In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas build a palace made of reflective surfaces that mirror the world on which they stand – the Mayasabha. The palace’s floors reflect pools of water, making it hard to distinguish the surfaces from depth. To draw on this metaphor, the meta spaces that stand between us and that which is reflected offer a moment of introspection, contemplating how we appear to ourselves and the people who stand next to us. If we draw this metaphor further we can think about the ways in which we write and the ways in which we present our writings to our readers. And, in doing so, choose the sides of the mirrored hall where we will stand.
When Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Scent of God arrived in the mail I was excited to read it – a book that tells the story of an adolescent boy, a same-sex love affair and a coming of age, set against the backdrop of an ashram run by a Hindu monastic order. The book was potent with promise.
A simmering tension
The novel moves between the ashram and the city and back to the ashram again. The ashram is a space that is protected by a swan that sits atop a wide gate, high walls, and a complex architectural layout. Like many boarding schools, it is a kind of utopia – a world within itself. However, outside the gates of this pastoral paradise is the other, a village of impoverished Muslims.
The tensions between the two spaces seep through the narrative from the very beginning, starting with an India-Pakistan cricket match during which the boys in the ashram can hear the sounds of crackers bursting whenever Pakistan scores.
The ashram’s core beliefs stem from an old story in which 12 priests take a vow: they have “nothing but their begging bowls. And yet they were the richest young men that the motherland had ever seen. They would carve her sleeping dream. The nation of saffron”. The reader is perhaps conscious that they are leaning into a deep and almost troubling metaphor.
Majumdar’s characters, of which there are several, weave through the narrative, creating complex structures. They participate in opposition to each other – good/bad, rich/poor, insider/outsider: people who share a deep history with the land they live on and the migrants who “shout in their savage language”, who “moaned in prayer several times a day”.
We follow the life of Anirvan/Yogi (whose name is interchangeable by choice), on his two-year journey through the ashram, his brief encounter with politics at the age of 14 or 15, his parents’ broken marriage, the death of his grandmother that haunts the novel and his journey back to where it all began.
Anirvan /Yogi’s talents as a speaker are honed in the various debate competitions he takes part in – one in particular, when he speaks in Calcutta. The conversation is about his relationship with the Muslims who live outside the ashram. He tells the audience about a terrible time when the boys would throw their uneaten rice, as if it had been “served to them by untouchables” into the gutter outside the ashram to teach the Muslims a lesson. One day, better judgement prevails and he realises the folly of his ways, when a young boy, Pir, questions their actions.
But Majumdar ends Anirvan’s introspective realisation here, never to be addressed again, and we are left to wonder if when one speaks, one speaks for oneself or for the audiences that will listen. It is perhaps impossible to live apolitically, it is probably even less possible that the act of writing can be non-political. It is the act of putting pen to paper that, by its very action intersects with the politics that surround us.
Delicate lines of desire
Given that this book has also been positioned, at least in part, as a same-sex love story, it is important to understand Majumdar’s exploration of the workings of this relationship. Adolescence is a strange time, a time of standing at the threshold of time looking into the uncertainties of the future. However, alongside you on this threshold stand not only your contemporaries who carry with them their prejudices but perhaps also the collective histories within which they grow up.
The complexities of a coming of age, a dawning of sexuality and an acknowledgment of it is not without its conflicts. But Anirvan /Yogi’s love for his classmate Kajol is easy. The novel begins with the first signs of love, the recurring image of Kajol’s delicate wrists enveloped by Anirvan’s fingers, the affection that allows them to melt into each other. Anirvan’s engagement with the politics of the city makes him attractive to several older women, and Freudian relationships subsequently evolve out of these encounters.
Majumdar’s efforts to think about the delicate lines between the sensory and the erotic are perhaps too thin and they remain unexplored. His navigation of these themes remain very much on the surface of the spaces the characters engage with, without the depth we might have hoped for.
An opaque beauty
Majumdar’s writing reflects the sensory experiences of ritual and belief as well – the smell of incense that wafts through the prayer halls, the fluttering robes of saffron and flowers for the gods. However, Hinduism probes much deeper. To see and to speak of it only in the sensorial, temporal-spatial experiences of the everyday is to under-represent it.
Perhaps the beauty of a narrative has the ability to transcend the flow of storytelling, where the language within which the story is ensconced takes precedence – meandering phrases and language that drips slowly, pointedly and with all the beauty of the worlds. My relationship with this book was shifting. There were moments when the sensory experiences of Majumdar’s world excited me – I could smell the incense and feel the coarse cotton, his simple metaphors and his ease with language, but there were other times when the beauty was so opaque that it became impossible for me to pierce the surface and actually reach into the narrative.
Having recently moved to a new, familiar-unfamiliar city, I found myself in an old church built in the late 1700s. At the far end of the church was a confessional box, a screen separating the confessor from the listener. Secrets are told, and as is the nature of secrets, advice is dispensed. The semiotics of the confessional box reminded me of reading a book – the author and their book on the other side of the screen and we as readers listening intently, surmising what is told to us by clues in the heard.
It is true with language, both written and spoken, the author and you are placed in the palace of illusions, your surfaces reflecting, opposing, intersecting and faceted. Perhaps a book to read is a book that allows itself to be faceted, revealing itself in the inverted reflection, allowing you to pierce the surface to reveal further layers, infinite depths of knowledge and questions. But perhaps, there are some mirrors that are best left unnoticed.
Scent of God, Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster.