translated it in English too under the name It Does Not Die. What I gather from the reviews, it seems a more sober and analytical account of the love affair, full of analyses of Bengali society, family relations and the position of educated women.
All this tells something also about anthropology: Western anthropologists have often used their personal habitus to charm their informants, and proceeded to the level of intimacy that allows deeper knowledge to be gained. I do not doubt that Mircea Eliade's enchantment with brilliant and beautiful Maitreyi was not real, but what he did with their relationship after leaving India sounds like colonialist robbery. Ginu Kamani writes about the "terrible hurt" Maitreyi faced, but it is also a tale about talking back and responding in ways that may be quite unusual for an Indian woman to use.
There is no way of denying Maitreyi's full subjectivity in this decades-long saga. She became a Tagore scholar herself and travelled to the University of Chicago, where Eliade worked at the time to give a lecture. She had appeared at his office unannounced and found blankness in his eyes where love had once been. Her husband had encouraged her to do this. In many ways, she seems like a woman who was in control of her life, and was not afraid to face possible emotional turbulence. In the 2000s globalizing world led by American ways of conflict resolution, the only imaginable solution I can think of is an expensive trial. All prominent Finnish celebrities and especially wannabe ones love doing it too, so why not Indians?
Love doesn't have "informants", but anthropology always does. Good fiction doesn't have "informants" either. The possibility of someone becoming hurt should always be eliminated, it's one of the basic tasks of the writer. This is a very curious case, when looking at the book covers I am surprised by the similar layouts. Wonder if this love anyhow has the power to survive somewhere in the sphere of immortal souls? After all the dramaturgy and literary gossip, this is still an enchanting tale about transnationalism.