'One Feels Gripped by Different Stories, Themes, Experiences' - Saikat Majumdar
In conversation with writer Saikat Majumdar
I was introduced to Saikat Majumdar through a brilliant novel Firebird, recommended by a young friend who is a well-known food writer. She promised me that it was an unputdownable book. I was mesmerised for the week it took me to finish the book. I then wrote a review and began hunting frantically for Saikat through social media sites. He turned out to become a good friend, though we are a good two generations distanced in terms of time and therefore, all that comes along with it. The Firebird featured in The Telegraph Best Books of the Year and a finalist for the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market and the Bangalore Literary Festival Fiction Prize. He teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the Ashoka University in Delhi.
He asked me to read his first novel Silverfish, which is equally fascinating. And now, his newest novel, The Scent of God, (Simon & Schuster, India) took me by the hand into the interiors of a monastic boarding school exclusively catering to boys with aspirations to turning into engineers later on. I trapped him into an email interview and without hesitation, he responded at once. Here is how…….
When did the creative writing bug hit you and why?
I love your use of the word “bug.” It is indeed an illness, the compulsive need to write. I just hope the consequence is not as deadly! I started writing quite young. In school, I used to write both in English and Bangla, but when I decided to be serious about writing, I felt I had to choose. It’s been a while, but some time I would like to write in Bangla again.
What have you written before Silverfish?
I showed one of my early short stories to my professor, P. Lal.. He enjoyed them and asked for some more stories. He then proposed to bring out a collection of my short stories from his publishing house, Writers’ Workshop, which eventually published two novellas and two books of short stories, all during my college days. They now feel part of my juvenilia but I’m still fond of some of the stories.
The three novels that you have written are very different from each other. How do you, as an author, describe this difference in plot, theme, language, style, structure, approach and characterisation?
One feels gripped by different stories, themes, experiences – they make different demands on you, and you end up taking different paths. It’s not really in your control. Silverfish, my first novel (very much a first novel about which I now feel lukewarmish), was probably the most fictitious – in the sense it had characters with whom I have had the least real-life connection. Probably that’s why it feels a bit anthropological and detached. My connections to my second and third novel, The Firebird and The Scent of God, are more personal and that is partly why the stories feel more visceral to me. In some ways I think of these two novels as linked, as they are both bildungsromans, the stories of growth of young protagonists, though more really growth that has somehow gone awry. I think of The Firebird is a more intense and dramatic story, a story of the night; The Scent as a quieter and more playful, a story of the day. It is also a romance and the happiest of my novels so far. But under the quietness, it deals with some explosive themes.
How would you, as a very successful writer, define the act of writing without success or fame or money as criteria?
I think ‘success’ is the wrong word with which to think about writing. It may work well with careers in investment banking or even academia, but what really matters to a writer is a slightly different, perhaps related word: ‘impact.’ Impact may translate into fame or even money but it may not. I think what matters is whether your work is entering people’s discussions, their minds, and most ambitiously, their everyday lives in some small way. And how that impact lasts through time – Rabindranath’s classic question – who are you, reading me a hundred years from today. How many people your work impacts might depend on what you write: a writer or popular fiction may have a million readers, an intricate poet may have a few hundred. It’s not about the numbers, at least not entirely. But it must move the stranger, not just your mother!
The titles of your novels are quite intriguing – Silverfish, Firebird and The Scent of God. Kindly explain how you arrived at these titles.
Titles are hard. You can try to come up with them for months and nothing comes – and then suddenly it hits you while you’re taking a shower, literally! There’s something mystical about titles. “Silverfish” was hard to get, it came after a few other titles which were no good. But strangely, both “The Firebird” and “The Scent of God” came to me right away, perhaps because my relation with these stories was far more intense. What I like about “The Scent of God” is that it combines the concrete sensoriness of “scent” with the final abstraction of “god.” An interesting relation between the concrete and the abstract is one of the most important things a writer can achieve. Also, the phrase occurs once in the novel – I don’t know if you’ve been able to spot it?
Do you write the first draft at one go and then go back to it for revisions? Or, do you keep redrafting as you write the first time? How many drafts if you have kept a count?
Oh yes, I revise compulsively. The first draft usually comes relatively quickly. I may reach the end of a manuscript in one or two years, and then take the next four or five years to revise.
Your language distinguishes you as a unique writer as much as your plot and theme. How did you arrive at this practice of writing English so beautifully?
Language is the actual articulation of a literary work; all the rest is theory, isn’t it? Language has always been important to me. However, my relationship with it has changed over the years. Earlier on, when I wrote, its crafted-ness was obvious; over the years I’ve tried to move towards an apparent state of craftless-ness in my language. As my friend, the Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag said once, “craft must be like the nails in furniture; it holds the whole thing together but is itself invisible.” Writing in the young protagonist’s voice has helped to cultivate a raw simplicity in my language.
How do your reading habits influence your writing?
Like many writers, I would not have become one if I wasn’t a reader first. The modernists were a big influence, and then, how the local spirit of modernism, its evocation of everyday life, gets transported beyond the west. My first monograph, Prose of the World, a study of boredom in literature, focuses on four such writers, James Joyce from Ireland, Katherine Mansfield from New Zealand, Zoe Wicomb from South Africa, and Amit Chaudhuri from India. My earlier writing life was driven by a sense of awe and reverence of literature and its craft – now I strive to make it more careless, straight-shooting, and simple. It is the paradoxical craving for a kind of craftlessness, which is also a kind of a craft, but of a hidden kind.
