‘Do we remember an incident?’ I asked Specky, ‘or do we just associate each incident, each moment, each day with something else?’
She thought for a while, and said, ‘Every time I cook a dish with garlic paste, my mind goes zooming to the night we had chicken at Karim’s. Hope this helps you.’ Well, this information did help because I got on to the right track without wasting a moment. I mean, we began discussing in earnest the times we related a smell to something else that had happened way back in the past. Incidents then come tumbling out from the mists of eternity and stand before you as fresh as ever.
‘Smells do bring back to life even incidents that have long been dead,’ I said, ‘and they do it more powerfully than even colours do.’ Specky agreed that smells were probably better carriers of memories… and so we launched into a smellful discussion on what makes you put back the clock and float into the soft but time-embedded incidents.
‘Houses, by the way, have a smell grid of their own… and each home has a different and unique grid so they all tend to have a world of their own,’ I theorised, and quickly drew an example grid chart…
I was the first to talk about the time that I fondly call ‘The case of the smelly shoes’!
Specky sat up and asked with interest, ‘You did some snooping around in the past? You are good at sniffing out good ideas from the closet of your mind but I’m curious to know how smelly shoes fit into anything.’
I told her about this incident that happened way back in the early eighties when there were only a handful of homes with a television. Ours was one that had one… a large TV boxed in a beautifully carved wooden case with shutters that rolled outwards to reveal the screen. This ritual of switching on the TV was done on Wednesdays for Chitrahaar and then on Sundays for the movie. On both days our home was literally a mini cinema hall full of people. The neighbours, the distant neighbours, the families of the maid, the chowkidar, the milkman, and even the pundit ji from the Hanuman temple near Khande Rao gate. Most of them sat on the dari in the living room and the neighbours as well as the family sat on chairs dragged from the dining room or on the settee with comfortable cushions. I was sitting on the settee that evening and had my feet stretched right in front of me all the way across the settee to jut out from the edge.
I was wearing my running shoes and was just back from a short jog. We were a few minutes into the movie when my mother asked in an authoritative tone, ‘Who is wearing smelly socks?’
No one answered. Even I looked at all the people sprawled on the dari as if only they could be the culprits of such a smelly heinous crime. The first ad-break came and my mother switched on the lights and said, ‘Now whoever it is must go back home, washe his feet and then come. Otherwise no movies next week.’
The kids giggled. Yes, I was surprised to see that some of them actually had the guts to giggle. When my mother looked at them, one of them said, ‘Aunty ji, we don’t wear shoes. And my feet don’t smell.’ He even pulled his foot right next to his nose and smiled… proving that he and the ones like him could not possibly be the culprit.
My brother bent towards me and whispered, ‘I’m sure your feet are troubling mom. Why don’t you just go and come back in chappals?’ I was adamant and kept sitting. The smelly drama would have gone on but my mother suddenly appeared with a tumbler of water and announced, ‘The water in the tumbler will become coloured the moment I bring it near the feet responsible for this horrid smell. I will start from one end. But I give everyone the choice to get up, go and wash their feet before coming back.’ I don’t know who else got up, but I did… and quietly went to my room, changed into chappals after washing my feet.
Later in the evening, my mother told me, ‘You must change your socks daily. I know you wear them without getting them washed every day.’
Specky laughed when she heard my story, and replied, ‘I’m not surprised to find your socks kept for washing twice a day sometimes!’ The truth is that smelly shoes bring back to life that day from the past… and it is good that it happened or who knows I would now have been known as the blogger with smelly feet!
‘Smells remind me too of my home,’ said Specky, ‘and I always go back flying into my kitchen in Patiala. We had a large dustbin in the kitchen.’
‘Let me tell you now about ‘the garbage can in the kitchen’,’ said Specky and she went on to tell us this story from her past.
My father was unwell and in the hospital for a few days. My mother was attending to him. I was in class six then and fairly responsible, so my mother told me to take care of my kid brother as she would come home only for a short while each day.
