Novelist-academician-literary critic Saikat Majumdar recently came out with his latest work, The Scent Of God. Born in Kolkata and educated in India and the US, Majumdar, after teaching stints in the US and Canada, is now a professor of creative writing and English at Ashoka University. We spoke to Majumdar about The Scent Of God and more….
What is The Scent Of God all about and how did you go about writing it?
It’s a love story. The story of the relationship between two teenage boys living and studying in a boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order. It’s the atmosphere that drew me to it, having known a similar world in my own life – the atmosphere in which the spiritual becomes sensory. Where religion is about fragrant rituals, music, the silent community of other bodies, the touch of fellows, brothers in the monastic order, which intriguingly complicate the practice of celibacy. It’s also about growing up, and how sexual desire appears without your quite knowing or understanding it, and how you feel desire without quite caring about gender. What happens to such desire when it sprouts in the communal atmosphere of a boarding school, especially one shaped by the ideology of monastic celibacy? Such a character took hold of my imagination, and the story is the story of his life, and the people who shape and influence it. But now that I’ve written it, I also realise it is a play on the themes of sexuality and spirituality, monasticism and celibacy, the way they are now being debated in our private and public consciousness.
Where do your ideas germinate from?
I need a seed of reality that compels me, enthralls me, provokes me, perhaps even terrifies me. I don’t need to understand it fully. In fact, overpowering realities that provoke art usually bewilders rational understanding. The reality needs to be situated somewhere; I’m a writer of place, and local atmosphere is crucial to my fiction. Based on this spark, I try to develop characters. Plot, action, is whatever the characters do – that usually comes at the end. My writing is usually a blend of the real and the invented, in a way it is, in the end, impossible to tell what is real and what is invented.
How different are you from other authors?
Every author is unique. Art, I feel, is simply a framed and heightened version of life. We’re all alike and we’re all different.
What if your creative work doesn’t get good reviews?
It’s not so much about “good” reviews as intelligent and sensitive reviews. Such a review may very well point to where the book falls short, or where it could have done better. The spirit of such a review would still be one of serious engagement, which is what really matters.
What is that one thing which is the most important part of a book?
Depends on what kind of book it is. For the kind of novels I write, place is very important – setting is an important character in my fiction. Next comes character. But for different books, different things are important.
Is writing energising or exhausting?
Both at the same time. It’s like breathing – breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out.
The word “creative” to you means…
The word has been overused to the point I worry it has no meaning anymore. What is more important is that a work of art touches you, really hits you rather, in your soul and guts.
Are authors friends with other authors or are they competitors?
Friends, of course. This is not a soccer match.
You spent your first advance on…
Just deposited it in my account. Boring but true.
Best way to market a creative work…
To produce a really good one that moves people naturally.
How much time do you write in a day?
Depends where I’m at with the work. Three to four hours at least.
Do you believe in a writer’s block?
There are periods in your life when you feel you have no real story inside you, and there are periods when you simmer with them. My second novel came eight years after my first novel (though I wrote a book of criticism in between). The last couple of years have been full of fiction, as well as a nonfiction book as well as essays. Right now feels like a rich and productive phase.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Teaching and university administration. I enjoy running, and there’s a four-year-old boy at home who’s always hounding me to play cricket with him!
Any book that inspired you to take up writing?
All the books I read while growing up that touched me genuinely.
What does it take to be a good storyteller?
To have a sense of the real and a sense of the absurd.
Do you write at home or travel to a destination for writing?
At home. I like to write in my home clothes, in a disheveled state!
Did any of your creative works get rejected by a publisher?
Do book covers matter as much as the content?
They matter in a different way. A book is a physical object – even when on Kindle – and holding and reading it is a sensory experience, so certainly, book covers matter. Language, however, is an abstract medium and therefore can take you anywhere.
Fiction or non-fiction…
Everything, and poetry.
Favourite childhood book…
Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.
Favourite childhood author…
Sukumar Ray, Lewis Carroll…
Do you watch movies?
I love movies. No particular genre, just good movies.
One advice for existing authors…
I don’t think I have any authority to give any advice to my peers.
One advice for budding authors…
Again, advice is a presumptuous word. But I would suggest that they read widely. I don’t think reading makes you a better writer. But reading makes you a better reader, and that is invaluable quality for a writer. It helps you become a better judge and editor of your own work.
One thing you would want to change about yourself…
I wish I had a deeper and more meaningful relation with music.
Favourite author now…
Favourite recent Indian book, Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella, Ghachar Ghochar. I also love Sumana Roy’s poetry and Amit Chaudhuri’s writings on literature and music. But there’s much more…
Your biggest plus…
I’m single-minded when I set a goal for myself.
Your biggest minus…
I’m single-minded when I set a goal for myself.
Do you have any secret talents?
I can lie with a straight face while pulling a prank – does that count?
If you had a superpower, what and why?
That I can eat anything I want and not put on weight.
You are, at present, reading…
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Also just finished Shashi Deshpande’s memoir, Listen to Me, a charming first novel, Patna Blues by Abdullah Khan, and a young adult book my nine-year-old daughter loved and insisted I read too, Talking of Muskann by my own editor Himanjali Sankar.
One thing you would want to accomplish…
Leaving a body of work that matters to posterity.
Do you believe in life after death?
The only life I believe you have after death is the meaning of your life and work to other people, your family and the world.