But this is not the only reason why Sniffing Papa is curious. Despite pretensions to decadence, and a rather text-bookish, adolescent anarchy, it’s a didactic work. The novel sort of exhorts you to lead an independent, liberal, intellectually alert life, and tells you as best as it can how to go about it. A book of wisdom, in short. And, like all wisdoms, quite bourgeois in character, and a little overbearing.
The story itself revolves around a British-educated patriarch of an upper middle class family in Raipur in Uttar Pradesh. This Hemingwayesque figure is on his deathbed in what the novelist describes as the Chamber of Perfumes. And like Hemingway, Papa too ends his life with his own hunting gun.
The perfumes represent not only the colognes and guns the old man used, both as a hedonist brown sahib and a shikari, but also the evanescent quality of memory itself, which like mist seeps out of every second word of the novel. The running theme of olfactory gratifications would have Proust flaring his nostrils in consternation.
The wheel of the story makes its circular progress as women—and men—come and go in that room talking of their personal Michaelangelo. It’s a rather theatrical setting, perhaps a deliberate device to facilitate confessions from characters. There’s nothing quite like death to make you talk, is there?
But it’s not just memory either. It’s memory mixed with desire. Desire for the world of childhood, desire for knowledge, meaning and sex. There’s quite a bit of the last, the kind of stuff you tend to read with one hand.
The patriarch, his self-effacing wife and their five children, of whom only Seema and her narrator-brother Monty are fleshed out with any sense of completion, are the hub around which the plot spins. The children’s memories of hunting with their father, their coming of age, Monty’s college life, and his American Experience as a graduate student set against the Vietnam War and Beat generation are the story’s lines of force.
In the process, you also get to know how to shoot partridge, the fauna and flora in the Raipur marshes, how to fry an egg, how to fish, and how to clean a gun. All rather detailed lectures, and all quite unnecessary, I thought, at such excruciating lengths. You wouldn’t be entirely off the mark if you thought the author was showing off.
In another fit of display, Badhwar quotes Ezra Pound on Joyce: "Joyce’s most engaging merit is that he carefully avoids telling you a lot you don’t want to know. He presents his people swiftly and vividly, he does not sentimentalise over them, he does not weave convolutions." Yes, yes. But Badhwar, alas, does all this to a flourishing fault.
Yet, he has in Sniffing Papa a family saga that is surprisingly readable but for patches. How can you not like a man who in the end was always going to shoot himself in the mouth? A good editor might have cut the novel short and made it that bit quicker. No matter, I guardedly liked Sniffing Papa. Perhaps because some of the fragrances I could catch a whiff of from my own childhood. This is for all its considerable faults an evocative novel. That is saying a lot in these sad times when all you want is to cover your face and call the fake-famous names.