One of the best things I did last January was subscribe to Archipelago Books. I have been the happy recipient of one of their beautifully produced new books nearly every month. I had heard of none of the books before receiving it, and each made me giddy at the prospect of reading it. The shame is that in the year I have only read and reviewed one of the titles, Elias Khoury’s White Masks. I can explain. Each book I’ve received from them has looked like a treat. And, as I like to do with treats, I’ve been putting them off, saving them for a later date, prolonging the joy of anticipation. That can’t work forever, obviously, but I have some good news: it worked for me with Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Meye, 1951; tr. from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). This book is, in its charming simplicity, a treat.
The reason I picked up this particular title rather than one of the others I received this year is because it was fairly short and because the concept behind it intrigued me as the cold nights leading to winter began to arrive. Its structure hearkens back to The Canterbury Tales: a few travelers decide that telling stories will make the time pass more pleasantly. In My Kind of Girl, though, it is not April; it is a “bitingly cold night in December.”
Four men, who are already well settled into life, are traveling by rail in the heart of India when their journey is delayed at the Tundla railway station; up the line, a cargo train has derailed. There is no hope that the travelers will be able to proceed that night, so the four men attempt to get comfortable in the first-class waiting room. Suddenly the door opens and a young couple, “clearly newlyweds,” peak in, see the men, and leave again as quickly as they appeared. The four men speak, at first lightly, of the newlyweds and how they must have been looking for a quiet and private place where they huddle together privately. As the men speak of the strange power of young love, though, the men become a bit more somber:
That couple, who had only given them a glimpse of themselves at the door before disappearing, had left something behind; it was as though the bird of youth had shed a few feathers as it flew by: some warmth, some pleasure, sorrow or tremor that refused to dissipate, something with which these four individuals — even if they did not speak, even if they only thought about it silently — would be able to survive this terrible night.
Their memories invade, and the four men reflect on an interesting question: “Is the memory of happiness that has passed happy or sad?” Without ever answering that question, one of the men suggests they pass the time by each telling his own story.
“Story! Story of what?”
“I mean — we’re all old men here, there are no ladies, so speaking openly will not be indecent, will it?”
“What are you getting at?” The fat contractor seemed apprehensive.
“He’s saying,” the doctor explained, “we had our days too, like the ones that couple has now . . .”
“I didn’t,” the contractor protested, and immediately his stubbled cheek reddened in unseemly mortification.
“You too,” said the writer. “There’s no one who has never liked someone. What happened afterwards is not the point, the liking is what counts. Maybe it’s memory, too, that counts. Some kind of memory . . .”
The men wrap themselves up and, beginning with the contractor who said he had no story (he says he will relate a close friend’s), they take turns telling stories of their young love, regardless of the eventual outcome.
In the contractor’s story, a young man falls for his neighbor. From time to time he can look out his window and see her in her own home. She does not come from a wealthy family (her father is a professor), but she is an educated young woman, so his mother is anxious for the match. However, when she goes to propose the marriage of her son marry to the professor’s daughter, the proposal is rejected. When the War makes the son incredibly wealthy, the mother takes it as sweet satisfaction for the earlier slight. The son is not so certain.
The second story, this time in the first person (the teller is a government bureaucrat), is probably more typical to everyone’s experience. The teller, as a young man, had an innocent and pure relationship with a girl he rarely saw. One of his fondest memories is of a night when he and she walked together, away from the crowd of friends they were with. As happens, life for each kept going, and each married someone else, though in the years there have been some encounters. In this story, the narrative flow is disrupted when the teller pauses to wonder about the effect the story is currently having on him:
What misguided notion had led him to start this tale? . . . . He tried to return to his present reality; he tried to think of Delhi, his job, his wife, his children, but none of them seemed very important at the moment, his head was filled with the echoes of the events he had been recounting all the while.
The third story is the doctor’s, and he introduces it as a happy story; after all, the man married his love. However, when he met her, she was “a love-struck, love-singed young woman.” In other words, when he met her, she was in love — deeply, disturbingly — with someone else. He is not her first love.
The fourth storyteller is a writer. By the time we get to him, it’s already late into the night. We don’t know if the quiet in the waiting room is because the other men are listening closely or because they are sleeping. The writer’s story is, again, a different angle on young love. In this case, the writer and two other friends all loved the same girl, a tragic figure in their youth. We know where this tale is going from the start, but I was glad to follow.
I found the book endearing and felt the warmth that must have sustained the men that cold night. My only quibble with the book is that is asked such interesting questions about memory, but then, when the stories themselves took over, such questions were pushed well into the background. Of course, the stories themselves speak about memory and its effect, but here that doesn’t seem quite enough to make those themes a clear subject; rather, memory is a catalyst for some stories that go their own way. That said, I might have liked it less had it attempted to maintain the gravity of such an abstract discussion through the stories. Certainly some of the charming nature of the traditional story would have been lost. And, just as these stories were a diversion to get these men through a cold night, leading them through emotions and to self-reflection, they are an excellent diversion from weightier and more abstract matters. They get us through the night and their telling will become a pleasant memory in and of itself.