Decoding ‘progression’ through ‘intimacy’ as the anchoring aesthetics in Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God
By Sudeep Ghosh
“How to act, that was the question? Whither to go, how to become oneself? One was not oneself, one was merely a half-stated question. How to become oneself, how to know the question and the answer of oneself, when one was merely an unfixed something-nothing, blowing about like the winds of heaven undefined, unstated.” – D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God captures the existential discourse in its slippage between the actual and the metaphorical, the sensual and the spiritual, the immediate and the eternal. In this coming-of-age novel, while the former is curious, the latter is coercive. Both are enmeshed in paradoxes. While the adolescent world, supposed to be exhilarating, is intimidating, the adult world, anticipating life-changing elevation through abstinence, is riddled with self-doubt. Majumdar employs the motif of freedom, freedom of choice to be specific, to explore the possibilities of transformation. The inquiry into how adolescent minds and adult minds construct their truths makes the novelist a discerning interpreter of intimacy where desires are elusive, dark, innocuous, flighty, hidden, unruly, enigmatic and tortuous. This paper intends to explore how the narrative ‘progression’ is designed through the triangle of perception, knowing and cognition to unlock the truths of ‘intimacy’.
In the duel between the body and the mind, the Lockean tabula rasa operates through the nature of experience forged by the adolescents and the adult in the novel. While the former are students in an elite, all-boys’ school run by a Hindu religious organization, the latter is a monk in search of the transcendental. What holds them together is their submission, intermittent and at times unconscious, to the world of the senses. The gravitational pull of desires, unknown and inarticulate, is too overbearing to set them free. Consequently, they appear fragmented, detached and exiled in their intimate search for meaning and existence. The characters, Kamal Swami, Yogi, the Lotus, Anirvan and Kajol, in the novel meditate on intimacy as they encounter the enchanted world of forbidden desires. In negotiating with the flighty attitude of intimacy, the characters fall a prey to the temptation of ‘touch’. Touch is both a titillating outlet and a healing anodyne. The language of intimacy in the novel perpetuates the immediate void and the characters’ parched interior thirsting for care and love.
In this narrative of friendship, the amorous and the spiritual intertwine. In an atmosphere of fear and anticipation, the pining for love and happiness, though fleeting in nature, not only soothes the agitated mind and body of the emotionally distraught adolescents Anirban and Kajol but also pacifies the adult monk Kamal Swami (The Lord Lotus) agonizingly trapped in the world of the senses where clarity and interpretability of life’s intent are perpetually at issue. If Anirban and Kajol mediate on innocence, Kamal Swami tries to come to terms with the avowed notion of purity. Both are stricken by a creeping sense of deceit. Does the knowledge of the body entail corruption? How far does its resonance for a world of intimacy, a compelling response to homoerotic friendship, redeem the body-mind rift? How far can the anxiety-inducing male desire be held in suspension? These pressing questions posed by the novelist lend validity to the power and beauty of ‘intimacy’. The characters, suspended in an ethical deadlock, breed unease and dilemma with an absurdist flourish identifying with Camus’ The Rebel: “If one believes in nothing, if nothing makes sense, if we can assert no value whatsoever, everything is permissible and nothing is important.” However, the adolescent and adult characters, unlike Camus’ nihilistic dispositions, betray endurance to interface with a proactive paradigm in realising the dimensions of renewal, to borrow the metaphor from Stephen R. Covey, ‘sharpen the saw’. The novel is an emergence of the ‘unaware’ as the characters never cease to hold the ‘spoken mirror’ in their striving for transformation – to engage with disenchantment after their bouts with the inner workings of intimacy, to disengage themselves from the serendipitous, liminal alliances in relationships, to rethink the discourse between appearance and reality.
