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Two Tales of Love : BENGAL NIGHTS, By Mircea Eliade , Translated from the French by Catherine Spencer ; (University of Chicago: $22.50; 176 pp.) : IT DOES NOT DIE, By Maitreyi Devi ; (University of Chicago: $22.50; 280 pp.)

March 27, 1994|RICHARD EDER

In 1930 a young Romanian came to Calcutta to live and study with a renowned Indian philosopher. He fell passionately in love with the philosopher's 16-year-old daughter, Maitreyi, herself a poet and disciple of Rabindranath Tagore. Eventually their love was discovered and the young man was thrown out of the house.

Three years later Mircea Eliade--who was to become widely known as a writer, philosopher and historian of religions--published a highly charged novel about his experience. He barely altered the external facts: The narrator, also named Mircea, is a young draftsman; his host and mentor is a senior engineer and the daughter retains her first name and her poetry. But he turned what evidently were fervent but limited caresses into a lavishly sexual affair, with Maitreyi paying nightly bedroom visits as a kind of mystically inflamed Hindu goddess of love.

Forty years after that, Maitreyi Devi, now a grandmother and known at home and abroad as a social reformer and Tagore scholar, was told the details of the book whose contents she had only been vaguely aware of. She was horrified that her adolescent love story, strung tightly between desire and inhibition, had been turned into a full-fledged sexual romance and that she was so plainly identified in it.

Besides the pain and anger, there was something else: a need to fill in a silence in her life and make a better ending to what had been so abruptly broken off. In the days after her father banned Eliade from the house and forbade him to communicate, the young man had ignored the desperate messages Maitreyi contrived to send him. Many years later, he had failed to respond to two or three brief friendly notes she wrote after meeting people who knew him. Now, in a turmoil of feelings, she resolved to seek him out. Taking advantage of a paid invitation to visit America, she tracked Eliade to the University of Chicago, where he was a professor.

The meeting between the eminent and determined Maitreyi, in her 50s, and the even more eminent and utterly panicked Mircea, in his 60s, is the extraordinary climax of the book she wrote upon her return to India. "It Does Not Die" answers a fiction with a memoir. It tells of the painful romance, of the life she lived after it and of her pilgrimage to confront the past over a book-strewn library table.

Seven years after Eliade's death and three years after Maitreyi Devi's, the University of Chicago Press has published the novel and the memoir together--something between a reunion and a duel. The former is in a fluent translation by Catherine Spencer, the latter in Devi's faintly stiff but expressive English. Each book is remarkable in its own very different way but by itself each would be something of a curiosity. Together they set off a brilliant, often astonishing detonation of the classic bipolarities: East-West, life-art, woman-man.

Eliade's brief novel blazes with what is not so much discovery as conversion. The young Central European is intoxicated with India: the light, colors, smells, rituals and passions, and the religious and philosophical sense of life that underlies them. India is his love affair--as it was the author's, whose life of reflection evolved out of the encounter--and the imperious, fragile, poetic and utterly alluring Maitreyi stands not just for a particular enchantment but for one that is universal.

Eliade was an artist as well as a thinker. His novel portrays a young man who stumbles into a magic kingdom: a household whose every detail and custom are a mystery that conceals a treasure. Its master, Narendra Sen--in real life he was the philosopher Surendranath Das Gupta--is a kind, solicitous man whose love for the West leads him to open his home to Mircea; later, with an age-old taboo violated, he will take harsh and implacable steps while avoiding personal confrontation.

Maitreyi's sensual presence strikes the young man, at first, as too much. "I thought her ugly, with eyes that were too black, thick and curling lips and the powerful chest of a Bengali maiden who had developed too quickly." Suddenly he glimpses a bare arm, "matte brown, an alloy of clay and wax" and it is as if the light had shifted to disclose a new landscape. Physically overwhelming, she is elusive, shy and bold by turns, easily brought to tears and absorbed in the poetry for which her mentor, Tagore, has praised her.

Mircea, a romantic Western male, thinks troubadour thoughts of siege and conquest. He is jealous of Tagore, so the fictional Maitreyi, half-conquered, brings him a lock of the sage's hair to destroy. Wholly conquered, she sneaks in at night for vividly depicted sexual feasts. A little sister sees them in a minor embrace, but this is enough for banishment. The book has Maitreyi brutally beaten; it has Mircea accepting the banishment and going to the Himalayas to rage and recover. The artist ends, bittersweet, the lover's story.

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