It’s tough to rate a book like this. Initially upon finishing it I rated it quite highly, but after I’ve had more time to think about the content, I felt much less compelled to do so.
Bengal Nights was written by a European man in India (Calcutta in the 1930s), so I knew I was going to be shaking my head a lot. I expected racism, exotification, cultural ignorance and superiority, paternalism and simplification of the other, and I got all those:
“Once more I saw that it was civilized people who were simple, innocent, and clear. These Indians, whom I loved so much that I wanted to become one of them, all nurtured in the recesses of their beings a whole impenetrable history and mythology. How deep, complex and unintelligible they seemed to me.”
Even so, this is an interesting book, well-written too (at least well-translated). It’s the semi-autobiographical tale about a Romanian academic, Mírcea Elíade (in this book he is French and goes by the name, Alain) who travels to India for work. He clearly has a couple of agendas. He is a man who believes he can “save” the country and change things, a man who thinks he knows more about the country because of his “superior” status as a European. He is arrogant but he believes he’s benevolent and understanding. The following passage is long but it sums up Alain (Elíade) quite well:
“I was filled with the strange sentiment that I was leading the life of a veritable pioneer, and my work on the construction of railway lines through the jungle seemed to me far more useful to India than a dozen books written about her. I was also sure that the encounter of this ancient world with our modern work had yet to find its novelist. I had discovered an India quite different to the one I had read about in sensational newspaper articles…The deeper I ventured into this wild domain, the more consuming became a hitherto unconscious notion of my superiority, the more violently assertive a pride of which I would never have believed myself capable. I was well and truly in the jungle, no longer a social being with perfect self-control.”
Alain falls in love with Bengali teenager Maitreyi Devi, daughter of his employer, and former protege of renowned poet Tagore, and they embark on an affair. The book is an interesting look into the interracial relationships that can be further complicated by race, colonial attitudes, religion, and societal expectations. There are implications for both but, as to be expected, worse and more serious ones for the woman.
Alain is torn between his life as a privileged white man in India and his intrigue for this other exotic life. Perhaps compounded by his love for Maitreyi, he puts India on a pedestal. I’ve seen this happen before, it’s not new, but it is interesting how common it is and how it manifests itself:
“I described my meeting with Harold to them frankly and confided my disgust at the life the Europeans and Anglo-Indians led in Calcutta– a life of which I had for so long been a part.”
What I’m primarily concerned about this book is ethics. The author masked his own identity in the book yet he mentioned Maitreyi’s very clearly and even used an identifier (He mentions her association with Tagore’s protegee). If he understood Indian (Bengali) Indian culture like he said he did, surely he would have known better than to write such a tale, fictionalized or not, about a person it can easily be attributed to? Additionally, the sexual relationship between Alain and Maitreya is quite explicitly stated, and this was Calcutta in the 1930s, so I can only assume that it was a more conservative time than it is now. I’m curious about what compelled Elíade to put all Maitreyi’s business out there, it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.
After I finished reading this book I googled Maitreyi’s name and learned that she had found out about this book through a friend and had flown across the world to confront Elíade. In the end, she wrote about the romance from her point of view (Maitreyi Devi- It Does Not Die: A Romance)