Saikat Majumdar’s new novel, Scent of a God, sets the sensual, physical, emotional, and spiritual journey of a young student within and around a residential school run by a monastic order. An enquiry into the internal conflicts of a teenager and his collision with both the secluded silence of a monastic life and the stimulus overload of experiencing the world beyond the walls of the school, the novel is also a mapping of emerging desires.
Vivek Shanbhag, the author of the acclaimed Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar, now translated into 18 languages around the world, including English, was an early reader of the novel, as Majumdar points out in the acknowledgements section. He spoke to Majumdar, one novelist to another, about Scent of God. Excerpts from the conversation.
Vivek Shanbhag (VS): I remember our conversation (before you had started writing this novel) about religion and certain experiences of your childhood. I can see some traces of it in your novel. And of course there are many other aspects that have come together in this story. How did this novel evolve?
Saikat Majumdar (SM): Yes, I remember that conversation vividly from 2016 – in the JLF shuttle, going from the hotel to the venue of the festival. I find it a bit hard to believe how I knew the narrative and the characters well before I started writing, almost in a childish way. But I realise what I usually know about my fiction before I start writing is place, and the peculiar way characters start to emerge in concoction with setting, almost like weeds in a wild garden.
The atmosphere always has to come first; everything else follows. And yes, I’ve known an atmosphere like this in my past, and that provided the seed of reality from which the story was invented. I just knew that the main character was very compelled by the fragrant austerity of monastic life, the soft whoosh of saffron robes, and felt religion as a physical, sensory experience. But this attraction for monastic life was entwined, paradoxically, with his romantic longing for a classmate.
Again, it’s the magnetism of place – the same community prayer hall where he felt entranced was where their knees touched each other’s, and perhaps their fingers too. This strange concoction of spirituality and desire was the energy behind the narrative, and other things followed.
What was inevitable was a tension between the soft monastic romance of the ashram and the gritty, noisy streets outside – between the world of an intimate and erotic male bonding and heterosexual desire, which, strangely, came out as spiky and violent in this novel. It also ended up being a conflict between a godless communist activism and the saffron glow of a monastic home that also promised a love interest.
Places, it’s always places first for me – characters sprouted there, and the plot came, in the true Aristotlean way, last – whatever the characters do makes the plot.
VS: Your formative years have occupied an important space in your works – in The Scent of God as well as in The Firebird. The Bildungsroman is very risky territory for a writer as one may take sides when there is a conflict between the emotional and the intellectual. What attracts you to venture into this zone?
SM: You’re absolutely right – that’s the precise reason why the novel of childhood, growth and education has become so important to me. Because the intellectual is almost absent there – engagement with reality is always visceral, very physical, and spontaneous. But the Bildungsroman, the novel of growth, is also about the process through which the individual emerges as a normative, responsible citizen – the 19th century European Bildungsroman usually ended with the protagonist – almost always a male protagonist – getting a job, becoming a father, etc.
As a novelist I’m fascinated by this development gone wrong – the bildung messed up, as it were, when this normative education fails. So The Firebird was about a young boy attaining the wrong kind of sexual maturity, and that too far ahead of his years, where growth is cancerous rather than healthy. Falling in with the wrong crowd, into a destructive relationship with an art form, and one’s own mother through it.
In The Scent of God, too, there is something off – though not necessarily bad or dangerous – about this growing boy’s affinity for monastic spirituality and its embeddedness in his romantic interest. Is monastic life at all compatible with the bildung of the citizen? Isn’t that imagined as a secular project? These are the questions, I guess, the novel ends up asking.
VS: The novel is full of sensory details. The setting of the story enhances this further. How important is immediacy to you? Is it only aesthetic?
SM: Immediacy is very important. Art, especially that of fiction, is an impossible-to-resolve tension between the concrete and the abstract, the immediate and the long-distance. Sometimes you just need to get into a teacup and describe the fragments of the wet tea leaves inside. And sometimes you need to step back and say “And then a year passed.” The microscope and the telescope.
The truth is that I do the microscope better. Or even when I do the telescope, it often comes as an erratic collage of microscopes. The immediate holds me in thrall. That’s probably why my writing style is sometimes described as visual or cinematic.
But the stepping back, the abstraction is also necessary. As poets know it well – without the concrete there is no experience, but without the abstract there is no understanding. I guess understanding is minimal in my novels – of course the characters debate and discuss the situations they are in, but in the end, the situations always exceed them, and go beyond whatever they understand. Probably that’s also my dream response for readers – to be powerfully moved by the art, almost punched in the gut, but not quite making sense of what moved you, not making full sense anyway.
VS: This novel captures a phase in life when one doesn’t know the full consequences of sexual intimacy. This is a time when the tags “gay” or “straight” don’t necessarily make sense. We, readers, stop thinking about the gender of the lovers as we go through this “love story”. Did you also experience this while writing?
SM: You know, I absolutely enjoyed writing the passages of desire in this novel, where a young boy desires another young boy. It was an artistic, but also an erotic, experience for me. For me, it is a lot like writing as a child – inhabiting an otherness, but an otherness that once belonged to us.
It did take me back to my own adolescent years, especially those around puberty, where desire hits your body without your being able to make sense of it. It’s almost like a threat, something dark and impossible and dangerous. Does it matter at that time whether the person you touch is a boy or a girl, a man or a woman? In some sense no, as you haven’t yet quite been socialised into normative desire – that the ideal object of your affection is the other sex, not your own.
And in that sealed universe of a saffron boarding school, it all makes complete sense, the innuendos, the clandestine relationships, the power-play, the life-sharing of roommates – everything is normalised and felt a part of everyday life, even though the same people might find it extremely odd outside of that world. As they often do while growing into heterosexual men in normative conjugal relationships. Because desire too, is a matter of socialisation.