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.