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 ?....."........