It is late at night in a train station in the Uttar Pradesh province in Northern India. Four men of various ages are sharing the waiting room when a young couple walks in, then walks out. The sight of them creates a shockwave within the previously silent and shuffling group, launching them into a round of reminiscences about their first experiences of love in the 1920’s India of their youths. Each story examines a turning point in the teller’s life, a point where he saw something that in some way defined love to him, and has haunted him ever since. Each man (they are described by their professions: a contractor, a bureaucrat, a doctor, and a writer), in some way, loses something in the story--whether it is the love itself, or an idea about what love could be.
Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974) was a renowned poet and writer in India, and a central figure in the movement towards modernism in Bengali literature. Though he is widely known in India for his prolific writings and as a translator of popular Western poets like Baudelaire and Rilke, only a small portion of his work has been translated into English. My Kind of Girl is a novella that was originally published in the early 50’s as Moner Moto Meye. It shares some common DNA with Bocaccio’s Decameron, as well as the sophisticated yet simple storytelling of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. This edition, published by Archipelago Books, is translated by Arunava Sinha.
First we hear the story of simple Makhanlal, a wealthy furniture store owner, who falls in love with Malati, his intellectual neighbor who spurns his advances. Gagan Bharan, the ambitious bureaucrat, then tells about how he was never able to tell his childhood love how he felt. Dr. Abani’s tale is of falling in love with a woman who became sick after being rejected by his handsome best friend--and subsequently marrying her. It ends with the writer (who remains unnamed), who tells the story of Mona Lisa, a wealthy girl he wrote poetry for while he loved her from afar, and her tragic fate.
Before they start sharing their stories, the contractor wonders to the others, “What’s the value of memory?” The bureaucrat responds “None!” Representative as this is of the characters, we also wonder what we are supposed to make of it, as this is a novel whose structure is centered on remembrance. Throughout the stories there is a recurring thread about the changing roles in modern Indian courtship, as the country strains against its archaic social codes. We see the confusion this has created for the men, as they see the rules of caste and marriage change, and the increasing opportunities for women outside of family and marriage. Each woman, in some way, struggles with the gifts modernity has brought her amid the old-fashioned expectations of those around her. Listening to her rail against a man her family wants her to marry, Dr. Abani tells his love, Bina, “This freedom for women is a very good thing.” We wonder, though, just how much freedom she actually has.
Bose has a more complex understanding of these women than their potential suitors did, and he treats them with a delicate respect--always painting the men’s own confusion as the reason for their lack of success, instead of the women’s own desires and ambitions (a target that would have been too easy to hit at the time). He shines a light on the type of romantic regret one feels as they get older, even when they still don’t understand what went wrong.
My Kind of Girl is sweet, if not a little slight--though we see a full story in each chapter, they can feel obscured by the biases of their narrators. Which is his point, of course. No matter how sensitive these male hearts are, none of them is satisfied with the end of their story. If they were able to fully understand what went wrong and how to change it, then they would not be stuck in this train station. They would have gone down a different path, would be leading different lives. Each is blind to his own flaws in some way, and thus they are the stories that travelers tell one another--they lack the emotional acuity and insight of a close friend or confessor, but they contain the candor of telling secrets to a person you know you’ll never see again. Each is wrapped up quickly, with a minimum of Big Questions asked. And in this the book is oddly comforting. You can let it wash over you and absorb it, without asking any of those questions yourself. Observe their observations. Then create some of your own.
Buddhadeva Bose (1908–74) was a central figure in the Bengali modernist movement. Bose wrote numerous novels, short story collections, plays, essays, and volumes of poetry. He was also the acclaimed translator of Baudelaire, Hölderin, and Rilke into Bengali. Bose was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1970.
Frederica Bepler is a writer and editor in New York City. She graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from Oberlin College.