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Smell, Radhika Jha’s first novel, is based on a simple but fundamental premise—the undeniable and potent connection between the senses and poignant human experience. The book opens with Leela, Jha’s protagonist, seated in her Uncle’s stereotypical Indian provision store. We are introduced to the motif of the novel as Leela is assailed by the overwhelming smell of spices that surround her and seem to seep into her very skin. As an ingenue to the sophisticated and mysterious French culture, Leela learns Paris through her sense of smell—”Standing in the doorway, I suck in the air of their worlds—the dry metallic smell of the air conditioning, the salty smell of dried perspiration, coffee, cigarettes and then something I don’t recognize. It brushes ever so lightly against the nostrils, so fine and delicate that it is hard to pin down.”
As she flits from one dissatisfying relationship to the next, Leela becomes even more aware of her sense of smell and more so the odor of her own body—”That’s when it hit me—a dark feral smell, too strong to be civilized, too powerful to be hidden. A smell so shameless, it belonged to the night or to those private moments of solitude that cannot be shared.” The story doesn’t progress much after Leela flees from her relatives’ home. The rest of the novel merely chronicles her relationships with the Parisians that she encounters, and whom she relates to primarily through smell—theirs, as well as hers. We learn about Leela’s dalliances with French men who respond to her exotic appeal and invoke in her an even further desire to explore her sexuality and sensuality.
What is perhaps most interesting about this debut novel is not so much it’s theme, but rather the physical setting and cultural context. Set in a Paris viewed through the eyes of a young Indian girl, the novel departs from conventional Indian fiction which tends to be situated either in the Indian sub-continent, England, or the U.S. and as such tends to deal with the issues of colonialism or post-colonialism within India, or the immigrant experience of Indians settled in America.
Jha’s book, however, stays clear of these hackneyed themes and draws upon the author’s extensive knowledge of French culture and society. The immigrant angle is certainly present, but is different in that Leela lived in Africa before being sent to France to live with her Aunt and Uncle. The immigrant Indians represented in the book belong to the Indian diaspora in Africa—a group often left out of mainstream Indian fiction. But Leela’s immigrant experience is not what defines her. Rather it is the subliminal backdrop to the acute olfactory perception that guides her relationships with people and her evolution into a sensual young woman.
Character development is not one of the strengths of this novel. Although Jha engages the reader by her portrayal of the supporting characters—the ennui of the sophisticated Maeve, the precocious Lotti, the dominating and powerful Phillipe—one is left dissatisfied with the character of Leela. Despite the first person narrative and the detailed rendering of Leela’s experiences, the book is wanting in the insights it provides to her emotional development—an oversight that is particularly obvious since the novel purports to trace Leela’s transition from an abandoned teenager to a young, poised woman. One gets the impression that Jha wants to infuse her protagonist with a certain profoundness and contemplative quality that, unfortunately, never quite comes across effectively in the novel. Some of Leela’s observations are rather naïve: “This is what it means to be beautiful, I thought exultantly, that I can make a man’s eyes shine with love.”
In the vein of most Indian authors, Jha’s style is lush and richly textured. The following passage describes a cooking lesson being imparted by Leela’s Aunt Latha: “… listen to the smell, it will tell you things … onions give off smell with water … they hold on to their water, afraid to die. They sing a song, they shout at you and curse you. And they give a terrible smell. Then the fire and the oil have their way and the onions give up. The smell leaves the onions like a dying breath leaves the body, and enters the rest of the food … the onion’s smell is the smell of dying.”
Despite a weak plot, descriptions such as this keep the reader’s attention. Jha vivifies Parisian life for the reader—from the smell of the freshly baked bread in the boulangeries, to the eccentricities and pretensions of French society. Stylistically, Jha resorts to a very Roy-esque ploy. As in the fashion of Arundhati Roy’s hyperbolic style and rampant capitalization of phrases, the character of Aunt Latha’s is given to trilling her R’s. What appears, at first, to be a misprint in the book, soon emerges as an idiosyncrasy of Leela’s overbearing yet pitiful aunt.
Finally, Jha tortures the notion that Leela’s sense of smell is her roadmap to the world. With an almost non-existent storyline and a premise that doesn’t quite hold through the entire novel, this refreshing theme would perhaps have been more forceful in the form of a short story or novella. Nonetheless, this debut by an imaginative and bold new voice in Indian fiction makes for good reading because of its rich tapestry of Parisian life and its honest treatment of the sensuousness of a young Indian woman—a subject that challenges the puritanical leanings of Indian society and one that most conventional authors are likely to avoid.
Rajika Bhandari is an educational researcher in Berkeley, California.
ANITA’S LEGACY: An Enquiry into First Cause by Gurpur M. Prabhu. 2000. Viresh Publications.
A book like this may evoke two kinds of responses. From those skeptical and “secular” it may get a dismissive, “Yet another Indian scientist’s doubtful attempt at making sense of Indian scriptures”, or from “believers” a full-throated hurrah for the “genius” of Indian sages who long ago knew everything about everything, and how this is “discovered” by authors like Prabhu. This is a different kind of book, no doubt, postulating as it does the nature of the cosmos through the rather improbable but endearing story of Anita and Major Kay.
Prabhu unravels the enigma of the nature of the universe through the story of Anita, born to Alan, a physics graduate student, and Meg, an undergrad whose math teacher he is. Alan, the quintessential modern academic, is both skeptical and dismissive of his daughter’s precocity. Meg, increasingly concerned about her husband’s attitude towards her and the world, breaks up with Alan when she comes to know of his affair with a colleague. As the drama of their life in Urbana-Champaign unfolds, there enters Major Kay (Norm), a neighbor down the street. From baby-sitting Anita to becoming her best buddy, Major Kay is the crusty, wise, troubled, scotch-loving ex-army officer through whose musings we learn a lot about the world’s attempts at finding answers to fundamental questions about the universe.
What allows Norm and Anita to begin thinking differently about these matters is a set of experiences and accidents in their life. Anita dies young, two weeks before she turns sixteen. We come to know that her life reflects and is a strange imitation of the life of the great Hypatia who lived in Alexandria at the time when Christianity began to spread and be thrust around the world. The great library of Alexandria, it is speculated, was burned by either fanatical Christians or Arabs, and Hypatia was tortured to death.
This book can take you by surprise. Prabhu says the book was written “through” him. For a scientist to confess to such an experience could mean professional disaster. That he tells it, and weaves a good story, despite that professional danger should challenge the reader to pick up this book.—