When I was reading The Scent of God, I felt as if I had secretly entered into an entirely male domain and was spying on these ashrama boys, their teachers and the out-of-the-box teacher who was a rebel in a manner of speaking and sometimes, I even felt guilty for entering into an exclusively and different male world without their permission. How would you explain this feeling?
The maleness of the novel is a bit of a surprise to me. My fiction usually has significant female characters, and most importantly, they usually help to drive narrative along. However, a close friend and publisher of a prominent feminist press told me that she found the world of The Scent of God very male but not masculine. The leading characters are boys/men but their sexualities are very fluid. But yes, trespassing is right – perhaps that’s the ideal reaction in the female reader. This is a world of brahmacharya, which has no conflict at all with the need to clear engineering entrance exam. But the tricky assumption is that you can assure male monastic celibacy by keeping out women. That, I think, is the flawed assumption by those who want to maintain the “purity” in the Sabarimala temple. Strangely, this novel also ends up exploding a similar myth.
How did you research this very unusual novel of a unique kind that explores the corridors of a world we know so little about?
I usually need a small seed of reality, from which I can create the plant of fiction. The plant can become a forest, but that first seed must be there. I’ve known a world like that in this novel, such a boarding school driven by a religious ideology where erotic relationship between boys takes on a unique character – urgent, fearful and exciting – because of the very spiritual regime of discipline and punishment. This confluence of the spiritual and the erotic, the incense and the bare skin, is the beginning of this novel. I wanted to bring to life a genuine empathy for monastic life, a boy fascinated by it. Sitting in prayer, getting lost in it, and feeling your knees touch those of another boy next to you. It’s a memory of the spiritual becoming sensory, even erotic. But it’s impossible to say how much of that memory is real, how much of it is art.
The Scent of God straddles different genres such as the class distinction where the very poor boys from the village or small town across the walls are made to do dirty jobs and are not even fed properly as against the boys from families of upper classes who are disciples at the ashrama. It also steps into the rather murky world of politics and so-called political activism. There is also the question of the Santhals. Would you like to elucidate on these?
Class difference in a school, especially one that tries to be a leveller, is an intriguing thing. How does class show when you live together, eat the same food, wear similar uniforms to school and to physical training and prayer? Perhaps in the food you get from your parents on weekends, perhaps in the kind of cricket bat you use, the pen with which you do your homework. These are small things, but things which young boys notice. But this is an order which seeks to have a large social reach and especially serve the under-privileged sections of the society. In any institution, the so-called “scholarship” or “financial aid” students tend to stand out – and unfortunately so, because money, or worse, its paucity, tends to seep out, even in atmospheres most egalitarian. A special attitude also grows around the tribal students, who also stand out physically – and often on the sports field. But the happy news is that none of these distinctions leave any lasting mark. At the end of the day, they are all boys together, and groups and cliques and friendships, hostilities and romance forms along entirely other lines altogether.
And the politics?
As for politics, I tried to imagine a rough, dirty and street-savvy world of politics outside in contrast with the quiet, incense-fragrant saffron world of monasticism within the ashram wall. This is set during the times saffron is beginning to get intensely politicised, but not in Bengal, and not in this novel. Still, there is a triumph of the saffron world over a mercenary Left, which now feels uncanny in the light of the recent elections in Bengal.
You have expressed both homosexuality within the ashrama environment and mainstream sex beyond it. Can you explain what led you to this – planned or organic or based on relationships you know about?
These are drawn from reality. Not the particular relationships narrated in the novel – they are fictional – but the general culture of these relationships. What interests me particularly in this novel is how sexual awareness arrives in the child’s body before an understanding of sexuality, or even the sexual significance of the different genders. When the hormones first stir in you, you don’t really care whether the person who attracts you is a boy or a girl – the warmth of a human touch is all you crave. The powerful indeterminacy of sexual orientation in early puberty is the genesis of this story, though later on in this novel the key characters make definite sexual and lifestyle choices that feel strangely connected to their spiritual goals. The story sits in the daily intimacy of communal life in a boarding school. Friendships, shared living, life with roommates, romance and sexual attraction, they all merge into one another in this intimate setting, and it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. I’ve known such a world, and the intimacies that spring there. Sexual intimacy takes on an especially daring, forbidden texture in an institution bound by religious ideology, on the vows of celibacy, whether in the relationships between the boys or for dangerously, between the boys and the monks. But all of these are real, even though this particular narrative is crafted.
The closure of the novel is open to interpretation by different readers. Was this intentional or did it happen organically?
Every moment in a novel, or any work of art, is open to different interpretations, no? Just like all human experience in real time. I don’t want to give out the ending here, as I guess it is perhaps the most striking element in the novel. But I will say that I imagined the monastic order as shaping a space that is, knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or unwittingly, open to kinds of relationships that civil society might consider non-normative.
Your comments on contemporary Indian literature in English.
I’m most drawn to English writing that evokes a feel of vernacular life, even the long shadows of a vernacular language. I read with enjoyment Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden, published around the same time as The Scent of God, all the more because it also portrayed sexual relations between male students in a hostel – though older students, in medical school. But I thought it brought out well the porous and often transgressive nature of friendships in hostels. Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is another novel I admire and I think it resonates with the theme of my previous novel, The Firebird, which is the story of a boy’s relationship with his mother’s life as an actress. I also enjoy the sensory evocation of place in Sumana Roy’s poetry, of the quietly significant narrative voice of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, of the moving evocation of the quotidian in a recent collection of short stories by thirteen (mostly Delhi/NCR-based) women, Escape Velocity.