When I came back from the town, I found a note on my table: "Come to the library!" I met Maitreyi, who told me, terrified: "Khokha knows!"I tried to look undisturbed and to persuade her that it didn't mean anything. Maitreyi stared at me, clasping my hands, as if looking for support in my certitude. "We have to get engaged before we tell babà
. He is sick now, it's hard to tell him; it will upset him even more.""But haven't we been engaged for such a long time, already?" I asked in surprise. "Didn't you give me the wreath and didn't I hold you in my arms?""Now Khokha saw us," Maitreyi explained to me, looking apprehensively in all directions. "We must strengthen our union, so as not to be cursed, so as not to upset the rhythm."I experienced the same disillusion and delight that I had each and every time I deciphered in Maitreyi's love, and in her soul, the jungle of superstitions. The rhythm, the karma
, the ancestors… how many powers needed to be asked and invited in order to ensure our happiness?..."I have chosen the stone for your ring," Maitreyi told me, unfastening from the corner of her sari a green-black diamond shaped like a lizard head, crossed at the top by a blood-red eyebrow. She started explaining the ring to me. It would be crafted after the Indian marriage ceremonial – from iron and gold – into the shape of two intertwining snakes, one dark and the other yellow, the first representing virility, the other femininity. She had chosen the stone from an entire heap, gathered by ancestors and kept in Mrs. Sen's trunk. It was worthless, and nobody could have said she stole it because she took it without her mother knowing. Actually, there were many others similar to that one, there, in the jewelry box. (Why was she trying to justify and to defend herself so much? I found out later; she was afraid I might judge her in the "Christian" way, by a moral or civil criterion.) Not all engagements are hallowed like that. Usually, Maitreyi explained to me, only the wife receives a bracelet inside of which the two strings of gold and iron are intertwined; the husband only wears a ring. But since she couldn't wear the fiancé bracelet, we had to gather both symbols in one ring…She spoke a lot that evening and I listened to her, charmed; however, the little lucidity I had left rebelled against this improbable mystified ceremonial. Any tendency of symbolic enactment and externalization seemed to me as an infringement upon our love. What I most ardently cherished in our love was its spontaneity and autonomy. However, when the jeweler brought her the ring, I took it in my hands and turned it on all sides with childish joy. It was created with such craftsmanship, that it could pass as an ordinary ring, a little more original than others, it's true, but perfectly concealing its symbol. Everybody in the house regarded it this way and, if Lilu and Mantu made some remarks on a possible, or on an anticipated, marriage with an Indian girl, all of this happened in an atmosphere of jest. In fact, the engineer was still sick, his leave extended, and everybody in the house was preoccupied with taking care of him.The next day, Maitreyi pretended to be more tired than she actually was and asked to go on a ride in the car, to the Lakes, in the evening, when she knew that almost everybody was busy. Only Chabu wanted to join us, but as she hadn't been feeling very well for several days (she kept quiet all the time, without saying what was wrong with her, she was staring and singing without making any sense), Mrs. Sen didn't let her and gave us Khokha's sister as companion, a young and shy widow, who worked like a slave and had no other opportunity to travel by car. Upon leaving, I sat near the driver, and the two of them sat at the back, but as soon as we reached the Lakes, the widow stayed in the car (which we had pulled beside the alley, near a huge eucalyptus), the driver left to buy himself lemonade, and the two of us started walking along the lake shore. The lakes were what I loved most in Calcutta; precisely because they were the only artificial thing in this town arisen from the jungle. They had the aquarium stillness and, at nighttime, they seemed frozen under the maze of light bulbs. The park seemed endless, although I knew very well that it was fenced, on the one side by the railway tracks, and on the other side by the road and the suburbs. I liked wandering on the alleys and descending on the lake shore, where younger trees, planted after the public works were over, were growing freely, with perfect individuality, as if sensing the jungle that was once there and trying to recapture that lost freedom. We stopped near such a bunch of trees. They hid us perfectly from all sides. Maitreyi took out the ring from my finger and clasped it in her small fists. "Now we get engaged, Allan," she told me, looking ahead, at the water. This solemn beginning irritated me a little. I couldn't get rid of my lucidity. (And God, I loved her, I loved her so much!) It seemed as if we would witness