Four men, complete strangers to each other, were stranded on a night train. They met a young couple ("clearly newlyweds") who appeared very much in love. This sight of the couple triggered memories for each of them. They began reflecting about love. They decided to pass the time sharing stories with each other. Each of the four stories that followed was rendered in very simple yet beautiful prose. They were all simple tales but together they form a subtle whole.
Romantic love is the subject of My Kind of Girl (1951, English 2010) by Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974), a prolific Bengali writer. Though primarily known as a poet, Bose wrote in various genres, including novel, short fiction, drama, and essay. He was often considered in the same breath as the Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.
The novel is a slim one, 138 pages, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, who is said to be presently at work on Bose's magnum opus Tithidore (1949), a family saga. Bose himself was an accomplished translator of European poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Charles Baudelaire.
Anyway, romantic love. If being in love is a natural subject for poets, then Bose was one of its purest practitioners. He explored the theme in a very likeable way, even if the stories did not have fairy tale-like endings. There are no special pyrotechnics in his writing, but sometimes the sentences will stop one in his tracks –
In the ashen first light of dawn we saw his lips move. We were so still as we watched, and it was so silent all around, that we seemed to see his words, not hear them.
There's something oddly fantastic about that seeming ability to see words in complete silence. There it was. Utterly compelling.
The descriptions of characters can be cartoonish but the unusual circumstances they found themselves in allowed them to easily surpass their cartoonish-ness. There's a sense of humor, hesitant, poker-faced. Here is a striking passage, a handsome parody of Austen's "truth universally acknowledged":
... Theirs was an affluent household, and a bride would only make their cup of joy brim over. And the boy wasn't one of those typical, bespectacled midgets – just see how handsome he was.
Yes, he was indeed handsome – there was no denying this. I know – knew – Makhanlal very well; at twenty-one he was a burly, powerful giant who looked thirty-two. Large and ungainly, he had prominent teeth, a manly, hair-covered chest, enormous shoes that caused great consternation when they were sighted lying around. Seeing as he could easily pass for a father of three, it didn't seem suitable for him not to be married.
The stories may be sharing the same topic and setting, yet their diverse viewpoints formed individual portraits of the social and cultural contexts of India in the early period of 20th century. The stories formed a whole because they seemed to spring from the same source of feeling. Being in love was mixed in different states of being: disillusion, loss of idealism, pride, kindness, compassion. The simple telling was an assurance that the novel was devoid of mawkish chick-litry.
The stories build on each other. They enlarge. Like love, they can be beautiful and in that sense, inspiring and life-affirming. Also, they can be cruel and heartbreaking and yet still enlarge the heart, by a few millimeters at least.
"The more I heard about love, the more I wanted it," a dejected character cried out at one point in the story he was telling. For love can be addictive. The four voices in My Kind of Girl, spun in a kind of addictive prose, somehow tells of it.
The novel reminded me of another book set in the region. Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra is also structured as a book of independent love stories, seemingly linked by the writer's fine sensibility and poetry. It also reminded me of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. For the characters are in search of a suitable boy or girl to spend the rest of their lives with. Marriage and matchmaking were the book's provinces.
The two wonderful books by the two Vikrams can be traced to the same (romantic) tradition as Bose's. It was a tradition that was not blind to historical and cultural shifts in Indian society – to a time when attitudes by, and toward, women were starting to change. These attitudes are increasing liberality and independence. The passing references to them in Bose's stories are constructing a map and milieu of this new understanding.
The book brings in a flux of strong feelings, some empathy, personal and social revolutions. Possibly more. Acquaintanceship with an excellent writer.
I read an advanced reading copy of this book which I received through BookMooch.