The book’s world and its contradictions are always vivid, and yet those contradictions are never quite realised
Which is easier, to have conflict or to live in peace? Obviously, one would say, it is far easier to pick fights. But there is a deeper sense in which genuine conflict is the harder and more worthwhile attainment, and peace a cloying sedative, always pressing. The craft of storytelling reminds us of this paradox, because good storytelling depends on the creation of conflict. It does not really depend on resolutions (tragedies have no resolution) but to the extent one fails to enter into conflict, one fails to find one’s story. Here stands Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God, a fluent, significant narrative that scores on secondary fronts, but seeks in vain to rouse conflict in its heart.
Moreover, it becomes an object lesson in this regard, from the very baldness of those conflicts that it advertises. “Two teenage boys grapple with their mutual attraction in a spiritual institution where same-sex relationships is [sic] criminalized,” says the blurb. This seems a self-evident clash: the goadings of desire versus the values of “…a world that does not recognize their kind of love.” Similarly blatant is the other quandary the book flags (involving the monastic life versus the political life) but before we consider how and why all these turn out to be strangely illusory, let us dwell on the world of the book, where there is much to appreciate.
In an ashram-school run by monks of an unnamed Hindu sect, located in the midst of Muslim settlements, a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys live, study and play. Among them is the book’s protagonist, Anirvan, who is proficient in both meditation and debating; his classmate, Kajol, a topper student whom Anirvan begins to desire, and vice versa; their magnetic hostel warden, Kamal Swami aka The Lotus; and Sushant Kane, an English teacher, who, though brought up in the ashram, has an outsider’s charged perspective on it, as well as an activist bent. These, and others, together make up a wide-ranging milieu, nicely suited to the showcasing of the book’s themes, yet never just props for situations.
In The Scent of God, places and persons are always strongly felt. Consider this description of Kamal Swami. “In his smooth saffron robe, he was ageless. The pure and smooth lotus… smooth and green on the cheeks… teeth like specks of a white flower…” Kajol is evoked by his eyelashes, “his bony neck”, his “soap and clean cotton and the heartwarming Kajol smell”. Life at the monastery is “a blaze of saffron that raged across the football field, black hair matted on pale, sweaty arms.”
Just another aphrodisiac
The social activism that Anirvan is later seduced by, thanks to “sharp and angular” Sushant Kane, is similarly understood in terms of appealing spectacle — “men could see what it meant to think clearly, speak without a slur… a fresh young voice would catch their souls.” When that world palls on Anirvan, it does so by becoming ugly: “cobwebs swam closer and tried to muffle him. Patches of cracked plaster grew larger… graffiti screamed from every inch of space.”
But while the book’s world, along with its apparent contradictions, is always vivid, yet — by the same token — those contradictions are never realised, because the author’s perspective is resolutely and insistently one-dimensional, clinging solely to
the aesthetic. Note that within a singular dimension, there can be no conflicts, only verdicts — the beautiful simply prevails over the ugly, at any given moment. It is with this one rule of measure that Anirvan goes about making his choices, encountering, therefore, the least resistance where the book advertises the most — within the ashram. For while the dogmas of god might have presented a problem for his sexual desire, the ‘scent’ of god is just another aphrodisiac, and Majumdar’s only interest is the scent.
All this makes for a smooth and intriguing read, but one that flatters to deceive, and having enchanted the reader like a dream, also dissipates like one. Meanwhile, the kinds of multi-dimensional questions that drag a story, even if kicking and screaming, into existence, stay off the page. But it is such unasked questions — what happens when a moral concern (should pre-teens be having sex?) encounters an affective desire? Or when undeniable obligations to the needy threaten one’s personal luxury? — that are the relevant questions for our times.