Intimacy undermines the monk’s devotion to unify with God. Kamal Swami’s resistance and resignation call to mind the third type of devotee in the Bhagavatam: “He who sees the divine Self in all beings and all beings in the divine Self is the best devotee of God. He who bears love to God, friendship to his devotees, kindness to the ignorant, and indifference to his foes, is of the second best-type, and he who faithfully worships God only in the image, and not in his devotees or others, is a novice.” The intimacy becomes the pathway to both body-language and God-knowledge. How far is the monk in the novel able to attain the knowledge of Brahman, the impersonal, absolute being, is left to the readers.
The ending of the novel, with the pervading image of the body, leaves ample room for an ever-increasing longing for self-fulfilment or realization of the Supreme. The ending is irredeemably fluid making the progression from ignorance to knowledge inconclusive: “Yogi entered his hug and felt safe. His corpse melted into nirvana” (p.234). Intimacy assumes a greater significance insofar as it nurtures intuitive humanism through tenderness, sympathy and longing. What is veiled is uncovered by provoking searching reflection on the nature of morality, religion and humanity to (re)define the brotherhood of love. The choice of diction ‘corpse’ in this context recalls Graham Greene’s ‘grotesque holiness’ in the ambience of weariness and wilderness. The use of ‘nirvana’ not only purges the act of intimacy in this climactic revelation but also offers the novelist’s progressivist version of human relationship. The union of Yogi and Kajol is a benign tribute to the heretical idea where homosexuality is not infernal, but paradisiacal by virtue of its fidelity to unalloyed intimacy. This salvation of intimacy delivers a polemic against cultural orthodoxy. Readers might wonder if the ‘darkness’ of doubt gets finally dissolved in the act of love: who wins – the flesh or the spirit? Or is this act of sacred defamiliarisation too brutal to conventional minds? The power of visual imagination in this depiction of love attempts to salvage the spiritual wasteland of post-truth world. How can one forget the lingering plea of Joy Goswami: “Far off, the wounded planet/ Is still afloat — / Offer it a fistful, an earthful of / Heart, will you?”
Intimacy is revealed through the recurring use of the lexical choice – ‘dark’. In a world of wanton impulses and wayward emotions, not dissolute though, the mystique around ‘darkness’ unravels. One is reminded of Tagore’s words: “In the night we stumble over things and become acutely conscious of their individual separateness.” In the novel, darkness is not only the perpetual strife between the body and the soul but also the quest for the elusive truth, love, goodness and harmony. If the characters are restless, they are restless as wayfarers on a voyage to unearth the roots of the sensual and the spiritual. Their restlessness, unlike a sense of illusory enthrallment, recalls Tagore’s rhetorical questions: “What quenches fire glows in your eyes? / What restless fever runs in your blood? / What call from the dark urges you?/ O traveller, what sleepless spirit has touched you from the heart of the midnight?” Moreover, in a bid to reconcile with darkness, the resounding call of darkness conjures up the throbbing words of Swami Vivekananda: “Let darkness go; the will-o’-the wisp that leads/ With blinking light to pile more gloom in gloom.” The restlessness of the characters in the novel is filtered through the three gunas (matter): tamas (inertia), rajas (passion), sattva (tranquillity).
The characters in the novel, largely moulded by the ethos of their religious institution under question, respond to the constructivist vision of independent learning. It testifies The Scent of God as a novel of education inviting scholarly attention of inter-disciplinary studies committed to making robust the relationship between the philosophy of mind-morality and the nature of emotion-thought. Here, it would not be out of place to allude to Tagore’s Santiniketan experiment and his vision of education in nurturing the value of individual experience which the novel advocates. The setting of the novel, in affecting the social, interpersonal, cognitive, emotional and environmental variables of human development, echoes Gurudev’s words: “But my mission is to urge for a world-wide commerce of heart and mind, sympathy and understanding and never allow this sublime opportunity to be sold in the slave markets for the cheap price of individual profits or be shattered away by the unholy competition in mutual destructiveness.” The characters in the novel are aware of ‘mutual destructiveness’ that redeems them in their perennial search for a balance between body and mind to rationalise intimacy and come to terms with agony in the wake of its loss or indifference. How can goodness and truthfulness be pursued in the face of intimacy? How far can evil propensities associated with misplaced intimacy be minimised? What is gross and superfluous in comprehending intimacy? How is the oppressed intimacy falsified and distorted? These are the vital questions the novel attempts to pose and demands a syncretic model to make life-experience a living process of joy, power and morality.
