They say sights make lasting memories and a touch imprints forever. However, it was the smells that lie splattered across her memory-scape. This story traces an olfactory journey of a lifetime as she put pieces together, wondering what lies next.
1980 – It is the smell of soap – an expensive luxury bar of white soap. The silhouette of a man with that soapy fragrance is still vivid. She was barely 3-years old. She can recognize that smell anywhere but does not come across it often. She cannot remember who he was, yet the distinct memory captures her.
She frets that she needs to dig deeper into the recesses and find out why the fragrance of that soap and the man are so alive in her mind even after 40 years. There are no answers; she does not even know whether that time was good or bad; whether that memory points to any event in her life. The lack of an answer makes her uncomfortable as they remind her of an unknown man and his soapy odor from when she was barely a toddler.
1984 – The house smells of freshly cooked food and ginger cake. She loves ginger cake. The proposition of a big slice should fill her with glee. It does not lift her spirits that day. Her back towards the dining table, she is perched on a chair, gazing out of the window. She looks longingly, at a circular playground, across the road. She wants to feel the winter warmth and play with the other children or be out on her own.
In this house, a girl is not supposed to be seen or heard, only fed and nurtured, until she is ready to be transferred to another household, as a wife. She is too young to understand the bondages and the rules that govern her childhood. She can see other girls her age, swinging, see-sawing, giggling, whispering, the daylight playing with their freshly-washed Sunday hair adorned with colorful hairbands. Her heart is heavy, for she cannot fathom the burden of loneliness. She is just a little girl. Maybe a piece of ginger cake with a hint of molasses will lift her spirits.
1987 – The citrusy flavor of the Chinese orange tree reminds her of her grandmother’s house. The little delights were so sour that only the charm of a traditional recipe could turn them into bottles of sticky, sweet, orangey preserves.
Then, there were the big green lemons. You would think they are bitter but they transformed into the most satisfying glass of juicy exuberance. The lemony fragrance was soul-nourishing as it danced on summer-parched lips, slowly slithering down and disappearing into a thirsty tummy, that was instantly covetous for more. The way she noisily gulped down the yellow elixir invited disapproving glances from her mother. Those soothing and tangy moments with a touch of ambrosia are few. Trips to the grandmother’s house were rare.
1992 – It was much later in life, courtesy to the brilliance of the Internet, she learned that the unique scent was petrichor – a distinct fragrance of the first rain on parched earth. Virgin petrichor tingles your nerves and then attacks your senses with utmost ardor, sending you either in the throes of despondency or ecstasy. She still cannot comprehend how it made her feel. There was a shiver down her spine as the earth embraced the initial drops of rain. She felt an urgent need to be embraced and be drenched in the rainfall. As the drizzle turned to torrents, the feeling overwhelmed, until it hurt and transformed into a lump in her throat.
The next day, the trees lining the roads were heavy with a mossy liveliness that had replaced the magical romance of the first. There was a new enchantment in the air – of verdant foliage and the shimmer of the monsoon sun glistening on wet leaves. The wetness promised relief from the bristling summer. Her lips quivered as she bicycled down those paths. Her heart still held on to the petrichor, the monsoon choking her until her eyes were moist.
1998 – That was the last year she accompanied her family to the local bakery for the annual ritual of Christmas cake baking. She recalls the aroma of rum-soaked peels folded into vats of ingredients from which wafted distinct flavors of vanilla and marmalade, of caramel and spices, all reminiscent of a long afternoon spent in a dingy bakery. When the cake batter was ready, it was poured into butter paper-lined tins and carefully placed on the glistening coal of the kiln. While it baked, she roamed around to the front shop and got a muffin or a cream roll treat. The sugar overload was nothing compared to the sinful aroma of freshly-baked Christmas cake as it emerged brown and flavorful from the kiln. Now cooled, the loaves and the ambiance of the bakery were delicately packed in a tin trunk and transported to the house.
You need to experience the blissful warmth of Christmas plum cake with hot coffee and the delight of scraping the paper lining the tin with a knife to savor every little bit of rum and raisin. That day at the bakery work floor marked the end of childhood as she transitioned to adulthood with a job and a life in another city. Now, cakes were couriered to her each Christmas.
