Thursday, April 29, 2010

Waiting to inhale

Smells have been around since time immemorial. Ever since those cilia-studded neurons on a patch behind our nose, made it their business to inhale and analyze the various molecules thudding there, humans of different types, have responded to smells of different types, in different ways.

I don't remember seeing varieties of room fresheners in my childhood, say, 50 years ago, at an age where one was learning to turn up one's nose at things. They were not sold in the shops. And even if they would have been, the general attitude was that we didn't need any of such stuff. Our lives were themselves a celebration of olfactory excesses.

Early morning smells of jasmines, roses, camphor, and wicks burning in ghee, as someone did the morning puja, and lit the lamps in front of the gods. Smells of boiling milk in the kitchen, accompanied by a wafting of roasted cumin , as some light mung dal khichdi happened for our breakfast. Bread was frowned upon . Smells of water and copper with an occasional sliver of sandal wood smell as we rushed in to have baths. And sometimes, the inviting, mouthwatering smell as poha papads were roasted and had with the khichdi with a dollop of melting ghee. Smell of an iron heating up as we rushed to iron forgotten elements of the school uniform, and the typical whiff of Cherry Blossom boot polish tins lying open, as we rushed out on our way to school, in those hated black naughty boy shoes.

We never really thought about these smells. On a time frame, the interfaces between these smells enabled seamless mingling, and easy acceptance, with no analysis.

When you came home for lunch or visited someone , you always got a hint of what was cooking on inhaling . Many many years later, one of my neighbors was a Muslim family from Hyderabad. Whenever their grandma visited, we would always slow down as we climbed the stairs to our house, and breathe in a terrific delicate aroma of a Biryani, which was her speciality. It was difficult to turn away and go to our own house, where a working lunch waited. But my son , at 6, never had any such qualms. He would simply follow his nose, straight into their kitchen, where there would be huge pot on a industrial size stove, with grandma on a stool watching and stirring and adding stuff. He would sit on another stool himself, watch the stuff, and lose himself in the flavours, emerging only to share the stuff with them at the meal.

The smell of cream of wheat being roasted in ghee. Cardamom, nutmeg. Maybe a summer squeezing of mangoes, to make aamras (mango pulp) for lunch, and the zingy smell of a raw mango pickle sizzling with crushed fried fenugreek seeds and hing (asafoetida).

All this, was kind of, subject to some transatlantic and transpacific doubts, when I lived at a US University apartment as a graduate student. Unless pizza was on the menu, one never really "smelled" food. People entering your house were not supposed to be enraptured with smells of curry and masalas, sauteing garlic, and burnt onions. You got your cooking done in time, cleaned up the place, and then made the air "fragrant" with something vague like pine scent or lavender. I have never understood why a hot summer evening in Southern California, when you had friends and guests over for a nice Indian dinner, needed to smell of pine forests.

Today, 40 years later, all those sprays with various scents are well entrenched in the Indian market. You even have a choice of perfume in sprays that kill mosquitoes. Killing in the time of Chameli.

Soaps are on the bandwagon as well. A single brand may offer you several perfumes to snare people by. People who shave, use various so called earthy scents to dab on their lightly ploughed faces. The old circular soap thing in which we swished a shaving brush and created foam on the face has now given rise to tubes that spew forth foams of various smells.

India has always been a very hot weather place, but the current generation appears to be more sebaceously enabled. Children leaving for college and work leave behind huge whiffs of deo stuff as they rush to catch the early morning transport in Mumbai. People keep getting identified by the way the smell as they traipse by.

But I wonder how life is for those who do not have these choices in life. Limited clothes means you wear the same the whole year round, and sweat to the heavens, in those synthetic tops and shirts that are so good in the monsoons. Your house probably has no place to dry clothes and so your clothes have a damp aroma. Then you go out to work, and sweat just walking down to the train station. Perfumes , per se, are not valid essential items. You would rather spend that on getting a decent soap for the family. Long time ago, there used to be a Tata's Eau de Cologne, something we called Udiclone. You still get it in a few shops. And is probably the cheapest thing you can dab.

But somehow, those doing an honest day's job, have so much to show the world, that folks sometimes remain blind to the odour aspect. These people always smell of truthfulness, hard work, effort, and denying themselves stuff, to provide for their families. The neurons at the back of your nose delightedly fire when these folks happen around you.

