Book Review: “The Scent of God” By Saikat Majumdar

I was excited to read this book ever since it was advertised on the grapevines; a celebration of queerness by a presumably queer-friendly man from India. When the book was delivered promptly by Gaysi, I left it on my table, gazing at it often from the corner of my eye. The sexy man on the cover flirted with me while I tried to focus on my office work. I imagined relaxing with the book over a cup of tea in the evening. I’ve spent my life reading fiction, but ever since I’d started performing as a drag queen, reading for leisure has become a luxury. Putting aside my commitments for an evening, I finally got down to it, ready to be impressed.

I thumb through the first few pages in order to get an idea what this is about. The gist: it’s an unreal world in a monastery held up by discipline, purity, profanity, meritocracy, stolen kisses and adventures outside. The story is the sort a Sadhu would conjure up in wisp of smoke from his chillum of marijuana, while revisiting his past musingly; surrounded by jaded city-dwellers. Located not so long ago in the 20th Century, the story goes like this – a young boy finds lust and love in the company of a classmate at the ashram where he holes up with a brood of other boys and manly monks. The protagonist (Anirvan) apparently has a brief journey of political exploration, before returning to his paramour in their little oasis.

A heady whiff of saffron nationalism

As I immerse myself in the yellow lamp-lit pages, captivating pictures come to mind. The author has a way with descriptive phrases. There are clean, breezy and peaceful temple lands, flowing robes and vivid characters. Yet, my appreciation for this book is rudely punctuated by the time I get to the second page.

The first time I flinch is while the ashram boys are watching a cricket match and liberally bandying about the word ‘slit-dick’, in reference to Muslims. Sure, the monk reprimands the kids for half a second. I read on, trying not to take offence. Then follow allusions to the Pakistani cricketers as ‘deadly’ or ‘drawing blood’ or ‘fatal’ or ‘trickster’. But Sachin Tendulkar, of course, was a ‘stallion’. What made my mouth literally drop in shock, however, was the simultaneously able-ist and islamophobic description by the author about the Pakistani bowler Abdul Qadir’s bowling – “he danced like a cripple trying to twist at the disco”.

I discover quickly that the rest of the chapter is a similarly puerile attempt at stoking the readers’ nationalism, subtly disguised in the form of excitement at an India-Pakistan cricket match.

When homoeroticism can disgust a homosexual

Even the thread of homoerotic sexuality that winds through the rest of the book is introduced right in the midst of this first Chapter, nestled safely within the patriarchal patriotic fervour. The protagonist Anirvan is caressing Kajol’s soft wrists in the darkness and playing with his fingers…as the latter judiciously stares at the cricket match. This is how the author imagines homo-eroticism perhaps. One boy touches another at a cricket match, while the other stoically refrains from reciprocating.

I’ll give the author this much, he captures physicality well. Not that it takes much to describe skin and touch. One can intimately feel the sensuality of the boys’ dalliances in the shower-rooms and sleeping quarters. In fact, I am sure the book is going to turn up the heat. Perfect. I am fully ready. Let me just settle in and enjoy this. Now the two boys are squeezing palms…

I turn the page…. and something’s punched me in the gut. Instantly, I’m nauseous. It turns out that the boys I have been fantasizing about are all eleven year olds. I’ve been unwittingly objectifying an eleven-year old’s hairless arms.

It gets worse. A senior monk Swami, in Chapter two, proceeds to teach the eleven year olds how to blow a conch. He touches the eleven year old’s lips, curls them, and instructs him to blow hard. In later Chapters, he massages Anirvan and sits him on his lap; that too at odd secluded hours of the night. And the poor boy is encouraged to enter trances in which he loses his sense of reality and sees only saffron. If I was sure this book would heat up, I am now sure that a violent instance of sexual abuse will emerge.

And indeed it does. Nothing to do with the cringe-worthy dynamic between the mentors and students though – oh no, that is all just matter of fact according to this story. A brief side-event is invented, almost as an afterthought of paragraphs. Therein, a boy is crying because his seniors physically and sexually abused him. And that is the end of that line of thinking. No one in the ashram does anything about it, and the mentor-abusing, sensual, bliss-obsessed plot just plods on uncaringly. The older men continue to touch, massage and shepherd their wards about inappropriately; encouraging them to blank out and enter ‘nirvana’.

