Saikat Majumdar’s new novel, The Scent of God, has been published this year. Photo courtesy the author
The long fight against Article 377 is a reminder of the truth that naming non-normative forms of sexuality is important for purposes of political mobilisation. But this should also be a moment to remember that there are forms of intimacy that are hard to name, and hence too easily pushed into the shadows
Ever since The Scent of God (Simon & Schuster India) came out, various people have asked me, and occasionally my publisher, if I identify as gay. In the good spirit of gossip, I must also share that there have been expressions of romantic interest from places least expected. There are some colourful stories here that will have to wait for another day.
If there is an error here, it is the identification of the art with the artist, one as old as it is perhaps inevitable. “How does it matter if I’m straight or gay or if I wish to sleep with trees?” That has always been my response. “What has got to do with the reading of a novel?” But there has been no other “mistake” to correct.
It would be easy, no? My lifestyle choice, my social decisions, everything points to an identifiable sexuality. But how does one identify oneself? Self-identification rules the day, even with race and gender. It should be the defining criterion for sexuality, right? Sexuality is rooted in desire. If we don’t claim our agency in desire, where else would we claim it?
Self-identification is not only necessary to establish personhood, it is vital for concrete political actions such as legislative reforms. It was never clearer than it became on October 6, 2018, when the Supreme Court of India struck down the applicability of Article 377 of the Indian Constitution to consensual homosexual relations between adults.
How else can marginal peoples come together, if not through the collective act of self-identification?
Sure, I can identify myself. But how can that identification be exhaustive? Can our identification account for all our intimacies?
Sure, we all want to claim agency in desire. But isn’t that desire for agency itself doomed to fail?
We “fall” in love. Sometimes we climb out of it. But not always.
In a recent interview, the social psychologist Ashish Nandy tells us that as opposed to old-fashioned patriotism, which simply involves love for one’s country, nationalism comes into being by constructing enemies. When I heard this, I realised this is exactly what I had ended up narrating in The Scent of God, nowhere more pointedly than in the opening scene.
“Whenever India played Pakistan, the villagers in Mosulgaon wanted India dead. For the boys, that was the best reason to watch cricket on TV. The village was just outside the walls of the hostel; their roars and firecrackers were real, an enemy of their own!”
While cricket nationalism is driven by the hatred of the Pakistani cricket team and the little Pakistan close by, the poor Muslim village outside the hostel, a miracle happens on the battlefield of Peshawar. But a breathless kind of miracle is also happening in the dark hall where the boys sit huddled, glued to the TV screen. A boy grips the palm of his neighbour in the excitement of the match but their fingers remain joined even after the moment of excitement has passed.
“Anirvan squeezed Kajol’s hand. His fingers slid back, caressed his wrist, the baby bone awake on the corner, the veins of his pulse that made up the soft belly of the wrist. It was his to play with. It did not question Anirvan’s claim on it, doing whatever he wanted to do with it.”
There are kinds of intimacy that are hard to name. What happens when that playful grasp of your friend’s hand stays on and your fingers get entangled, starts to play?
In this novel, intimacy blooms into romance and climaxes in a bold lifestyle choice. But it doesn’t always have to.
The long fight against Article 377 is a reminder of the truth that naming non-normative forms of sexuality is important for purposes of political mobilisation. But this should also be a moment to remember that there are forms of intimacy that are hard to name, and hence too easily pushed into the shadows. Once upon a time, that was the only place for queer love. It is now out of the legal closet. But socially, it still claims kinship with many intimacies that elude the act of naming.
Indian writing, especially in the vernacular traditions, is rich with instances of such hard-to-classify intimacies. Probably the most famous is Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf that tells the stories of powerfully idiosyncratic intimacies that are sometimes given reductive names. In UR Ananthamurthy’s story A Horse for the Sun, the character Venkat gives a massage to his old friend which is therapeutic and also something more. In Amrita Pritam’s story The Weed, intimacies, both between and within genders seem simultaneously poetic and transgressive.
Normative romance still remains between a man and a woman. But intimacy is a different matter — it sprouts in strange and invisible cracks of life and literature. If romance appears to be a staple for mainstream art forms, arcane intimacies hold the more daring ones in thrall.
Stories come from a different place, and when they come, they choose you, rather than the other way around. They leave the writer little conscious agency in the naked newborn act of telling. But it’s also true that we share the spirit of the age. After the writing is done and we return to consciousness, we wonder at the ways the strange and private stories we tell are also the stories of our times.
Suddenly, the two kinds of stories appear braided far more closely together than we thought. The Scent of God came to me half a dream, half real, a world real but invented. A story of romantic passion between two teenage boys that take an unlikely turn is strange enough; what is the fate of that romance when it blooms in a monastic boarding school?
A story like this comes to you from a forgotten crevice of light and shadow far back in your life, and just when it’s about to see life in print, Article 377, criminalising same-sex love, is struck down by the Indian Supreme Court. Is this one of life’s loving ironies?
And then comes something even more powerfully ominous. The fight over Sabarimala temple, and the sweetly innocent idea that you can ensure male monastic celibacy just by keeping menstruating women out of your world. That sex — and sexual temptation — is synonymous with women. How cute is that? The Scent of God, too, ends up narrating the fragility of that notion, and how it shatters into the shards of a saffron rainbow.
‘One day everyone will learn to renounce,’ the Lotus whispered. ‘One day all will turn saffron.’
Theirs is a kind of love that cannot weather the real world.
But today they can, right?
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