I know I managed the house pretty well during her absence and even experimented with cooking dishes and making chapatis. I even did the cleaning up of the entire house… but forgot all about the big dustbin in the kitchen.
‘Well,’ said Specky, ‘I did not really forget the dustbin. I just felt too intimidated by having to carry it downstairs to hand the garbage over to the jamadaar and so I thought it would be fine to let the garbage accumulate in it for a couple of days.’
When my mother came home finally with my father climbing the stairs slowly, I remembered the dustbin and the smell that was all over the kitchen. I suddenly burst into tears.
My father took me in his arms and said, ‘Don’t you worry, Guddi, I’m back. I’m well and all will be fine now.’
‘But… but…’ I stammered, ‘the kitchen is all smelly.’ I still remember that all my parents did was to praise me and all that I had done and never once was the over-flowing bin mentioned throughout the evening. Next morning was a Sunday and I got up a bit late. When I got up, I went to the kitchen only to find it smelling all nice and as it was supposed to.
‘Since that day,’ said Specky, ‘smelly kitchen dustbins take me back to a time when my parents decided not to get angry and so even though garbage smell isn’t appealing, it helps me steady my attitude.’
I liked the way even a negative smell or stink was linked to positive attitude and it told me a lot about the relevance of all sorts of smells and the way they connect us to past moments.
But enough of stinks for now… let us get into a different and romantic world where smells create a magic of their own. I call this smell ‘the smell of my wife’s hair’ and this is one smell that I never tire of. Yes, I can tire of even the best of perfumes, but the memory of the first time I sat behind Specky and smelt her hair is the most powerful aphrodisiac that I’ll ever come across.
‘So, which smell are you going to talk about now?’ asked Specky.
‘Your hair,’ I said, and took her back to one February morning of 1985. ‘We were sitting on the first floor balcony of our double-storeyed house in Jhansi and you were looking at the Fort,’ I began.
She said, ‘I remember now. I was fascinated to be in a house that was a few hundred metres from the ramparts of the towering Jhansi fort and one could look up and stare for hours.’
The warmth of the winter sun was mild and likeable, and there she sat right in front of me with her hair left open to dry. I leaned forward, parted her hair, and fell instantly in love with that smell. Now after all these years, the long hair has given way to very short hair… but the smell is the same. This smell is what transports me back in time and every night as I snuggle close to her, my nose deciphers that smell and I put back the clock! This, I believe, is what keeps me so young and bubbly!!
The next smell that I remember and which takes me flying back in time is the smell of coffee. No, we did not have a coffee percolator at home and there were no CCDs or Costa Coffee outlets just round the corner. But there was even in those days the absolutely fabulous Indian Coffee House… and the one I am talking about is on Bunglow Road. We were across the road and a few quarters away. Sundays was, as my Chachi put it, ‘The day we taste Trivandrum!’ So there was always the inevitable order placed for idlis, vadas, sambhar and a jugful of coffee… and the Indian Coffee House waiter in his white uniform with that ICH badge and wearing that funny headgear came with a smile.
No, I don’t remember the taste at all… after all I’ve had these dishes hundreds of times since then, but the smell haunts me still. I remember that day when…
The bell rang and Lata Aunty (my chachi, who is from Kerala) shouted from the kitchen, ‘Open the door, someone, please.’ I was surrounded by Bigglesworth novels and was flying on sorties with him somewhere across the English Channel and so I’m hardly surprised that her voice sounded so far away! But then another salvo came whizzing at me and I decided to bail out of my WW-II aircraft and walk across to open the door. As I did that, the aroma of coffee rushed into my being and that is one smell that now sticks to my subliminal being.
‘This isn’t the complete story,’ said Specky as she heard me out, ‘you’ve told me this story before and there is something vital that you’re missing.’