Quips which only bigoted savarna cis-males could laugh at

By now, I am trying to get through the book quickly just to get done with it. I keep trying to focus on the story but these insular phrases literally beam out of the pages at regular intervals. Someone is introduced as “tribal boy Nath”, who later on is described as “the football-playing Santal”. This same poor boy later on “made a face like a monkey” and “looked like a black ape and….made a grotesque face, like that of a roasting eggplant curling over a fire”. His friend (predictably) is a certain “Bora, a dark and dangerous boy from Guwahati”.

Our learned author does not spare the women either! The reductive and disrespectful approach is applied wholesale to the very few women the author deigns to introduce into the story. No one woman has a personality beyond that of a mother-figure, supporter or mistress. Attendees at a public discussion are a ‘dark tribe of hookers’ and a ‘beaten-up whore’. A sex-worker union member is “fattish, weird-haired”, and the protagonist’s father flirts with a “secretary who was dark and ugly and spoke in the savage East Bengal dialect”. The liquor-shop protesters are a “band of middle-aged women with shrill voices and giant bottoms ….lying down en masse in front of as many stores as they could cover, pledging to live on nothing but the slow-burning lard around their waists for days on end”. In the words of the Swami repeated multiple times throughout the book, apparently ‘gold and women’ are the enemy.

And on and on this violence goes. The list is endless. I am almost glad the author does not dare to talk about gender-nonconforming bodies, I would have probably thrown the book into a fire.

I wonder how it is that these are supposed to be punchlines, or funny bits. Their placement suggests that they are meant to make the reader laugh. But what is funny about fat-shaming, slut-shaming, racism, ableism, communalism, casteism, misogyny, classism, pederasty and abuse?

Subtle imagery combined with very loud silences

As the story goes, the boy Anirvan leaves the Ashram, speaks at union podiums without any stake whatsoever in the issues itself, and also rendezvous with women who apparently only want to seduce him away from his precious male culture. And then, in what is posited as a happy ending, Anirvan comes to his Adarsh Balak senses and goes back; renouncing the world of womankind, poverty and sex-workers. All of this, for the joy of disappearing into a ‘trance’ with his personality-less boyfriend and creepy mentor in their saffron paradise. For the unfathomable ‘virtue’ of becoming a Brahmacharya.

The thought that haunted me throughout the reading was this – What on earth is the author trying to say to the queers and peers who are reading this? Are we supposed to feel elated at the idea of becoming a masturbating saffron monk, disconnected from reality? Is this really the message being advocated in these dark times of rising Hindutva fascism?

I can imagine that it’s supposed to be a realistic depiction of a certain time in history, sure. Maybe he merely explores the world from the eyes of an eleven year old male monk in a purist environment.

Even if that were the case, that myopic point of view is the only perspective throughout the book, whether in the narrator’s voice or in the characters’. Where is the stance, the moral of the story, the narrative? As I poured over the whole thing, I was sure I would have an ‘aha’ moment, wherein some sort of justice would emerge, or wisdom on the part of Anirvan or the mentors. I was literally peeling my eyes for some sort of commentary or position from the author. At least the finale should lead to a sense of elevation.

But there was nothing! This smoky nightmare story is just that – a visual spectacle and smorgasbord of saffron, bodies and scenery. The ashram is male, saffron, pure, safe and holy, while the outside world is bumpy, messy, poor, wretched, unworthy and unclean. A very deluded, ethnocentric, exclusionary and purist world-view advocated predominantly by cis and savarna folks. Where women, muslims, dalits, indigenous folks and communists have non-existent or only marginal relevance. And transgender people do not even exist!

Long story short, the only picture I get from this is that it’s a homoerotic RSS shakha wet dream entrenched in what I call ‘Purist Lotus Values’. It is all about ‘rising over the mud’ but simultaneously oblivious to any sort of sexual boundaries or introspection.

This is no aspirational book for any queer or peer, from any background.

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Kushboo is a drag artist and lawyer based in Delhi. She engages in rights-based work and also art to stimulate conversations. Irreverent of gender as a construct, Kushboo uses drag to illustrate the power of illusion and express her imagination. Instagram: @kushboothekween Facebook: /Kushboothekween

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