Lately, there has been another smell that seems to pervade. The smell of cheating, cold cash, sweat money, lies, decadent luxury and what can be called, like spoilt milk, a smell of spoilt young ones. An early morning reading of newspapers, besides widening the eyes, and holding agape the mouth, almost always get the nasal neurons saturated with the bad smell.

This is the sort of smell, no amount of living and working in air conditioned places, will remove. There are reports in the papers, of those involved in doubtful IPL money activities going to 5 star spas in an effort to cleanse the body of all those financial swindling smells.

But sometimes, even the nasal neurons are ashamed.

They wish they were else where.

And they wish they were back to the old days, when food smells from the kitchen brought smiles on childrens' faces, the smell of new books encouraged a child, just starting a new year at school, a lingering smell of coconut oil meant a mother had just oiled her daughter's hair, and you came bounding up the stairs, two at a time, breathed in deeply as you entered, and said , "Oh, great ! You making batata vadas today ?....."........


  1. I love the kitchen smells.. and how one tries to decipher whats cooking..

    Sad that in today's Indian homes... these smells are seen as to be eliminated with Jasmine and lavender sprays!

  2. I love the smell of weddings, flowers intermingled with sweat, food and silk sarees brought out from storage. I actually found a perfume that reminded me of it and blogged about it some time back.

    I lurk often around your blog and decided I will comment today!

  3. As always, exceedingly well-written, could picture everything and even smell it all, as I read

    Thank you for reminding me - the smell of new notebooks I had forgotten..

    P's respiratory allergy means I cannot use deos/perfumes. But I never used room fresheners in any case, I love the kitchen smells too much !! Everyday I put my fingers close to my nose after cutting ginger - awesome :)

    As one got out of the lift in the building I lived in Australia, one could smell what I thought was pork. And when the South-East Asians had lunch (always some kind of seafood) at work, my morning sickness used to flare up. Guess what I felt in those days is what non-Indians feel when they smell curries. To each his/her own food smells and others' stinks ;-)

  4. This brought memories of my childhood! And yes, these days, I do go to great lengths to ensure that the 'food smells' don't linger - wonder what the real difference. One thing I have noticed though, is that because windows in India, are more often than not, kept open, stale food smells do not linger, here, on the other hand, food smells linger on upholstery and curtains and smell stale a little later, which might be why we try and eradicate any such smell :)

  5. Yes, this brought lots of childhood memories for me as well. Funny, the things that you tuck away in your mind only to rediscover them when you read something like your post, which is terrific as always! Have a wonderful weekend!


  6. The smell of Jasmine in Madurai is something that is simply out of the world.

    So is filter coffee in the morning. So is cherry blossom.... !

    What a smelly post ! :) It made me sit up. And realise its all connected in the brain. For i just felt like making myself a cup of coffee...

    The filter is perpetually present !

  7. I've heard a lot about smell issues in the workplace lately, which I find shocking.

    After reading your post, I feel very hungry, so I'm off to my smelly kitchen !

  8. I have just gone through a whole experience of imagining a variety of smells I have loved. You write it so candidly and beautifully.

    But one question: One smell I find it unbearable in our climate is the smell of stale sweat...Is it that the climate has become hotter or was it that earlier those smells never came into our conscious recognition..Is that a stupid query? I hope not...

  9. You have reminded me of a whole lot of natural aromas. For me I cant take in perfumes i just start sneezing that limits a lot of my options there have been a lot of times when somebody's efforts have resulted in me sneezing till i had an inflated and runny nose and I have had to rush out of their homes just to breathe........ but nothing beats fresh flowers.

  10. What an evocative post! The smell of a coal or wood fired chulha brings back memories of childhood days at my aunt's home. And there are certain loaves of bread that smell of childhood too.
    It's a shame that so much of public life stinks these days.

  11. True, so true! The smells of the kitchen as you walked in from school. So inviting.

    We keep a block of camphor in the car. Try it. It is better than the car fresheners that you get in the market. Those give me a headache by the time the journey is over. This is like being in a temple when the ‘aarati’ is being done.

    And the post also reminded me of my wise uncle. He was taking care of a patient at a general hospital. ( This was the time such hospitals were the only places to go – and I was in my teens then). The morgue was always at the entrance and most days we had to enter the place with our nose covered. One day, to our surprise we could walk in comfortably. It was also a day when the next room had a politician. And when I remarked to my uncle that the stink from the morgue was missing – he remarked – there are times the living stink more than the dead. You brought those words back today with your post.

