Smell By Radhika Jha
As a rule, if I put down a book I rarely pick it up again, if it can’t hold my attention in ten pages. When a book by Indian female writer starts with stereotypical portrayals of first generation immigrants, and the book is set outside India, I would typically not break that rule. Still, I am glad I curbed my instincts, when it came to Smell for I had not one but two strong recos from people who are probably more dismissive of bad writing than I.
Smell is a refreshingly original book by Radhika Jha, for one it’s anything but Indian (not that I’ve anything against a book being Indian, but it’s refreshing to see an Indian not being bound by that identity while writing, especially fiction). Yes, she uses the angst of a refugee – doubly so, for her protagonist has to leave her native country Kenya, and has never seen her ancestral country and yet the identity is kinda stamped on her — but that’s just a minor detail.
The novel itself is an adult version of Alice In Wonderland, only a dark one. When Leela, the protagonist is sent to her uncle’s place in Paris, after her father’s death, she doesn’t know that she’s almost abandoned by her mother to her faith. The new home is also closed on her, in unusual circumstances, and she’s left to fend for herself in an alien country.
What transpires is a series of experiences and relationships, as she tries to find a meaning, in all the chaos. With only her strong sense of smell to guide her, she steps in an out of different worlds. There is an element of unbelievable in the story, but it’s just plausibility which is a question. When a writer flirts with implausibility, it’s absolutely forgivable if the story is fascinating, and not trying to ram something dull down your throats, and Radhika has left nothing to complain in that department. You become a part, and not just a spectator, of Leela’s sensual journey, as she struggles to rediscovers her soul. The breadth of experiences and the stories and sub-stories keep you guessing where will you be led next. Smell is more than worth a read.