The Scent of God is a significant addition to the genre of confessional writing. It integrates forms of confession, sexual or spiritual, in teasing out the nature of ambivalence, indeterminacy and anxiety. It contends that it is the processes of intimate self-consciousness (my emphasis) as much as the crises of recognition at its heart which impress upon the adolescent and the adult worlds of experience. The novelist’s recourse to memory, the autobiographical and beyond, lends authenticity to the narrative. Careful readers cannot overlook the novelist’s ‘personal voice’ in his complex relationship with the institution under question. However, the ‘raw stirrings’ and ‘personal epiphany’, to quote the novelist’s phrases, are held back by a well-crafted sense of detached self-reflexivity. This critical distance is commensurate with the authenticity of a memoir where the novelist creates the ‘power relationship’ in contextualising temptation, loss of faith, anxiety of sexual awareness, self-doubt in the face of growing adulthood and pensive retreat into self-questioning. The novelist is able to create a compelling binary between the empirical truth and the existential untruth. The design of the novel neither brings out the novelist’s method of selection of personal memories nor does it claim whether these felt experiences are therapeutic or purgative as the narrative persona is not pronounced enough with a ‘confessing I’.
Saikat Majumder crafts his narrative unity through the motif of intimacy. His impeccable sensitivity in capturing the implicit and inarticulate promptings of intimacy by delving into the worlds of susupti, svapna and jagrat (inertia, dream, awareness) in The Scent of God recalls the words of Susan Friedman: “The artist as seer would attempt to create what the culture could no longer produce: symbol and meaning in the dimension of art, brought into being through the agency of language.” Saikat Majumder has rendered a signal service by successfully delineating how ‘intimacy’, sometimes a word much profaned and misconstrued, can be a centre of receptivity – receptivity to journey from awareness to awakening. I am reminded of the metaphors of ‘lost keys’ and ‘house’ in A.K.Ramanujan’s Folktales From India foregrounding the need to unlock the intangible powers of self-knowledge. In The Scent of God, intimacy is a mediator between experience and knowledge, knowledge and culture, sensory perception and spiritual redemption, truth and falsehood. The journey of ‘progression’, laced with hope and despair, continues with the stoic conviction, to quote the cyclonic monk Swami Vivekananda’s eloquent words:
This is your road – a painful road and drear.
I made the stones that never give you rest.
I set your friends in pleasant ways and clear,
And he shall come like you, unto My breast.
But you, My child, must travel here.
 D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow. Penguin Classics Edition, 2007.
 Saikat Majumdar, The Scent of God. Simon & Schuster India, 2019.
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 Albert Camus, The Rebel. Penguin, UK 2000.
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 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Penguin India, 2007.
 Pravrajika Vrajaparna, Living Wisdom. Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1995.
 Graham Greene, Collected Essays. Vintage Classics, 1999.
 Joy Goswami, Selected Poems. Harper India, 2014.
 Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man. Rupa, 2005.
 Rabindranath Tagore, Collected poems and plays. Macmillan and Company Limited, 1950.
 Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1990.
 Sunilchandra Sarkar, Rabindranath Tagore. Visva Bharati, 1961.
 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Vintage, 1980.
 Michael H. Whitworth, Modernism. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
 A.K Ramanujan, Folktales from India. Penguin India, 2009.
 Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1990.
Sudeep Ghosh is Coordinator of Theory of Knowledge at the Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad (India). His pedagogical articles, poems, critical papers, translations and art reviews have appeared in national and international journals. Passionate about comparative literature, world religions, philosophy and art, he can be reached at: email@example.com
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