Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maitreyi Devi : It Does Not Die

A wonder full book.

No -- it's more like a raga -- i.e. it builds slowly (and perhaps a bit tediously) over the 137 pages of its first chapter -- to the thrilling, climactic 9 pages of the last.

And its special joy is honesty -- because who would ever admit to having been so prissy and pretentious as a precocious little teenage girl, growing up in a high-powered intellectual home in Calcutta.

The set-up is so simple: the professor's daughter falls in love with his brilliant foreign house-guest/student. Upon discovery, the student is sent packing, and a few years later, he writes a novel based on the experience. The book seems to be autobiographical (it gives the real name of his girl friend) - but it also fantasizes a sexual relationship between them. And since the book becomes a best seller, it will haunt/disturb/embarrass the girl for the rest of her life.

I.e. --- "It does not Die" -- especially because the author has a crystal clear memory that transports her back 40 years and makes the past present. (sometimes, my memory can do the same thing -- and it's quite a thrill - although her memory seems to be sharper)

And it also "does not die" because, as the Bhagavad Gita tells us, "Unborn, eternal, everlasting, premeval, it does not die when the body dies".

I.e. -- the author is making a spiritual journey -- becoming aware of her soul, as she realizes that she has a soul mate.

BTW - Maitreyi's world is rather special. Her father was a distinguished Sanskrit scholar - and her family were Brahmos -- a Bengali Hindu version of a Reformed Jew or a Unitarian Christian -- as they attempt to preserve the spiritual and ethical components of their religious tradition, while throwing out the old fashioned customs, prejudices, idolatries, etc. So they're very liberal -- but they're still quite upper-upper class -- and just a bit snobbish.

Meanwhile, her personal guru is the 20th C. poet-saint of Bengali: Rabindranath Tagore. Their connection is very close -- the great poet visits the author's remote estate many times, becoming the subject for another one of her books. ("Tagore Memoir")

And her novelist soul mate is rather special also -- he's Mircea Eliade, a renowned scholar of comparative religion (with possibly the longest Wikipedia entry ever written)

Living in such an intellectual world, Maitreyi has some rather sharp words for both of the religious scholars in her life, her father and Mircea - i.e. she thinks they've missed the point of it all -- and she shares a neat symmetry with her father, who also found a soul mate (a student assistant) who was not his spouse (Maitreyi's long suffering mother)

Yes, this story was a very nice trip -- and yet another nice contrast to the stories about living in China during the same time period. How nice to be living a world that is peaceful enough to pursue spiritual growth instead of just personal survival.

My favorite lines ? They would have to come from the climactic ending -- when, after 255 pages of painful reminiscence, the author finally confronts the man who wrote that he had ravished her 40 years earlier. At first, he turns to the wall (of his office at the University of Chicago) and refuses to face her. (how can Dante ever actually meet his beloved Beatrice?) Then.. finally..when does turn to face her: "His eyes were glazed. Oh no, my worst fears are true - his eyes have turned into stone"