Saffron sheathed Kamal Swami like skin. He was a taut bowstring, flashes of energy tossing around the smooth cotton and revealing fair, hairy flesh, patches of sweat that darkened the amber fabric as he breathed faster and faster like a stallion while Anirvan forgot to breathe, staring at muscles that shot out as saffron seawaves. His heart stopped at the glimpse of his fair and lean arm as the Swami rolled up his sleeves on the badminton court. He dreamt of owning such arms one day. These very arms.

He was a saffron soldier with the eyes of a boy, eyes that sparkled with love and mischief but which never failed to hunt down the heap of dirt the students had swept under their beds or the cricket-magazines hidden under geography textbooks. The boys’ rooms were restless, with blobs of shame hidden in odd cracks like the wet towels and the used underwear they forgot to give their mothers on Sunday.

The Swami knew everything.

The boys had marched out of the common room in silence that day. After the TV was killed and they were thrown out of the stadium in Peshawar. The air was thick with war. The firecrackers had gone out in Mosulgaon but anger smoldered at the sudden death of the match.

Kamal Swami stood at the door while the boys walked out quietly, all eighty of them. His fair face looked red and stormy.

“The two of you wait here,” he said softly as Anirvan and Kajol stepped out.

They waited. They were anxious but they didn’t want to look at each other.

“Those boys are a shame,” Kamal Swami told them after everybody had left. His voice throbbed with passion. “Animals, all of them.”

Anirvan and Kajol stood in silence. They looked down, wilted in shame. They didn’t know what to say.

“You boys stay away from them.”

His voice was kind. Kind but cruel.

“From now on the two of you will sit at the back of the prayer hall.” He said softly. “I want you to watch if any boy makes trouble. Just tell me if you see anything.” What was Kajol thinking? Suddenly, the question screamed inside Anirvan’s heart.

“You will spread out our prayer mats before prayer.”

The Swami said. “And put them back after it’s over.” Every night after the lights were off the Swami sat on the wooden bench outside his room and spoke about life, death, and life beyond life. When the day was over and their duties done, his voice was softer, kinder, and sometimes almost aimless. The boys could not see his face in the dark but his affectionate hands caressed their shoulders and the backs of their necks and slid along their arms in ways they never would in daylight.

It was good to sit right next to him but it was not always possible because many boys crowded the bench after lights-off. But his voice melted in the dark and floated everywhere even if you were not lucky enough to sit next to him that night. He said the most beautiful things. Once Rajeev Lochan Sen had popped a tough question about the point of studying history. It was a scrap of a debate that floated in school for days.

“Is history a dead subject?” The Swami had laughed. Under the nightly softness, the laughter had a bite, and Anirvan imagined the pointed edges of his crooked teeth glistening in the dark.

“Go and look at yourself in a mirror,” he said.

“Mirror?” Rajeev repeated, full of wonder.

Kajol had walked into the gathering tentatively. He looked like he had lost his way.

“Move over,” Kamal Swami said. “Kajol, sit next to Anirvan.”

There was no place next to Anirvan. The slight-framed Kajol came and sat on Anirvan’s lap.

“Take a hard look at yourself,” the Swami’s voice softened. ‘What you see in that mirror is history.”

Rajeev was lucky that night. He was seated next to the Lotus.

“This face, this neck, these shoulders,” the Swami’s voice trailed in the dark. “The messy hair and the frown. The clothes you wear.”

“You’ll see all of it in the mirror, won’t you?” the voice floated, suddenly happy and boyish.

“This is history,” it said. “And you ask whether history is a living being?”

Rajeev was silent. Anirvan wondered if his doubts were gone. But Anirvan didn’t care anymore; he felt lightheaded. Kajol’s childlike frame rested on him, and he could smell soap and talcum powder on his neck.

Anirvan knew why the Lotus was so brilliant at carrom. He could handle his mind like the red striker on the board. Anirvan had tried it too. He thought he could do it. Leave your mind, swim out of it, and watch it wander. The Great Saffron One had said a hundred years ago. Watch it like a fish bobbing in the water, a trivial thing of colour that is no longer part of you. Anirvan could lose his mind in the prayer hall, during the meditation time at the end, at least for a minute, two minutes, two minutes and twenty seconds...

Don’t fight it. The Lotus said.

