To read Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God is to indulge in a riot of the senses. There are infinite ways to write beautifully; the beauty of Majumdar’s prose stems from the fact that it is rooted in the senses. The beauty of Scent lies in the overall texture of the prose, in the very way the world of Anirvan – especially his intimacy with and affection for Kajal – is apprehended through the senses.
One of the chapters that stands out in this respect is “The Lotus Position”, the section where they take a shower together for the first time. It would become a ritual with them, a more intense version of which we find in Breathless. But the incipient phase of the relationship with its tentative emotions and the exploration of possibilities (Anirvan and Kajal are attracted to each other, yet afraid to touch, and they discuss meditation to keep their erotic impulse at bay the first time) was somehow more fascinating for me than the more mature phase with its inevitable pain and disillusionments.
Any work of art is made memorable by the associations it conjures up. And Majumdar’s novel has been a particularly rewarding experience for me on that count. I would like to add another dimension to the conversation so far: Seeing it in the larger context of gay fiction (admitting of certain qualifications, ie). Reading Majumdar’s novel, I was constantly reminded of others – Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) and Kunal Basu’s The Miniaturist (2003) in particular.
Funny Boy is a coming-of-age tale of a Sri Lankan Tamil boy, Arjie Chelvaratnam, in the backdrop of rising civil strife (in the 1970s and early 80s) between the majority Buddhist Sinhala and the minority Hindu Tamil population of the country. The six stories that constitute the narrative of the novel can be read as standalone pieces – but they are best understood in chronological sequence, as each story charts Arjie’s trajectory from childhood to adolescence through a key personal relationship. In each of these stories, he loses a dear one - a sympathetic adult in his life - either to marriage or death or arrest, and witnesses her/him suffer injustice, as everything (from love to loyalty to the search for truth) is sacrificed at the altar of ethnic nationalism.
By the time we come to the final story, “The Best School of All” – the one most relevant for comparison with The Scent of God – we already know the pattern, and see it play out in Arjie’s first intimate relationship as well. The School in question is Victoria Academy, where Arjie is sent by his father as a punishment for his “funny” ways – which includes being interested in women’s make-up and playing “bride-bride” with girls in preference to playing cricket with other boys, to enjoying reading books, and preferring the company of adult women and sensitive men to the gregarious male bonding of his peers.
Ironically, the whole point of sending Arjie to Victoria is defeated, as it is there that he falls in love with Snehan and becomes the very thing his father had feared. Snehan and Arjie are pulled apart as Arjie’s family is forced to migrate to Canada, but not before the consummation of their love and Arjie’s confrontation/coming to terms with his true sexual identity.
Anirvan and Kajol’s relationship in Scent is strongly reminiscent of the fiercely passionate and yet tender nature of the bond between Arjie and Snehan in Funny Boy – a bond defined as much by fear, uncertainty and hopelessness about the future as it is by physical attraction and a shared school life.
Funny Boy is primarily seen as a “gay” coming-of-age novel, but I think it is less about homosexuality per se and more about the contesting claims of different markers of identity – in this case, sexual vsersus ethnic identity. In the Sri Lanka of Arjie’s time, all that mattered was whether you were Sinhala or Tamil; everything else was irrelevant.
The Miniaturist is worlds away from Funny Boy and The Scent of God. At first, one may wonder: what has a late 20th century and a post-millennial novel about homo-erotic bonding in an all-boys colonial school and an ashram, respectively, to do with a novel about a miniature artist in Mughal India? A little delving into the narrative will make it clear.
Set it in the 16th century, The Miniaturist tells the story of the painter Kamal-al-Din Bihzad, son of Abdus Samad Shirazi, chief artist in the court of emperor Akbar. The historical Bihzad had showed exceptional artistic talent as a boy and was expected to succeed his father, but he rebelled and then dropped out of sight – lost to history. Basu thus weaves a tale from what was essentially a footnote in history. But the novel is a contemporary one, because what it primarily explores has deep relevance even today – namely, the relationship between art and the artist, and the extent to which it is defined by love, success and power.
In Bihzad’s case, his relationship with his art is primarily defined by love and personal relationships. And most of those centre around his school and his mentors. In his case, there are actually three (art) schools (his father had prevented him from having any formal general education, because he was convinced that “words and numbers” would spoil “his love for glowing images”) – his father’s ‘kitabkhana’, his tutor Mir Sayyid Ali’s workshop, and his perfumer stepmother Zuleikha’s perpetually scent-filled room in their own haveli.
Like Black Tie and Mr Lokubandara in Funny Boy, Abdus Samad Shirazi and Mir Sayyid Ali are figures of authority; and like Kamal Swami and Sushant Kane in Anirvan’s life, they inspire Bihzad in different ways. Neither, however, is aware that he leads a double life: working simultaneously on two projects, the official Akbarnama (commissioned by the emperor himself) by day and his personal Akbarnama by night, where he gives expression to his wildest fantasies – depicting Akbar and himself as lovers.
Working in Akbar’s kitabkhana, Bihzad had developed an adolescent infatuation for Akbar – the distant, unseen emperor, who ironically was a perpetual presence in his art. But that he dares to paint his fantasies is due to the indirect influence of Zuleikha, who had warned him against the pitfalls of being reduced to just a commissioned artist of the court (like his father).
There is of course a difference between fantasy and real relationships; but we need to understand that for Bihzad, his fantasy is very real. He sleepwalks/works through the day only to be able to live and paint his fantasies at night. And throughout, Akbar never leaves his company.
The “school” (albeit different variants of it) thus becomes the locus of forbidden desire in all the three novels. The cost that Bihzad has to pay for it, however, is particularly high – he is exiled from India (just when he is close to succeeding his father as the chief artist of the royal workshop) and his life is never the same again. Years of aimless wandering follow, with many trials and tribulations, till he is reunited with his emperor again on his death bed.
Threat to order
Homosexuality has always been considered a threat to order – whether that order is religion, or ethnic nationalism, or artistic propriety, or a monarchy sustained by patrilineal succession. The time and place where the homosexual relationship is located doesn’t seem to matter: from Edward II being de-throned and murdered for his love for Gaveston in 14th century England, to Bihzad being exiled for painting his erotic fantasies about Akbar in 16th century Mughal India, to Arjie being forced to leave Snehan in late 20th century Sri Lanka, it’s the same story. The Scent of God is yet another powerful reminder of that. Though its ending is very different from the others.
Scent was written before the revoking of Section 377. Let’s hope that the legal victory brings about a radical change on the ground – in people’s actual lives. That everyone is able to live and love without fear. And that gets reflected in literature as well.