In a country where religious divisions get more and more prominent by the day, The Scent of God offers a perspective of a blossoming (and forbidden) relationship in a Hindu Monastic school. How does spirituality and religion exist in the same space as innocent desire? Saikat Majumdar, author of The Scent of God talks to Gaysi Family about the need for more stories that are set in spaces that complicate the many identities we are all born with.
Q. What made you want to write the story of a child like Anirvan?
Since my last novel, The Firebird, I’ve been deeply drawn to the story of the growing child. The young perspective, as many other writers have also felt, is both deeply challenging and satisfying for an artist. It is a time of experience before understanding, which makes for great art. Once you are an adult and can make more sense of your experience, even analyse or theorise it, it becomes a different thing, subject for another kind of writing, but it feels less interesting to me, at least at this moment in my writing life. Also, as an adult writing from the young boy’s perspective allows you to inhabit a kind of otherness. But it’s a kind of otherness that once truly belonged to you, for all adults were children once. Anirvan is an odd boy, in a slightly weird situation. Growing up in a Hindu monastic boarding school, he is deeply drawn to the spiritual. But this attraction is inseparable from the charisma of individual monks, their daily involvement in the lives of students, their affection for them, and also their discipline, often the violence of their punishments. It is a very sensory kind of an attraction, not abstract attraction to an idea. The spiritual, strangely, becomes something physical here, something felt and embodied. Adolescence and the attainment of puberty is, more than anything else, a disturbingly physical affair, and central to this is the way the body sprouts desire, desire you don’t fully understand but which still haunts you. Such a desire arrives in this novel before a real understanding of its relation with gender. It’s a human touch that I crave – it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl. But this also takes place in a context of deep and physical male friendship and intimacy – sharing rooms, bathrooms, food, homework, the anxieties of growing up. Soon Anirvan realizes that the people who matter most deeply to him are men/boys – a teacher who mentors him, a monk whom he finds magnetic, and most importantly, a classmate who excites his body and soul. But it takes him a while, and many upheavals, to realize what this excitement means, and whether or not he can live a life without this friend.
Q. Why did you choose to set it in a Hindu Monastic Boarding school instead of a regular school and why in the late 20th century?
To create fiction, I need a seed of reality. But just a tiny seed – once the narrative unfolds, the seed easily becomes a tree, and then a whole forest. Neither the tree nor the forest has to have any relation with the real. The seed of reality here is my knowledge of an atmosphere like this. I, too, studied in a Hindu monastic boarding school. The story is invented, but fragments of its atmosphere are culled from memory. But more important than reality is the feeling it evokes – the reality of feeling rather than the reality of place.
Growing up in a Hindu atmosphere, I’ve found its rituals, its sensory paraphernalia, its art and music, deeply compelling, even though I cannot call myself a believer in the religious sense of the term. And I also know the sexual fluidity that makes up desire for the pubescent boy, in situations where the labels gay or straight don’t make much sense, whether or not you make sexual or lifestyle choices later on. Intimacy and desire, usually those which normative society views as transgressive, develops in any boarding school where growing children live in deep physical, social and psychological intimacy with one another. But I know the peculiar form this intimacy takes when it grows in an atmosphere of religion, especially of celibate Hindu monasticism. A monastic boarding school is a magnetic world in its own right, quite literally hermetically sealed from the outside world. It has an intoxication of its own, its own innocence, languor and charisma, and also a forbidding regime of discipline and punish. There are scenes in the novel where a monk comforts a boy as a parent, a teacher, almost a lover. And there are scenes where a monk beats up a boy almost to the point of unconsciousness. Sceptics ask questions – why this violence on young boys? What fatal cocktail of wrath, intimacy and desire triggers this brutality? Most importantly, perhaps, the monastic boarding school offers a life insulated from the real world, its sweat, grime, tears and blood. But does it have sweat and tears of its own – that which cannot be seen or felt by outsiders? This, I felt, was a story that longed to be told.
Q. What is the significance of a book like The Scent of God in India of today?
To be honest, one doesn’t really think about questions of significance while writing – you’re just compelled by a story, reality, or experience, and you know that you have to tell it. But while writing this novel I realized that this was a sensitive subject. Even so, I felt it was a story that needed to be told. Romantic love in a context of religion, especially one of celibacy is a sensitive subject anywhere. But it is an especially sensitive one in India at this moment. The resistance to women entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala is supposed to be about the preservation of a male celibate “purity”. But as Madhavi Menon has pointed out, the god Ayappan, in his avowed distance from women, rather constructs a symbolic resistance to heterosexual desire, thereby implying other kinds of longing, most notably in Ayappan’s enjoyment of the company of men.
The bond within the monastic brotherhood is a central theme of The Scent of God, and the young protagonist’s faltering journey through a bodily understanding of the deep ties that exist in an all-male atmosphere. This includes adolescent boys who are beginning to come of sexual age as well as the monks who have taken a vow of celibacy. So much of the conversation in India today is about religion and purity; this, too, has ended up as a novel about the adventurous exploration of male celibacy within monastic Hinduism.