Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What the Nose knows..........

Last week I landed up in Kolkata for some medical emergency in the family. If you visit a city like Kolkata, there are some smells you just can’t avoid. Smell of a drain full of rotten garbage, smell of fish cooking in mustard oil, smell of old houses and many more smells of the old city. It was on my way back to the airport,  three days later that I started thinking about the defining smells of places I have been to . I am no olfactory expert nor do I have any particular interest in odours and scents  but unconsciously each one of us catches some smells and link  it to places, people and memories. To cite another example of my theory on smell of a city  – when I first visited Mumbai I stayed in a place at Navynagar, which is close to a dry fish factory. The smell in the air got so etched in my memory that even now I associate Mumbai sea with that smell. Believe it or not, all of us have our personal list of good and bad smells . Smell of freshly baked cake when you enter a bakery, smell of expensive perfumes in luxury hotels, smell of food in your favourite eatery and most important smell of your home are just some of the familiar ones. Then there are some peculiar smells  viz smell of  typical government offices( a curious mix of old papers, sweat and stinky toilets), smell of railway platform/trains, smell of old monuments  and smell of hospitals.

Some years back, quite accidentally, I happen to watch a movie called  ‘Perfume’. Later I read the German book titled ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by Patrick Süskindon which the movie was based. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Set in 18th century France, the book tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), a perfume apprentice in 18th-century France who, born with no body scent himself, begins to stalk and murder virgins in search of the "perfect scent". Interestingly the book talks about scent of a person, smell of a place and even scent of humanity (from which at some stage in the book Grenouille wants to run away). I was very moved by the book. The main plot apart, the concept of smells as an essential characteristic of a person fascinated me. I am still not sure that there can be a “perfect smell” so powerful that it can control everything and everyone ......but I do believe that smell of a place has a long-lasting memory.

                The latest research also confirms that smell have a remarkable persistence in our memories. Although people are more likely to recall exposure to a visual image than an odour when re-exposed after a short period of time, once in our memories, odours are effectively in there to stay, and are more likely than visual images to be recalled after a year. Indeed it is this factor, which is contributing towards an interest in the role that smell has to play with illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s in aiding access to long-stored memories. The funny part is that our mind is not objective when it links places and smells. Usually it associates emotions and circumstances with it

So however fresh smelling be a modern hospital, my mind will still associate it with disease, pain and fear of losing a loved one. Your mother’s kitchen may smell of damp walls and pungent spices, it is likely that you’d read (rather sniff ) it as memories of favourite comfort food of your childhood. To my mind freshly cut grass smell from a lawn is inevitably linked with parks and gardens, summer, picnics and childhood and I still can’t resist sniffing a new book for the lovely smell of paper and ink . In fact , Books/ papers have very distinctive smells and are strongly influenced by age. Newer books smell of fresh print and paper while older books provide a rich, vanilla and tobacco like odour that can be associated with old wooden libraries, leather chairs and well...warmth. 
It is believed that some smells are so familiar that one can dream of them.
It is not only places and things ,  smells can even remind you of specific people.  It may sound silly but whenever I think of my father, it is the fresh smell of detergent from his clothes that comes to my mind. Yet another smell I associate with him is the smell of havan – a mix of burning of wood, camphor and Havan samagri .  
Coming back to the issue of smells of the city, when I think of Shimla, I think of sweet smell of  pinewood floors and pristine hill air  and when I dream of Lucknow, I remember smells originating from my parents’ house. The scented shrubs and creepers of Juhi , bela, Malti and chameli gave the house a heady and yet heavenly fragrance of its own. Rome for me had a peculiar smell of Churches – difficult to define and describe, but it is something I could feel both times I happen to be in that eternal city.  Talk of Varanasi, our very own eternal city,  reminds me of  typical smell at the River ghats.