a scene from the novels, from the ballads of an Indian Middle Ages, with legendary, demented love. I was carrying with me the dread and the superstitions of an entire literature that, if I hadn't read it, I had seen it grow near me, in my adolescence and in the first years of my youth. I was disturbed, like any other member of a civilized people (I, who thought I could dispense with civilization, uproot it from myself), by any solemn gesture, any responsible word, any pledge.Maitreyi went on though, with a simplicity that started to win me over. She spoke to the water, she spoke to the sky and stars, to the forest, to the earth. She leant her fists against the grass, with the ring inside, and swore:"I pledge to you, earth, that I will be Allan's and nobody else's. I will grow from him like grass from you. And as you wait for the rain, so will I wait for his coming, and what the sunrays are to you, his body will be to me. I swear to you that our union will bear fruit, for he is dear to me, with your blessing, and let all evil, if it should come, fall not upon him but upon me, for I have chosen him. You can hear me, mother earth, you will not lie to me, mother. If you feel me close to you, as I feel you now, both with my hand and with my ring, give me strength to love him forever, to bring him unimaginable joy, a life of fulfillment and playfulness. Let our life be like the bliss of the herbs that grow from you. Let our embrace be like the first day of monsoon. Our kiss – let it be rain. And as you never get tired, mother, so make my heart never get tired of my love for Allan, whom the sky bore far away, and you, mother, brought close to me."I was listening to her more and more fascinated, until I could no longer make out her words. She spoke a child's Bengalese, simplified, almost enciphered. I heard the words, I inferred a word now and then, but I couldn't grasp the gist of that incantation. So bewitched and aloof she seemed that, when she was silent, I was almost afraid to touch her. She was the one to speak first. (I had remained with a hand on my knees and the other pressing the earth, as if I had made a pledge, too, through some magic of the gesture.)"Nothing can separate us now, Allan. Now I'm yours, completely yours…"I caressed her, looking for words that I hadn't told her before, but I hadn't found anything original, anything to match, more or less, my inner fever and her transfiguration. (She had long stopped being Maitreyi from the car; she had a strange facial intentness which haunted me long time afterwards.) "One day, you'll make me your wife and show me the world, won't you?" She said this in English and she felt it vulgar."I am speaking very poor English, am I not, Allan? Who knows what you might have thought of me, when you heard me… but I would like to see the world with you, to see it as you see it. It's beautiful and large, isn't it? Why are people fighting around us? I would like everybody to be happy. No, I wouldn't, I'm talking nonsense. How glad I am that it's like this, how glad I am…"She started laughing. I found myself with Maitreyi from winter, with that innocent timid girl, talking at intervals and paradoxically. It was as if her entire experience, which had matured her, made her more stable, brought her close to womanhood, had vanished. I understood during the days that followed that the engagement gave her back the peacefulness, and the passion for playfulness, for liberated joy. The moment she confessed our union, she no longer was afraid, the obsession of the sin no longer tortured her. I found in her the same puzzling Maitreyi, whom I first regarded with amazement and admiration, and who imperceptibly wound her way into my heart, during the game, through those traps of a complete intellectual triteness, which I thought I was laying for her.We had to make for the car, as it was already dark. That was the only time when I did not hug Maitreyi. We found our companion dozing at the back of the car, her shawl pulled over the head, and she looked at us with an accomplice's joy when she saw us coming, one next to the other; I was taller than Maitreyi, but she was younger and incredibly beautiful, with a facial expression paying attention to everything around, with the joy of recaptured love visible on her countenance. (I found out later, from Maitreyi, that Khokha's sister was the first who knew of our love, and had concealed it as much as possible; that she – who had suffered so much because of an unsuitable marriage, having been married, when she was 12, to a man that she had never seen before and of whom she was afraid because he had raped her and would beat her every night, before and after sex – had always advised Maitreyi not to let herself be intimidated by the caste rules and by the family rigor, but to take action, and in case of obstinate opposition, to elope with me. I hardly ever saw this friend of mine and Maitreyi's companion – the only one who comforted her in her days of accursed misery – I talked to her only casually, and