I grew up in a Nomadic family. Well, almost. Having a parent work in the armed forces meant living out of the boxes throughout our childhood. My memories are like a huge geographical collage; a few snaps from West Bengal, some from Maharashtra, tit bits from Karnataka- you get the picture. In all these trips and stays my siblings and I subconsciously internalized a lot of what we saw, and felt. And, as I recently found out, even what we smelt.
This constant association of memories with smells has always fascinated me since then. Until I found out the psychological answer for it- we were wired to have this smell directory within us. Thus a walk down a park in a distant country, surrounded by jasmine flowers will always remind you of days spent in the aunt’s garden with cousin sisters giggling over silly crushes, the salty air at seashores will always make you smile at the memory of a family beach trip 10+ years ago. Smells hold on to you. They enter your clothes, seep into forgotten corners of your being and then cling onto you forever. Embedded memories. Sometimes they surprise us by springing up out of nowhere. Shopping in the supermarket and going through the detergent aisle always reminds of the new terms at school. Armed with news books and stationary, and smartly dressed in starched whites, smelling of Surf detergent (daag acche hain!), we would head off to school. I have realized since that our lives have a smell- timeline of their own where different fragrances chronicle your experiences as you journey through life.
Some of the lasting scents which I still hold on to are- the strong scent of the Old Spice aftershave which my father used to use generously every morning, the sweet-tangy smell in the air when my mother made pickles and squashes out of home-grown mangoes which now belong to summers long gone, of chai on a rainy day,the smell of old yellowed books in our personal library which remind me of watching ‘The Mummy Returns’ for some weird reason…
There are more of these conspiring scents which grab hold of me at the most unexpected of times and take me down the nostalgia lane. For example, the scent of ink takes me back to high school days and sleepless nights spent perfecting my chemistry record book. New clothes bring to mind Eid day in all its celebration and revelry. One memory leads to another and I often end up reminiscing about Eid as a carefree child. Growing up in a Muslim household, aromas originating from the kitchen- were, and are- a central aspect of our daily lives. Hailing from Malabar, my mother is quite the cook. On Eid day she would cook up a storm for the entire defence colony we lived in. Our table would be laden with delicious chicken biriyani, deep fried meat cutlets cooked to perfection and the sweet payasam to finish it all off. I remember waking up on Eid to the smell of caramelized onions courting the spicy masala from the chicken sizzling on the stove and then mingling with the sweet milky fragrance of payasam. My brothers and I would tip-toe to the kitchen to steal a few treats and have the refreshing smell of coriander and mint (being vigorously chopped by our maid to use as garnish in the dishes) wash over us.
Eid afternoons are a medley of sights, sounds and smells to this day, no matter where we go. More so when it is with the family, my grandma’s house for instance. Those few Eids we spent at her place are always accompanied with memories of great smells. Spices, sweets, melting ghee, lemon tea always brewing on the stove, the henna from the day before adorning our hands- smells on Eid day were a heightened sensation especially when accompanied by the festive glee of children about to receive gifts from the elders. Naughty kids that we were, we spent Eid more outside the house than inside. Playing carefully in our new clothes, we made sure no adults caught hold of us. My grandmother’s yard was another symphony of smells- fragrances so calming you could lose yourself to it. As kids we would run from the fig tree to the guava tree in her garden, fighting for the last fruit and when the sun set and we ran back inside- bruised and muddy, our hands always smelt of sweet wood. Then we would be whisked into the bathroom and ordered to scrub ourselves with Dettol. Ah Dettol! Companion to all worried mothers, and enemy no.1 to bruised children- Dettol was a constant presence in all our houses. The strong astringent makes me think of a time when we were reckless being, my siblings and I, jumping from one sofa to the other, scaling cupboards like mountains, swinging from trees to land on our heads and arms and elbows. Each bruise was fervently rubbed with this stinging liquid [and obviously preceded by a smack on the head and lengthy ‘I told you so’ speech by our mother] as we kept a brave face and willed away tears. Whenever I smell Dettol-in hospitals or at a relative’s house- I am taken back to the days of cycling races and bruised knees.
Fragrances form an essential part of my life. I hold them close to me and cherish them. For me each scent signifies change and growth. They take me to times long gone and sometimes propel me to days yet to come. Scents take over when pictures can’t take you any further. Whatever it be, when things get rough or I get low, I just need to smell something-the right thing. A whiff of some hot chocolate, the familiar smell of my room or just the scent of my best friend when she hugs me- and I realize how blessed I am.
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