‘Really?’ I said and then thought hard. After a few moments I said, ‘I just don’t recollect anything else happening that day.’
Specky gave me an impish smile and said, ‘You don’t remember it, but this was the first time you ever had coffee. At least that’s what you told me.’
Yes, indeed, that was my first coffee and I had fallen in love with it… it was love at first whiff! Smells do have this magical quality about them. Just like the fragrance that wafts out whenever I open my car door… and Specky says each time, ‘This Ambipur is really heavenly!’
The next smell that I want to talk about is the smell of evil that, surprisingly, is quite intimidating and obvious, if you’re perceptive about it. I mean I call this smell, the smell of evil because I simply detest it… and I experienced it on myself years back.
It was sometime in the late sixties and I was in school then. I came home, exhausted and not able to focus… so I just threw my bicycle inside without bothering to even lock it and trudged up the stairs to my room. I lay down and must have dozed off because I got up only a few hours later and found I was in a pool of sweat… and smell. That is the smell that haunts me and I get it every time I have high fever and I sweat. I remember even my mouth was dry and seemed to be full of a bitter taste that was as obnoxious as that smell that surrounded me. I shouted, ‘Mummy!’
My mother came running and said, ‘So you’re awake now. Wait, let me give you a sponge bath and a tablet of paracetamol. You’ll be fine by dinner time.’ She did just that despite all my protests, and quite magically, I was actually much better by dinner time and even got up to have my meals together with my parents and brother. During dinner I did mention about that horrible smell and Papa said, ‘Yes, sickness warns us and sometime warns us even before it strikes. And if you’re perceptive to this smell of evil, as you put it; you’ll know when you’re going to be ill.’
Mummy added, ‘And you can take your medicine to prevent a complete and full-bloodied attack of that illness.’
I remember that unkind and mean smell and whenever I smell it around me, I know what I need to do.
Let me end this short post on the smells that I remember with the smell of flowers! Well, I have studied botany but this part isn’t really going to be about a botanical explanation of the physiology of the smell of flowers… it is just going to link the smell, in fact a medley of flowery smells, with one special moment from my past.
I came back from college and the moment I entered, my senses could feel something different. ‘This isn’t how my home normally smell,’ I mumbled and then asked my brother who was standing there with a mischievous smile, ‘What’s so special about this smell?’
‘It is flowers,’ he said laconically.
‘Flowers? But we don’t have a garden.’
‘Hundreds of pots with flowers,’ said my brother. Now I was completely foxed. We did not have space for hundreds of pots… so I went in and discovered that that the open space behind the dining room was full of flower pots with plats that had different flowers. It was simply magical. Our home in Jhansi had ten rooms and was big enough for us all… but the one thing that I missed was a garden. I always wished for a garden. When I was in the second standard, our school celebrated Sister Cornelia’s birthday and each of us was asked to get flowers for her.
My father did ask someone to get a couple of roses and I proudly held them in my hands that day. By the time our class lined up to go where Sister Cornelia sat with huge tubs of water to soak in all these flowers, my two roses had almost all their petals fallen off. The kids around me were carrying bunches and what they called ‘a bouquet’. Well, I didn’t know what a bouquet was, so I wasn’t really scared of that. Even the bunches did not intimidate me. What hurt me was that I was handed over a very small card by Sister Cornelia, as a return gift… and all my other classmates came back with huge and glittering cards. Yes, I was terribly hurt.
So when I saw those potted flowering plants, I was elated… and deeply inhaled that medley of aromatic smells. I was happy. And since then, any flowery smell simply fascinates me… even Specky with a flowery fragrance surrounding her is enough to make me smile. My room with even a single spray of Ambipur is enough to bring back those ‘hundreds of potted flowering plants’. And, by the way, they weren’t hundreds… but they were enough to let us all feel that there are flowers inside the house.
Smells dominate our lives. I wonder if life would have words like ‘smile’ if the good smells weren’t there!
03 September 2013