  12. Such amazing kitchen smells....hmmmm....I was transported to my grandma's kithchen for a few moments. Thanks to you.

    Not only your son, but I will too follow the briyani's aroma, wherever it is. It just hooks on to your senses and nothing matters at that moment - Oh, you've brought out my nostalgia for hyd briyani !!!

    And I agree, so many flavours doing the rounds, its totally confusing.

  13. Im glad i have nose blocks as I am allergic to some of these smells..the damp one for instance..but I like smells of flowers, spices , eucalyptus..your post in a way is similar to what i posted on FB recently on some things that reminded me of my childhood..btw, thanks for that awesome poem..with yr permission, Im going to post it on my blog.

  14. Smells and memories are wonderful together. Greg can't eat cookies, because he is diabetic. But for Christmas time, we will bake cookies to give to relatives. He doesn't need to eat them, he just wants the house to smell like sugar cookies, because it reminds him of his grandmother's home when he was a little boy and it makes him happy. I think that's sweet!

    And I love the smell of saute'd onions and garlic and bell pepper - yummmmmmmmmm...

    As for the smell of greed and politics ~ it's ever present these days and that's enough to live on Tylenol Sinus!

  15. Your way of tying the olfactory odors of food into the stink of politicians was very clever.

    I don't use air fresheners anymore because I don't want to add more chemicals to my home. Warming cinnamon in the microwave does the job better. Or vinegar can be used to eliminate unpleasant odors. (Not all odors are pleasing.)

    A fragrance can immediately bring back a memory. A perfume that some one wore in our past will restore that person's face when we smell it again.

  16. Lovely post! A nostalgic trip down memory lane...

    As the world has changed, smells have changed, too. You have mentioned the smells of IPL, cheating and cold cash.

    One smell that is currently nauseatingly strong is that of the Medical Council of India president Ketan Parikh.

    One wishes we could escape back to the smells of our childhood!

  17. Slip of keyboard- should be Ketan Desai, not Ketan Parikh in above comment.

  18. You've forgotten to add the small of asafoetida that is so much part of a tambrahm household. yes, your post took me back in time when we'd come rushing home and identifying the evening snack that was being prepared with love and care by our mothers. with a dozen varieties -ready to eat stuff- available it soehow does not small the same anymore. With a fast life the smells have vanished too.

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  20. Aathira We are so good at blindlessly aping the west in all the standards....

    Pooh "Weddings, flowers intermingled with sweat, food and silk sarees..."..... what a cool combination...!

    Arundhati Thank you. And sorry to learn about the respiratory allergy. Just wanted to tell you that my niece has a similar allergy, and for several years has been taking a small spoon of a mixture, in equal proportion, of dry-ginger(soonth), turmeric and yashtimadhu(jyeshtamadh) powder, daily with hot water. There has been a noticeable change for the better in her tolerance of the thing that spawns the allergy....

    wordsanddreamz What you say about the open windows and stuff is so true.

    Sylvia Thank you !

    Kavi Ah ! Filter Coffee ! No more words ...

    Helene H :-)

    Journomouse While we cannot do anything about the weather, I have often felt, that in the older days, what you smelled was pure sweat, which isnt so bad. But today , we injest so many chemicals through our food and cosmetics, and what you call the stale sweat smell is really all that stuff being thrown out from our systems and being absorbed by non natural fibres....

    Ranu See my answer to Arundhati above....

    Dipali I couldnt have put it better. Yes, public life stinks .

    Radha That block of camphor sounds like such a great idea ! And loved the story about your wise uncle !

    UmaS You know, the Hyderabd Grandma is no more, but that stuff is still called by us as Grandma's lunch. Her daughter now makes it, but alas, lives in Washington now ....

    Lakshmi Just have a look at what I wrote for Arundhati above. Might be of help to you...

    Aleta I have experienced the smell of Christmas cookies in Germany, nd I totally agree with Greg !

    darlene Just rushing now to try your cinnamon in the microwave solution !

    Manju I guess no amount of roses and jasmines and mogras can drown the smell of corruption that pervades our lives today....

    HHG But I did mention asoefetida ! In the mango pickle....although we use it regularly in all the tadkas for the veggies and curries...

    Ms. Chichat Welcome and thank you !