It is again difficult to describe the smell of Delhi, but for me it is predominately the smell of power. Mumbai unfortunately till now reminds me of the dead fish smell  and I sincerely hope that in days to come,  I will find some other, better smell to remember this city with .
I read a couple of weeks back in an article that in cities like London and New York, we have advocates against deodorisation of the urban smells. For a resident of a third world country, I find the idea appalling. I can’t imagine such a thing happening in our cities smelling of garbage and rot. I would in fact welcome some bit of “deodorisation” of places around me. Usually it is a pungent smell of spices and waste that dominates the air of our crowded cities and some amount of artificial deodorisation  e..g. in malls and restaurants , airports and showrooms , in fact has a smoothing effect.  
Well let me end by stating that I am not the first or the last person to link things, emotions and places with smells. Lyricists and writers have been doing it all the time . Remember the immortal lyrics of Gulzar : “ हमने देखी है उन आँखों की महकती ख़ुश्बू ” or Hasrat Jaipuri writing for Amrapalli  “ जब फूल कोई मुस्काता है प्रीतम की सुगंध आ जाती है” . I also remember reading in some novel recently that the “city smelled like sin” and that " he could smell war from his body for rest of his life" . Decide for yourself is it your nose or the mind that makes these associations and give a unique fragrance to your memories- good , bad or ugly.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mumbai Chronicles: Ek Akela iss Sheher mein.

I am a firm believer in first impressions. Not that I don’t change my opinions about people, places and  things , but more often than not, my first impressions are also my long lasting ones.  For most Indian cities however, I find my first impressions are the most confused ones as well.  It is difficult to like or dislike any major city in India ,in toto. While liking some essential aspects in each one of them ,I cannot help wishing they were better in the rest. Kolkata, Lucknow , Delhi and Allahabad , all fall in this category. Before landing up in Mumbai , I had equal number of people warning me and envying my luck to be here. I find that both sides were right in someway. Now that I am one week old in the maximum city – Mumbai, I think it is time for me to note down my own first impressions. However confusing, exaggerated and contradictory, they, I trust,  truly  represent the city .
So, it was me versus the city most of the week. Me trying to decipher the city, me horrified by the parts of the city, me charmed by the old city and me trying to avoid the real city. If I have to define this city in just one adjective I think that would be – Gogetter.  Amazingly efficient and professional in everything it does, the city seems to have no place for the slow, the disorganised and the shoddy. The city is often praised that it houses both the have-nots and have-yachts side by side. Every posh area has a slum of it's own. I wonder what is so great about it? But then the business capital of the country can actually sell anything to its visitors- even its ugliness and dangers. When I first saw a sign for “Slum Tour” at a travel agent near the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel building , I found it funny...even weird . Why on earth anyone would want to visit the slums ? I realised later on that it is one of the most popular tours of the city, second only to “Terror attack Tour” .One has to grudgingly admit that this killer attitudeof the city  is indeed impressive . 

 Another image of the city is of that of the sea front . Though there are a number of Indian cities with far superior beaches and coasts , somehow Mumbai sea is famed and is considered a great point of interest . My earlier memory of  the sea in Mumbai is that of a garbage filled black water body with hordes of people around . This time however , I landed in the city at the time of high tides and get to see some breathtakingly beautiful sights of the Mumbai sea . Make no mistake, the garbage filled water is also true, perhaps more true than the other ,   but when you travel by the sea-link, the sea looks amazing . 

I think this is a trait similar to Kolkata , the city reveals itself only to a visitor who is willing to commit time and effort to like it. Only the worthy shall find the grail.  There are surprises and beauties hidden behind the veil of  fast paced crowded groups of people  and their businesslike approach . There is leisure, warmth and even comfort as well . 
It is a rare feast for the eyes to pass through the beautiful British buildings near Churchgate and Colaba . It is fascinating to discover the amazing eateries and bakeries of the city . It is also impressive that unlike Kolkata and Delhi, people travelling from suburbs reach their destination in time  despite travelling in unimaginably crowded local trains .