Slip out of it like you slip out of your shirt. Watch it play, a cheap toy. Slowly, the mind will become your slave. The Lotus, he knew, could do anything. He could be like Arjun. Arjun shut out the rest of the world, fixed his gaze on the wooden bird on the tree, and shot its head off with his arrow. The carrom striker became an arrow in Kamal Swami’s fingers. The red monster shot at the circle of coins at the heart of the board and ripped it open, sending a cluster of the right coins to the pocket. It was like a blast of dynamite.

Anirvan felt terrified to see the explosive force stored in the smooth, saffron-robed monk. But if you controlled your mind you controlled the striker. Kamal Swami, he knew, could stare hard at a coin so as to make everything else vanish from his vision. And then destroy it. Kamal Swami. The Lord Lotus.

Meditation was a skill crucial to life in the ashram. It sharpened your mind, helped you master algebra, geometry and physics. Everything one needed to crack the engineering entrance tests. The boys stared at the tests, five years down the line, and tried to make the rest of the world vanish. How do you think the ancient Indians invented the zero and other foundations of mathematics? Kajol always said. And he cracked the puzzles of geometry so smoothly that it seemed that he felt the problems and the answers like tremors in his own body. His lovely bony body.

How do you think? Because yoga is the foundation of mathematics.

Yogi. Kajol fell in a kind of a spell whenever Anirvan meditated under the shower. Sometimes when Anirvan’s mind wavered, he could feel Kajol’s liquid stare on his skin. Sometimes Kajol would touch him lightly and Anirvan’s focus would shatter. Yogi. Kajol called him Yogi. The one who has mastered Yoga. One who controls his mind like a steel toy. It became his name. No one remembered Anirvan.

But Yogi would never be like the Lotus. Could he?

Suddenly, without warning, the Swami could become softer, gentler. That’s what happened during the Diwali mini-vacation that year.

They had only four days off around Diwali so a few students stayed back at the hostel. Mostly the boys who lived far away, and the poor village and tribal boys who didn’t always want to go home as life was much better in the ashram. Anirvan stayed back too. It was never difficult to convince his parents why he should spend more and more time away from home. Anirvan told Kajol that morning that he was not going home and Kajol had said nothing.

“I’m staying back too,” he told Anirvan in the dining hall that evening. Anirvan felt struck with a lightning of delight. Yes!

There were no rules during these few days. Only three other boys had stayed back in Bliss Hall, sporty tribal boys who played football all day. There was no morning bell, no PT, no prayer, no study hall, and no school. The whole day was theirs. They could do whatever they wanted.

They spent the entire morning playing carrom with Kamal Swami. The Lotus was softer, intimate; his voice sounded different. He cracked jokes while striking the carrom disks on the board. What a player! When he aimed the striker, his soul was focused on the board. Like there was nothing else in the world. He never lost a match.

When they went to take a shower, Anirvan and Kajol were the only ones in the hostel. The bathroom felt big and hollow. It echoed every word they uttered. So they showered in silence, next to each other, playing games, laughing quietly. Kajol clamped the mouth of the faucet and shot a blinding water jet at Anirvan. He drowned Anirvan in water and laughter. There was nothing else in the world. The bathroom door was open and yet no one would ever come; they could take as long as they wanted.

Kajol was another boy. Free, wild, noisy. His still eyes sparkled. He wouldn’t take his eyes off Anirvan. The campus was empty and the place didn’t feel like a school anymore. It was a sandy saffron place of happiness.

After lunch, they wandered around the ashram. They walked all over the endless campus, spread over eighty villages from the past. No one stopped them anywhere.

When school was on, they were not allowed to leave the limits of the junior school. But today they walked from the junior school through the winding lanes crowded by mango trees to the senior school. They wandered past the stadium into the senior school, where the hostels and the buildings seemed larger, shinier. Everything was empty. Everybody had vanished and there was no outside world and no time ticking along. But Kajol seemed to belong to the ashram, a plant nourished by its sun and soil.

The campus was a place of play. They lost their way and walked into the school for the disabled boys but nobody shouted at them. The people smiled and led them back to the route to the junior school. On the way back, they flung stones at the mango trees to bring down mangoes but nothing happened; mango season was long over. Their palms twirled against one another and stayed there as they walked. They laughed and joked and tried not to notice it. They drifted apart as they stepped back into the junior school campus.
In the evening they went back to Kamal Swami’s room. The room looked dark but as they peeped through the door, they saw a blue light.

A night lamp was on and the Swami was seated on the floor in the lotus position. He opened his eyes as he heard them at the door. He gestured, calling them inside.

Excerpted with permission from The Scent Of God, Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster India.