Review: The Scent of God by Saikat Majumdar
Somewhere in the mid-1990s, boys of an elite boarding school on the outskirts of Calcutta are watching a curly-haired 16-year-old Indian cricketer play the Pakistanis in Peshawar. In the common room of Bliss Hall, the tension of an impending loss is fanned further by the sound of firecrackers going off in Mosulgaon, a nearby Muslim settlement that is cheering for Pakistan. Anirvan, a class 7 student, cannot take his eyes off the curly-haired Sachin Tendulkar on TV or his mind off Kajol, the boy next to him. He takes Kajol’s palm in his, caresses his fingers -- “the anxiety of the moment was a disease and one had to share it” – till the TV is abruptly turned off.
The all-boys’ boarding is run by a Hindu monastic order and a lot transpires under the eagle eyes of the monks as the middle-school boys shuffle between Bliss and Conscience halls of the ashram spread over many acres of grabbed land – 80 villages, it is rumoured.
The Scent of God is Anirvan or Yogi’s story (Kajol calls him Yogi). Anirvan loves the scents and sounds of the ashram and dreams of becoming a monk as his grandmother had hoped he would one day thereby enabling seven generations of the family before and after her to attain salvation. He lacks the genius to crack IIT or become a football player, even though the monks egg the boys on with, “You’ll be a lot closer to god if you played football than if you read the Gita”.
It is his love for words that makes him a star at school. His English teacher Sushant Kane or SrK (short for Senior Kane) recognises his talent in debating, while the dreaded warden of Bliss Hall, Kamal Swami, who disciplines boys with his eyes, recognises his ability to meditate and “tune out” like a real yogi. A future monk?
Anirvan is in awe of the thirty-something Kamal Swami. He secretly admires the silent monk, “The Lord Lotus”, his glowing skin, his scent, “the whiff of cardamom”, and his flowing saffron robe. “A prayer hall that walked,” he thinks. The swami, too, goes easy on Anirvan, gently teaching him “how to blow the conch before prayer”.
The boys are subjected to ruthless discipline. They have to sweat it out on the cricket field and football ground, excel in mathematics and science, prepare to crack top exams without as much as a fan in their hostel rooms, and at the end of the day, bathe in the aroma of incense and flowers in the prayer hall. Minor slips are greeted with beatings. Those who excel in exams and are also fair-complexioned and good-looking are given special attention -- premium rooms right next to the monks.
Anirvan is drawn into the world of monks, the world of saffron. He sees “beauty and power in saffron that no colour in this world could match”, even as he is curious about the world outside the ashram. The rather reluctant ashram resident Sushant Kane’s anecdotes about this other world and its fantastical life intrigues him: “The monks say the world is Maya…It’s not the world; they have Maya here. The incense and the flowers and the music.”
SrK offers Anirvan more food for thought. Why were juicy chicken drumsticks served to a student after a brutal beating by a monk? Did the monks beat up the boys because they couldn’t really do what they wanted to? Or did they?
Anirvan decides to visit the world outside the ashram with SrK -- the world of prostitutes, bootleggers and wily politicians and stand up for those who need him.
In the ashram, Kajol stays real. When he fails to persuade Anirvan to return to school and worry about exams, he disconnects himself and focusses on what he does best -- prepare to crack the IIT exam.
Saikat Majumdar’s writing is powerful. It reveals and conceals at the same time. Every word is carefully crafted and the subtle carelessness in every sentence opens an ocean of interpretations. The poetry-prose captures the tension of the two entangled world orders, spiritual and material, where desires range from same-sex love relationships to flourishing post-IIT careers. The Anirvans and Kajols of the ashram are not allowed to nibble the goodies of both these worlds, they are ordained to let go of one.
The beautiful feel of silk and saffron evaporates as soon as the book is put away. The reader looks for answers, aches to see beyond the sensory and the illusory world of the monks, itches to fill in the blanks on what transpires when the boys shuttle between Bliss and Conscience Halls. You want to know if it is old-fashioned to be conscientious in churches, madrasas and ashrams.
The sense that does prevail is of the blurring fine line between the pure and the profane, love and lust, and how deeply flawed our education system is; a system that can frown upon imparting sex education but can trick and trap innocent boys into doing the unimaginable.