Talking of trains , one of the most familiar images of this city for every Indian of my generation, comes from mainstream Bollywood movies .  An oft repeated scene in these old  movies of my childhood  was of a simpleton village boy/small town  girl landing at Mumbai  train station (usually Victoria Terminus) and getting robbed or cheated on the first day. Another familiar situation is of this simpleton looking at the tall buildings of Mumbai with wide eyes . Well, the country has changed much since those days . Now many other cities have equally impressive skylines and well, cheats outside the railway stations . So what is now most characteristic of this city. My first impression says it is the attitude of “ minding my own business” in the people around here. Confident ,ambitious , flamboyant and yet straight , it is the spirit of the common people of the city which make the city so different from Delhi or Kolkata .

As for me , so far, I am partly dreading and partly looking forward to be in the city .  But then I have yet to discover the city  .Looking at the facts , I have yet to set up my house, sample the vada pav and witness the famous Mumbai monsoon . I get a feeling , that eventually I might fall in love with the city  but till that happens I am keeping my fingers crossed . This song , very aptly sums up my confused first impressions about the city of Mumbai -

Monday, June 2, 2014

Goodbye Delhi ……….

The grandeur of Sarkari Delhi : View From Rajpath
I thought I was lucky to find a parking spot outside the small supermarket in my sector. Well, at least something was going right on that hot and humid Saturday morning. After about 30 minutes ,  I happily finished my shopping  and came out of the store only to find a  rather well-used car parked outside the parking slot ,  blocking my car . I was irritated but thought that may be the driver will be somewhere nearby. But no, the car was locked and there was no sign of the driver. I went inside the store and got the car number announced- several times. Finally after 15 long minutes, a 40 something gentleman wearing half pants and chappals ( Thinking he looks cool) emerged out of the store  . When he saw he has actually blocked car of a woman driver, he seemed rather pleased at his doing .( For those of you who don’t know, many such alpha males of Delhi  think that women drivers are some inferior species and can always be blamed for any mistake . These macho males kind of own the road, parking and well, the city)  In his Haryanvi accent English ( And yes, he has to converse in English) , he started yelling at me for making him hurry up with his shopping. When I pointed that his car was parked incorrectly, he shouted (again in English) “So what? I too have suffered many times and listen, if you start arguing , I will not take the car out.” At this stage a security guard  intervened and asked him to take his car out. Guess what ! Our hero shouted back at the guard (this time in Hindi ) “ Beech mein mat bol Saale . Mujhe pata hai kya karna hai.” Finally after creating a scene and telling all gathered  his tale of  parking woes , he removed his car and allowed me to take out my legally parked car . I won’t be surprised if he was expecting a “Thank you .So very kind of you” from me.  This, and many such incidents in last 6 years, make me feel happy that it is time to say goodbye to Delhi.

Six years is a long time to know a city …to fall in love with it …to start hating it…for getting used to it. I came to Delhi full of apprehensions. Most of which turn out to be true. My discomfort  with Delhi- way of living  never went away and despite its many comforts and advantages , Delhi remain an odd city for me. In fact after living here I realized that it is no more one city. It is a strange amalgamation of many  cities, kasbahs and villages  . Perfectly cosmopolitan in some parts and equally rural and crude in most others- sometimes it looks like a city full  of old-world character and at others totally bereft of it .  In fact there were times when I wondered where is the Delhi about which  Meer had  said –

कूचे न थे देहली के अवराक़े मुसव्विर थे
जो शक्ल नज़र आई तस्वीर नज़र आई।
( Delhi’s streets were not alleys but parchment of a painting, Every face that appeared seemed like a masterpiece).
All I found was people bloated with ego, intoxicated in money and muscle power and streets full of problems for common citizens. And yet, I survived. I think one big reason why I survived the city and its people,  is that I stayed outside its typical circles- stubbornly  unsocial and aloof . I interacted with people at work and outside only on need-to-interact basis and made very few friends here. In fact, now that I count, most of my friends, including those whom I met in Delhi were not Dilliwallahs,  at least not the typical ones.

