Saikat Majumdar: Author Interview

In India, we seldom talk about homosexual relationships, let alone write about it. But now, the times are changing and so are the people. When we at thenotoriousreader heard about The Scent of God by Saikat Majumdar, we had to talk to him about his book.

Saikat Majumdar is a novelist, scholar, and a commentator on arts, literature, and higher education. He is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), one of Times of India’s 20 Most Talked About Indian books of 2019, 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). He has taught at Stanford University, was named a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University.

What inspires you to pick up your pen and write?

A novel grips me like a spirit and demands to be told; the initial urge is almost ghostly. But as I write, it is no longer just about me – it increasingly becomes about the reader. I think artistic writing originates in a deep egoism and then transforms into great humility, a spirit of service to the reader. At least that’s what it is for me. I write fiction, and yet my writing is often described as cinematic – I work through scenes, and my goal is to write scenes that move
the reader and stay with them. But everything, in the last instance, is about language. I find it hard to connect to a book if the language does not have some magic. I set that as a minimum standard for my own fiction too.

Can you please give us some more information about your book?

The Scent of God is a story of romantic love between two teenage boys who are classmates in a boarding school near Calcutta run by an order of Hindu monks. It is a strict and austere atmosphere, where the boys – and the monks
– are expected to be celibate. But it is also an atmosphere of great intimacy where the boys live together, play together, study together. Friendships take shape, and in this case, a strong mutual attraction. They try to be in denial, at least one of them more than the other. There are conflicting influences and forces in their lives and the opposition between a turbulent, politically active life on the streets against the quiet and idyllic austerity of the saffron ashram. How their lives will turn out – and whether they will get life together with each other – will depend on the decisions they make.

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Can you please tell us more about the main characters of the book?

The protagonist of the novel is Anirvan, nicknamed Yogi by his classmates because of his ambition to become a monk, like his saffron mentors. His lover is Kajol (a male name in Bengal), a quiet boy who is good in studies, with
conventional ambitions in life. Anirvan comes from a disturbed family background and is talented and unconventional. Other key characters include Kamal Swami, the Lotus, who is a charismatic monk who plays soccer with boys but is also a strict disciplinarian; and Susant Kane, nicknamed SrK, a left-leaning teacher who mentors Yogi and is dismissive of the monastic order. The various strands of conflict between religion, politics, and sexuality emerge through the relationships between these and other supporting characters.

Why did you choose to write about this particular topic?

I knew this world. I went to a school much like this, a boarding school run by a saffron order. I knew the intoxicating mix of strange forces that defined its atmosphere – the sensory aura of religion, the smell of incense and flowers,
the music of hymns, and the erotic intensity created by the gathering of pubescent boys there, who are asked to deny their bodily urges. I felt I just had to capture this magnetic atmosphere in fiction. The story was invented, but some of the characters, especially the teachers and the monks, mix echoes of different real-life characters. I’ve long been fascinated by the artistic potential of religion, and the mix of religion and non-conventional sexuality made this story hard to resist.

Why did you choose this particular genre? Will you be trying your hand at any other genre?

The literary genre I’m most comfortable with is the novel. Beyond that, I don’t think of genre. The Scent of God is a love story, but does it mean it can be classified as romance? Or is it literary fiction as publishers like to call it? Or is
it a coming-of-age story? Perhaps all these genres are relevant – but do I think of genres when I write? I don’t think so. My new novel is a campus novel, and it also has a romantic relation in it. As I said, I’m gripped by the idea, the experience, or the story when I write – what genre it fits into, or doesn’t fit into, is really not that important to me.

When should we expect your next book? What will it be about?

I have a first draft of the new novel, but I spend a long time revising and editing, so it may take a while – perhaps sometime next year? It is, as I said, a campus novel set in the US and India, and explores the nature of the teacher-
student relationship, it’s meaning and limits. It asks questions about mentorship, about success and failure, what the responsibilities of the student and the teacher towards each other.

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If not a writer, what would have been the career of your choice?

Along with writing, I also teach literature and creative writing at a university, so I already have that profession as well. I also write for newspapers and magazines, including a weekly column, so there is also that profession, sort
of. My mother was an actress – she died young, and I have some memory of what it is to be the child of an actress, and to watch her on stage (where she mostly acted, along with some film and television). My earlier novel, The
Firebird, is a fictionalization of this relation, of a child processing his relation with the art form of theatre where his mother works. It sometimes reminds me of a brief time where I wondered what it might feel like to be an actor.
Honestly, I don’t think I can act – but it’s a kind of wild fascination!

Can you tell us about your favorite author/ authors?

Oh, there’s too many to name! Vivek Shanbhag’s novella Ghachar Ghochar was a great recent favorite, and the short story collection, Another Man’s Wife, by Manjul Bajaj. I loved Priyanka Dubey’s recent book No Nation for Women. I also like Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction, poetry, and essays, Arun Kolatkar’s poetry, and the nonfiction of Jamaica Kincaid and Virginia Woolf. And there are many, many others.

What do you like to do when you are not busy writing?

I teach, and I also have some administrative work as I head the Creative Writing department at my university. I travel a lot (not for the last few months, of course!), and also have two small children, so they demand quite a bit of
my time!

Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to share with our reader?

They are already my favorite kind of people as they like to read, a precious but sadly diminishing tribe today. Read widely, I would say, and read outside your comfort zone. Literature is an endless tension between the alien and the
familiar, and while you relax in the comfort in the familiar, don’t be afraid to face the alien – alien culture, alien place, time, plane of existence. It is especially important to read widely if you would like to write yourself. You’ll be
surprised thee kind of imaginations that are out there, the kind of imaginative worlds possible. It’s a great resource as you etch your own.

You can read more about the book here.

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