Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God is ‘queer fiction’; but its heteronormative gaze says otherwise
(This article was first published on firstpost.com as part of my fortnightly column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
Have you ever come across a work of fiction that explores queer desire but makes you feel like the narrator’s gaze is consistently heteronormative? Have you ever been disappointed with a book where queer pleasure is seen only within a framework of guilt and shame, and not for its potential to knock down patriarchal structures? Have you ever felt like standing up for queer characters whose bodies are fetishized even as their agency is taken away? I have.
The Scent of God by Saikat Majumdar is the novel I am talking about. In its narrative universe, queer love is allowed to exist only as a longing that must never utter its name. It is a secret that must be locked away in the dungeon of the heart. If brought to light, it might stain all that is pure, beautiful and pristine. It may take off its clothes — quietly, hurriedly, and only occasionally — but far from where it can be discovered. It must give up trying to be understood. If possible, it should stop taking itself seriously.
This book will have you believe that queer love must learn not to ask for too much. It can only hope to find release, not happiness. It must know its own place — under a communal shower in a boarding school — as it is nothing but an abomination. For the monastic order that runs this school for boys, the only thing worth earning is saffron — the hue of renunciation. If a boy becomes a monk, seven generations before him, and seven generations after him attain nirvana. Or so, they are told. At least, this is what Anirvan, the protagonist, is trained to aspire for. Becoming a monk is an attractive proposition but he is also attracted to people in the ashram — a fellow student, his English teacher, and a senior monk. Only the first one is a match worth pursuing.
Anirvan’s romance with Kajol begins during the telecast of an India-Pakistan cricket match in the common room of their hostel. Amidst the drama and the swearing, there is the perfect moment when their fingers find each other. “Everything felt right. Anirvan wanted to bring Kajol’s delicate wrist to his mouth, suck his soft baby fingers one by one. There was an ache in his loins,” says the narrator. Given the widespread fear of adolescent sexuality in India, and the desperate urge to regulate it, this is perhaps a significant moment in literature. Not so long ago, I knew a teacher who reprimanded girls in her class for leaving their hair open. “Tie them,” she used to say. “This is a school, not a place for you to solicit clients.” I think she might faint if she read this book, or maybe not, because some people live in denial about queer relationships.
The narrator seems to slip into Anirvan’s shoes for a brief moment, when Kajol is described with great tenderness: “His eyelashes were beautiful and he had an intense way of looking at you, almost a savage way, which felt uncanny because he was such a quiet boy with dreamy handwriting and high scores in every subject. He could explain crop rotation on the Deccan Plateau without batting an eyelash so you never noticed how beautiful they were till he looked at you.” Their feelings for each other intensify over time, and so do their disagreements over what a shared future might look like. They do come together but in a way that makes even a win feel like a loss.
Theirs is not the only queer relationship at the boarding school. The narrator says, “Why did Tavi, the big and loud fast bowler, want to sleep next to Rajeev who seemed to care about nothing and was always singing holy songs in his girlish voice? Why, everyone knew why he did. But who would talk about it but in a whisper?” There is a do-not-ask-do-not-tell situation here, and the narrator suggests that this is the best one can get at the ashram. Wanting more might only increase the threat of violence.
The English teacher Anirvan likes is a man named Sushant Kane, who also doubles up as a debate coach. “Everything about him was pointed, his cheekbones, the end of his beard, the rhythm of his poems and the chalk with which he split complex and compound sentences on the board,” says the narrator. Apart from the fact that Sushant wears tight shirts, and has beautiful smoke-rings curling out of his nose, Anirvan warms up to this man because he offers him a window into the world outside the ashram — “city buses and plays, exhibitions and advertisements, movies and books.” Anirvan likes the fact that here is someone who appreciates his talent in public speaking and offers him a platform to make a difference in the lives of people who are scarred by poverty and deprivation. Sushant has his own ulterior motives, and Anirvan realizes what they are, but only after dipping his feet into the sordid world of party politics that takes him away from Kajol.
Kamal Swami is yet another person Anirvan is drawn towards. He feels peaceful when he sits beside the monk. Anirvan likes the smell of his saffron robes, especially the whiff of cardamom they carry. When he looks at the monk, he dreams of his “agile cricketer body,” and wants to touch him. The narrator reveals more: “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 arms as the Swami rolled up his sleeves on the badminton court. He dreamt of owning such arms one day. These very arms.”
This is not just another instance of a student having a crush on a teacher, and fantasizing about the latter. The narrator hints at pederasty more than once, which calls into question not only the vow of celibacy that the monks swear by but also the consent or lack thereof from adolescents who are minors. Of Anirvan’s classmates who can crack algebra equations in their sleep, the narrator says, “Some of them were also good-looking and fair-complexioned and so the monks liked them. They always got the rooms right next to that of the hostel warden.”
Later in the book, we are told, “There was to be no fan in the boys’ rooms. It was the time to build character and the breeze from electric fans was an indulgence. The monks liked the boys sweaty and breathless. That was the true path of Yoga.” On another occasion, the narrator says, “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…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.”
Moreover, one of the students in the novel, named Bikram, reports that his roommates Asim and Nath “had tortured him for months, making him do things he couldn’t bear to talk about and doing things to him that he would die before he could show anyone.” The narrator does not spell out details, but we hear Anirvan saying, “How can a boy do such things to another boy? It’s not like Bikram is a girl.” Komal frowns, but clearly Anirvan is struggling with self-hate or internalized homonegativity, and feels the need to use this incident to cover up his own sexuality.
While this may not be the author’s intention at all, the way in which homosexuality, pederasty and peer sexual abuse are brought up in the ashram space is disturbing because it can strengthen one of the worst stereotypes that exist about queer people, and gay men in particular: that they are sexual predators who are unsafe to have around children. The fact that such individuals exist is true; that they are representative of a community is not. It is important to separate sexual intimacy from sexual assault.
The Scent of God is also problematic because of the way in which religious, ethnic and sexual minorities are talked about in this majoritarian Hindu ashram that appears to be all about piety, devotion and transcendence on the surface. It is built on land grabbed from indigenous people, and benefits from the services of Muslim villagers who live nearby. Muslims are addressed as “slit-dicks,” and as “angry, savage people who moaned in prayer several times a day.” A Pakistani leg-spinner is compared to “a cripple trying to twist at the disco.” A Santhal boy is described in these terms: “Nath looked like a black ape and he made a grotesque face, like that of a roasting eggplant curling over a fire.”
Does this ashram sound like a microcosm of the India we might have left when all the ones who do not fit the norm are eliminated, one by one? This might sound alarmist but there are times when calls for solidarity must be framed as such. We need to fashion a queer politics that stands up for everyone who faces the risk of persecution. Every life matters.