However, I would be missing the purpose of this post, if I fail to recount that in last six year s, there were also many many moments when I was glad to be here.  I got some fantastic work assignments here, met some extraordinary people outside work and participated in some wonderful activities. I also saw some extraordinary things happening in front of my eyes- the civil protest at India Gate, the breaking of scams and its aftermath, the ugly scenes of unashamed arrogant power , wealth and corruption and the impressive struggle of  few people who wanted to change the system.
 But the thing about memories is that they never get the ‘big picture’ . They are very subjective, personal …almost irrational . They do not honour the perceived importance of events and people in any particular way.  I wonder what I will remember of this Delhi tenure 10 years from now ?  Here is the tentative list of memories I can think of right now:

·         I will think of Delhi trees of different seasons. I will miss gawking from the car window and admiring the trees, specially in Lutyens’ Delhi . How just before Diwali , Saptaparni blooms  with its exotic fragrance and how the spring is announced with numerous Semal trees lining the Delhi streets . Even in the summer months, the bright happy  yellow Amaltas and  red Gulmohar trees made my heart dance with joy.  Even  tedious office work was somewhat bearable after sighting these on my way .
·         I will remember my favorite hideouts – National Gallery of Modern Arts and  National Museum . They may not be in the best of conditions but still, they are an unparallel treasure trove.   I wish I get to see them many more times . The memory of plays watched at National School of Drama will stay with me for long . I was mesmerized to meet Banbhatta on NSD stage (in Banbhatta Ki AtmaKatha ) and learnt so much about theatre from Indian and foreign plays performed here .
·         I think I will think about the names of the streets and my (mostly failed) attempts to remember them. The strange landmarks of places which I built in my mind- the lone statue of Alexander Pushkin outside Sahitya Academy Building or the magnificent statue of Gandhiji outside  Parliament house  .
·         I will also miss my visits to well known, less known and not-known-at-all monuments of Delhi. I thank my stars that I got to see these fascinating places as part of my job. While it fills me with rage that Red fort is in such pathetic condition, thank God, we also have Humayun’s tomb – just restored to its glory. The turquoise blue glazed tiles of this Mughal tomb filled my heart with such bliss when I first saw them after restoration.


  I know it sounds lame, but I will definitely miss and remember my  Delhi office and my  NOIDA home . I still dream of all my previous homes and I know I lived a blessed life in my present one too. My office – the place where perhaps I spent most of my waking hours will remain etched in my memory for long. It was actually fun to work so close to the power centre of bureaucracy .
           Whatever reservations I have bout Dilliwalahs , the fact is that it was only with the kindness and generosity of many ordinary Dilliwallahs at my workplace that I survived. Ajay- my loyal man Friday,  who successfully found solutions to all my big-small problems with amazing efficiency; Ashish and Sanjeev, my drivers, who somehow found ways in the lanes of Delhi for their direction challenged madam going in search of one German Bakery and one unknown grave – God,  I am definitely going to miss  them . The colleagues I worked with and bosses who tolerated me, many of whom I hope to cross ways again, floored me with their kindness . 
There are still so many things, sights, places and people  to remember…….. driving  to Italian Embassy for  the Italian course relishing the sights of diplomatic Delhi , shopping in Connaught Place,  the India Gate circle  , the official meetings at numerous stately buildings of Government of India  and  yes, the white pigeon who regularly visited my office window ( mostly to eat the daana  left by Ajay) . Well, to quote Meer once again, I have to agree :   
दिल व दिल्ली दोनो अगर है खराब;
पा कुछ लुत्फ उस उजड़े घर में भी हैं!
(Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out, But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house).

But in the end, I am glad it is time to say goodbye to this mad mad city . I know life might bring me back in these corridors, but as of now, I go out of Delhi with a relieved look of sanity on my face. Just can’t wait to find the new chapter of life unfolding at yet another fascinating and awe-inspiring city- Mumbai . The adventure of life , after all, exists in those spaces between the known and the expected- in the unexpected and the unknown.