The Scent of God (2019), is an amazing work, to say the least. I had been introduced to it long back, in a blogpost of the Caravan and then later, through a section of a chapter that was published in Scroll.in, before it got published in 2019. Ever since, I had been curious about the novel and was perhaps, one of its earliest buyers. Saikat (Majumdar) is an old friend from my University years. I have been a keen reader of all that he has written, but I haven’t attended any of his literary soirees or book signing sessions. I never went for these, perhaps because, to me, the author is the person speaking from the pages of the book. I like to know him/her from his/her works, at least initially. Saikat and his books have been literary sensations and this write up may seem to be a paltry drop in the ocean of their rave and celebratory reviews. But the book is one of power and I cannot but help talking about it.
The Scent of God has been a revelation, at many levels. There have been sessions calling it a ‘coming of age’ novel or a bildungsroman; some have called it ‘autobiographical’ and so on. What strikes at the very beginning is his style: honest, perceptive, sensitive and confident. Confident in its theme and bold in its language with a ‘no looking back’ directness, the directness that his adolescent hero Anirvan acquires in the course of the novel. Saikat uses the known territories of a Hindu ascetic order and Missionary School, uses the aura created by the Bearded One and the Great Saffron One and the Holy Mother – identities that are almost etched in the minds and soul of all and sundry, in this part of the world. He also includes many other familiar images associated with this order of Monks. And most of all, chronicles some experiences between the boys studying in this school. Revolving around the familiar trope of a Boarding House saga, the novelist also takes care to strike a balance between the ascetic and the material, the chaotic external world and the enclosed, almost paradisiac internal world of the ashram, the monks and the secular teachers, the discipline and the affection, the frugal and the excess. Saikat, perhaps, writes from personal experiences as personal acquaintance has proved, but, what is new is his own perceptive observations, narrated through the eyes of his boy protagonists. Two lie at the centre of the work, Anirvan and Kajol, – one a little intrepid than the other while the other more studious and quieter. They connect, from a very early age, through touch – the touch of their fingers, their eyes, their minds and later of their souls. The visceral narrative of the two boys mature with the passing years of their life when they graduate from mere boyhood to adolescence and into young adulthood. From the time when touch was juvenile and merely tactile, to a time when touch becomes a form of emancipation and release.
The ashram was a haven, enclosed from the bitterness and material pangs of the ‘world’. The choice had to be made,and made by Anirvan. Left by his adoring grandmother to fend for himself in a fractured home where his father wooed a refugee woman, and his mother feeling both angry and apologetic for her son, Anirvan lacked a home from a very early age. He also lacked his parents; it was easy for him to respond to the fatherly Kamal Swami or the rebellious SrK,and most powerfully to the soft but bony Kajol with whom was reserved his most intimate moments. Boys grow up with many challenges – the challenge of manhood, of success, and to be able to make it big in the world. Kajol was the epitome of perfection – the keen football player, the filial child, the academic topper and the nourisher of his parents’ dreams of an IIT success story. But Anirvan was not like that, he had no such beacon in front and had to find himself, through the taste of beef curry and the sweat of the hookers in the railway refugee colony. It was an epiphanic moment when he confided his pain through tears, to Renu about the person in the prayer hall of the ashram. His memory and his senses played tricks with him, when his debating skills gave way to plain hallucination of his bony friend and the coolness of the evening shower. The profligate had to return home, where in the presence of their parents, the boys would be prepared for the order of the monks.
The novel brings into the fore so many important questions of priorities and how choices could be endorsed in the closed protection of an order and the academia. Religion seems to afford them the home which the ‘world’ outside could not, where, to be successful, could also mean to be separated and never to be united. The ashram was the only place where they could live beyond the prying eyes of the world and yet be themselves.
Beyond the nuanced arguments about gender, sexuality and choices, the novel takes a grip on the reader’s imagination and re-creates language echoing the idiom of the east – the eastern myths and the legends, entwining tradition with modernity, the sublime with the banal. It speaks of a mind rich in learning and deep in perception who weaves his craft with considerable love and warmth. One feels sad to leave Anirvan and Kajol behind the jacket of the book, one wants to see them in reality. Saikat adds a new chapter to the challenging arena of Indian literature in English.