There is an educational institution near Calcutta where the students—most from well-to-do, middle-class families—wear spotless white dhotis, bathe in outside stalls and start their day with meditational chanting while monks in saffron conduct classes. It is easy to fit the world of Saikat Majumdar’s novel into its walls, the rituals, the drapes, the subduing of the flesh and the discipline. Though whether its swamis are scented with cardamom is debatable.
Simmering tensions are revealed as the boys watch an India-Pakistan cricket match with an ear cocked for the reactions in the Muslim village outside the gates. Another kind of tension also comes to the fore, Anirvan’s feelings for Kajol, and the challenge is to keep their relationship secret in the atmosphere of saffron and incense through idyllic activities like plucking puja flowers together. Of course, it is a boarding school packed with raging hormones, so much of the reactions and expletives are expected—not to mention outbreaks of violence both on the disciplinary and rebellious front.
Majumdar has created a dialectic for this world where the spiritual guides rejoice in appellations like the Happy Bearded Smiling One, while the masters rejoice in names like Kamal Swami or Lotus Lord. Sado-masochism rubs shoulders with sensuality. The Lotus Swami slips fingers inside shirts, hopefully expecting the mind to transcend all sensation while the Love Lord flogs and then feeds those he adores. Krishna, say the Swamis, expects those he loves to suffer. Between the erotic and the sensory lies a thin border and sometimes in The Scent of God, it is hard to tell where one begINS and the other ends.
Anirvan rejoices in the pseudonym Yogi given to him by Kajol, the name of someone lost supposedly in the mind, but actually in the seduction of exteriority and the shower room experiences of boys’ schools that will be familiar to many boarders. The English master SK and his friend, Raghav, try to rip the saffron veil apart with harsh reality. Through them Anirvan discovers the seething, roaring world of true poverty that squats on rusty railroad tracks outside city limits. Like any college boy he toys with activism but is haunted by his school days of privilege disguised as renunciation.
Saffron is truly the opium of the favoured, to paraphrase Marx. Coming of age is garbed in its hue as Anirvan becomes Yogi, yearning to lose himself in the comforts of confession and Kajol’s arms. The question is, is saffron an escape from reality? Or is it an overwhelming maya? In the present context it is hard to mention the rites of religion without evoking the political scenario and Majumdar has used this to his narrative’s advantage. One day, Majumdar writes quite ominously near the end of the book, ‘All will turn saffron’.
The cover image sets the tone of a butterfly-fragile world of touch swathed in saffron. This is one book that you can definitely judge by its cover and by the tide of current events.