2001 – The stale smell of cigarette smoke and the heaviness of last night’s liquor on her breath made her hate herself. She scrubbed herself clean, put on a fresh dress, a dash of make-up, brushed aside the self-deprecating languish of the night before, and strut into her workplace. There was diversion here – endless cups of fresh coffee, hot meals in the cafeteria, the constant spraying of air fresheners by the housekeeping staff, and myriad perfumes and deodorants emanating from cubicles.
These made the day bearable. As evening drew to a close, as the loneliness in her heart mocked her, she was back into her den. With the night, she surrounded herself with haze and ash and a mellow liquid in a glass that would lull her to sleep. The reek stained her fingers, her lips, her bed, reminding her how socially dysfunctional she was. She has not learned how to make friends.
2006 – They said join our group. Fold your hands, close your eyes, say a prayer. Chant and sing and tell us your woes. We will pray, you will be blessed and emerge a whole new being. She tried it for some time, going from one prayer meeting to the next. They heard all the stories of melancholy, loneliness, ill-health, ill-fate and whispered in sweet reassuring voices. But, did they understand! She would come back home smelling of the incense at the altar and the Chanel and Dior of the silk-adorning, diamond-flashing self-assured women.
She was still seeking, so she moved from richly decorated living rooms to earthly ashrams and lively temples. With the whiff of smoke tendrils from the sacred fire that hungrily consumed sandalwood, clarified butter, herbs, coconut, and spices, she hoped to rewrite her horoscope. Did the prayers breach the heavens beyond, did the fragrant offerings please the Gods that played with destiny? Only time will tell. Time will pass the last judgment on how pure the intentions, how acceptable the fragrant entreaties.
2011 – Antiseptic floor cleaner and baby poo, pee, vomit hit her nostrils and made her sad. She wanted to turn away, never return. She did not want to leave her 6-months old baby there. She had no choice. She had to return to work for the money as her husband had financial commitments. They also had dreams of their own; to buy a house, save for holidays, and keep up with the Joneses.
Materialism translates to mortgages, which means she had to leave her child in the daycare and go back to work. As she handed him over to the kind caretaker, she gently swiped her fingers across his head and had a flashback of when she had held him for the first time. He had carried her smell, of the amniotic fluid that kept him secure in her womb until it was time to come into the world.
The days turned to years. The smell of the daycare now belonged to her son, too. It would remind them of when they separated for most of the weekdays. It was the smell of separation and sacrifice as they built their lives.
The Present – The house inundates with her essences and choices. The fragrances around her have converged. Most have become a part of nostalgia that makes her write stories like this. There is hardly any time to feel longing or sorrow or overwhelming joy as fragrances swish and swirl around her. All she can grasp are little wisps of fleeting images, one fragrance after another.
There is the soapy fragrance of a well-bathed child, of freshly shampooed hair, and sun-kissed laundry. The array of cosmetics and body sprays, all evocative of her individuality. Essential oils and camphor silently burn near the Himalayan lamp to cleanse the air.
The sizzle of oil in the wok, greedily consuming the vegetables, pulses, and spices releasing flavors with a sigh and a hiss. The chocolate cake in the oven, the buttered bread in the toaster, the ripening bananas in the fruit bowl, attracting fruit flies; these are smells that are now part of her son’s childhood.
The balmy winds still bring just a bit of petrichor into the urban household. By the time the monsoon ends and autumn arrives, the air starts to stink, the succor of rain long forgotten. The wind carries the smog from across the borders and then disappears with an evil laugh, leaving the heaviness to linger in the brown air to infiltrate our existence.
Chanel, Dior, air freshener, floor cleaner, coffee, doughnuts – the Mall at the corner, and the one next to it – offer a potpourri. The smell of cigarettes on her fingers still makes her guilty. The headiness of liquor has lost its lure. Fresh citrusy are long-forgotten as artificial essence fills up fizzy bottles and natural flavors struggle to survive in jars of preservatives. These exist only in the mind, the redolence of a bygone era.
The Future – It is inevitable. He will arrive; Death will come knocking at the door. They will wash the dust and grime of life, lay her on the ground, stuff her nostrils with cotton, and cover her face. Will she be able to smell then? The incense, the candles, the hurriedness of the last rites, the urgency to let go of the mortal frame before it emanates putrid lifelessness. What will be the smell of eventuality – clammy dirt or burning embers, or will she finally make sense of the fragrance of the white bar of luxury soap! Who knows, who can tell?