The novel is set in an elite all-boys boarding school in late 20th century India, run by a Hindu monastic order where things are not how they seem. While Anirvan dreams of becoming a monk, he also finds himself drawn to a fellow student. “What is the meaning of monastic celibacy?” And what will give the boys “a life together in a world that does not recognize their kind of love?”
It 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.
Anirvan/Yogi (used interchangeably), 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. Anirvan’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.
The Scent of God, places and persons are always strongly felt. But while the book’s world, along with its apparent contradictions, is always vivid, yet – by the same token – those contradictions are never realised, because the author’s perspective is resolutely and insistently one-dimensional, clinging solely to the aesthetic.
About the author – Saikat Majumdar is a novelist, academic and a popular commentator on arts, literature, and higher education. He is the author of three novels, including, most recently, The Scent of God (2019), the widely acclaimed The Firebird (2015), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism – Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education – College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays – The Critic as Amateur (2019).