Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Mircea Eliade & Maitreyi Devi in 1973
 The idea for this blog came to me while browsing through the reams that were written – and the attendant zillion images clicked – during the just-ended Jaipur Festival. And no, it's got nothing to do with either Hartosh Singh Bal or his now famous face-off with William Dalrymple. While speed reading the goss that the festival threw up, I came across several pictures of the literary world’s newest IT couple – Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai. Their love story is so sizzling right now that Pamuk’s last offering, The Museum of Innocence  is already a best-seller in India, although Pamuk is a brilliant but notoriously difficult writer to love. I should know ….I read his My Name Is Red with fascination and awe but it wasn’t an easy read. But an Indian Booker-prize winning girlfriend can endear an author to our chattering classes like nothing else…he’s boyish and a Nobel laureate…she’s stunning and a Booker winner…heck they even have a house in Goa! They are, as my friend Reshmi so aptly described them, the Saifeena of the literary world. So what’s not to love?
Although strongest in India, the interest in the Orhan-Kiran love story is by no means a local obsession. The pair are trailed by paparazzi as they sizzle on the sun-kissed beaches of Goa and they get top billing at all literary events they grace. Yet, half a century ago, an equally celebrated love story fetched no eyeballs from western media. India, clearly hadn’t arrived back then and the star-crossed story of a Romanian intellectual and an Indian littérateur didn’t find too many takers. Two best-selling books and one failed film later, the Maitreyi Devi-Mircea Eliade romance has now been relegated to the scrap heap of history. No one remembers them, much less revisits one of the most touching instances of cross-cultural love. And the film, (Bengali Night) despite a very young Hugh Grant and a very nubile Supriya Pathak, generated more controversy than footfalls. It has been thankfully forgotten. If you still don’t know what I am talking about, you haven’t read Na Hanyate. Or leafed through Maitreyi/La Nuit Bengali. The first was written forty years after the second and today Chicago University Press offers the two as a ‘he said-she said’ package. Yet even a cursory read of the two – despite what’s lost in translation, from Bangla and Romanian respectively – leaves no one in any doubt whose account is of greater literary merit. Despite his erudition and fame, Eliade’s Maitreyi is nothing more than romantic rant, a semi-erotic rendition of his affair and the painful separation that followed.
Eliade & Maitreyi Devi, 1933
 Na Hanyate, on the other hand, is an elegantly-written, beautifully structured autobiographical novel. Unlike Eliade, Maitreyi Devi does not write simply to externalize her pain – for her the love and longing that lasted a lifetime was a ‘glimpse at eternity’. The book was an instant best-seller in Bangla and all the other languages it was translated to and even mainstream Bollywood borrowed copiously from it when Sanjay Leela Bhansali picked chunks of the book in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. It won an academy prize and is now considered a cult classic. Eliade’s Maitreyi too won him enormous fame as a novelist though his later works of punditry have completely eclipsed that early novel.

So what do these two literary couples – separated by nearly a century – have in common? Actually nothing. And that’s the point. Despite her renown in Bengal, Maitreyi Devi never managed to get the kind of respect that Western critics showered on Eliade. To them, she was always Eliade’s first love and the muse of his best-selling novel. Essayist Ginu Kamani chronicles some of those responses in her seminal essay A Terrible Hurt: “Many of the reviewers champion one book over the other, saying of Devi's book, for example: "one-sided," "self-absorbed," "anti-intellectual arrogance," (Carmel Berkson, "Lost Love in India", Far Eastern Economic Review, November 17, 1994); "Her angry response is naive, and rather Indian" (Ian Buruma, "Indian Love Call", New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994); "Maitreyi Devi could have done with some editorial help" (Isabel Colegate, "Love in Calcutta, His and Hers", New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1994); "a distracted meditation on emotional transcendence," "rambling and anecdotal, often slack in prose style," (Philip Herter, "Both Sides Now", St. Petersburg Times, May 8, 1994).

Kiran Desai-Orhan Pamuk, Goa, 2011
Was Eliade’s formidable reputation as a scholar responsible for a section of the western intelligentsia trashing Na Hanyate? Would Na Hanyate have got a far more unbiased review if Maitreyi Devi had written it today, in the backdrop of India’s economic prominence? Would it have managed a Booker Prize perhaps? Would Maitreyi Devi then get the treatment she truly deserved, an inte-llectual equal of her first love? In post-liberalised India, Pamuk and Desai are literary equals. Sadly, Maitreyi Devi never got that chance.