I never knew her name. I re-read my diary many times to find it; I didn't, because I hadn't put it down. Yet, this woman was the only one who loved the two of us, sympathetically and selflessly, in Sens's house.)That very night, Chabu got worse and had to sleep in Mrs. Sen's room. Nobody knew what she might have had, but the symptoms were worrying, as Chabu wanted to lean out of the window or of the balcony, and always thought she saw something down in the street, that was calling for her.I went to sleep, feeling a little tired from the incidents during the day and had probably started to dream about something strange, with walks on water, swans and glow-worms, for I woke up a little baffled upon hearing knocks on the door. I asked who it was, but nobody answered. I was a bit scared, I confess, so I switched on the lamp. The ventilator ran with that noise of which you become aware only after you switch it off. I opened the door and I was stunned. Maitreyi had come, shaking in every limb, barefoot, so as not to make a noise, in her thin greenish sari. I didn't know what to do."Switch off the light," she whispered, coming into my room and quickly sneaking behind the straw armchair, so as not to be seen accidentally from the street. I switched off the light and drew near her, asking her stupidly:"What's wrong with you? Why have you come, Maitreyi? What happened to you, Maitreyi?"She didn't say anything, she just untied the end of her sari and remained naked up to the waist, with several gestures which she performed with her eyes closed, keeping her lips tight and hardly stifling a sigh. The sight of her naked body, in that very pale light from the room, hit me like a miracle that I could never have pictured in all its precise carnal details. For, if I often thought of the first night we would spend together, and if I fervently imagined the bed in which I would know her, I could never have imagined Maitreyi's adolescent body unveiling itself of its own accord and eagerly, at night, in front of me. I could not imagine this, although I would sometimes dream of a very rapid union in bizarre circumstances. It struck me, at this gesture, its very simplicity and naturalness; the virgin who comes alone in the fiancé's room, because nothing can separate them now. Slowly, I took her in my arms, hesitating at first to draw her too close to me, naked as she was, but meeting her hips, still covered by the sari, I let my hands down her arched back in one caress, and I uncovered her up to the thighs, trembling all over before this sacrilege, and kneeling in front of this naked body which, for me, went beyond any beauty and took part in the miracle, at that very moment. She folded her arms across my shoulders, begging me to stand up, speechless (for she was trembling like a leaf, and the immense joy she had brought into my room could not drive out, though, the dread of that moment). She drew near the bed with small soft steps and the entire body acquired a different rhythm in that forward movement. I wanted to carry her in my arms, but she refused and lay on the bed alone, kissing my pillow. Only for a moment, I saw her lying on the white bed sheet like a live bronze statue, throbbing, breathing and calling me. The next moment I shut the windows with the wooden shutters, and our room melted in the dark. I felt her close to me, nestling up, as if trying to hide, to sink into self-oblivion. That wasn't bodily craving, it was a craving for me completely; she would have wanted to flow into me wholly, just as her soul had flown into me. I can't remember anything afterwards; for, I knew her without realizing it, without memory. A few hours later, when dawn came, she got up and put on her sari without looking at me. She only told me this, when I opened the door for her (with how many precautions, with how many heartthrobs!):"Our union was pronounced by the sky. Don't you see that today, on the ring's day, Chabu didn't sleep with me?"I tried to listen to her climbing the stairs up to her room, but I didn't hear anything, so softly was she gliding along the wall. Victims of man's omnipresent fear of marriage, the women that populate the prose of Mircea Eliade
(1907-1986) may sometimes become an object of sexual desire, promptly repudiated by male egocentrism, as in the exotic Maitreyi
(1933), a result of Eliade's Indian experience, where cultural difference acts as a catalyst of sensuality, or a vampire-ghost in a story that violates strong, primeval sexual taboos (Miss Christina
, 1936). Referring to Na Hanyate
(Calcutta, 1974), a Bengali novel by Maitreyi Devi, the prototype for Eliade's novel, Sriparna Basu wrote that the two novels pose "fascinating questions not only of intertextuality and of literary mediations of 'real' characters or events, but also of the erotics of the East / West encounter and of the Indian woman writing back from within a script of cultural nationalism to her representation in an exoticizing fiction."
by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)