The Scent of Memories

I've always believed in a particularly enigmatic method of time-travel. And before you abjure this piece of information raising doubts on it's credibility, I'd put forward another claim. That you'll believe me when I explain.

It happens to all of us. A whiff of apple pie from the canteen window, the smell of chlorine at the swimming pool or the smell of an exotic cologne off a random person walking by. Whatever be the situation, our noses have a way of sniffing out nostalgia.

"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived." - Helen Keller

I've always had an intensified sense of smell. When I was little, I would go about taking everything in with my nose in a dilettantish manner. Little did I know that a long time after that, those scents would come back stalking, haunting and frequenting their way into every unwary moment of reminiscence. I could smell interesting odours, uplifting aromas and soothing fragrances from miles away, but I could never smell trouble that was but only two inches away from my face!

My earliest memories of scent is one of the most common memories for all. Its the smell you get when the rain-soaked earth freshens up with a typical aroma, after it has rained heavily on a hot afternoon suffering from a capricious weather pattern. While innumerable memories remain attached to this particular smell, there always is an early bird that leaves an indelible impression. For example, the very first time I saw a rainbow is among my earliest memories, and the smell of the wet soil is certainly a part of it. I still remember how me and baba went for a walk on the rain-washed tarmac in front of our house after the downpour subsided. It was the city of Allahabad when there were no towers or high-rises and as the sun came out of hiding, we soon got a clear view of a rainbow in the sky. It was clearer than it ever again appeared to me. I remember how desperately I tried convincing baba to run for the rainbow's end and claim the leprechaun's pot of gold. I was visibly dejected at his denial.

The next smell that I can remember right now, is that of freshly brewed coffee. Remember the convivial atmosphere at those wedding receptions in winter, and how lackluster it would have been in the occasion of the espresso machine being broken? The smell of strong black coffee brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans has always been the only thing worthy of the price they charge at the Cafe Coffee Days and Starbucks. I could not attend many such nights of revelry as I left for boarding school at quite an early age. But whenever I make coffee in my hostel room on rainy nights and in goes that aroma, I ponder on those days.

Another smell that I remember clearly would be that of milk. In Allahabad, we used to have goat milk, boiled and presented freshly after being milked out of a generous nanny goat. The milk had a sweet hint of grass in it. Of course, we don't find it in the pasteurized, tetra-packed milk of today. To think of it now, it is in fact the various scents in that house in Allahabad, that make up most of its memories.

My alma mater is (in)famous for its doctrines of lasting discipline and versatile erudition. Or that's what people believe it to be. I had passed six whole years sleeping in the prayer halls of six different hostels. I didn't know why I couldn't stay awake in those nauseous gas-chambers with the smell of incense continuously flooding our senses. The care-taking monks used to give us some beating for it! They didn't merely want us to meditate, they demanded us to follow and I'm pretty sure that the incense was being used to hypnotize us into doing it!

The smell of incense still confuses me, whether to feel a sense of tranquility or to expect a thrashing afterwards, for drooling in the sanctum sanctorum of ethereal effects.

The human brain is definitely a recondite entity. It stores all these memories like a computer ROM and lets us access them whenever triggered by an external stimuli. Nose, as we know it, only perceives the smell, converting the abstract idea of the scent into an electrical impulse. These electrical signals are transmitted to the brain by the neurons, and give way to lucid memories. The brain, evidently, has a penchant for nostalgia.

If I could capture smell and keep it in bottles, I'd do so.

First, I'd capture the smell of old books. Supposedly they're just grass, with a tang of acid and a ting of vanilla according to scientists. So I'm guessing that it is replicable? You may say that new books smell even better, but I don't always get familiar vibes unless of course its a well packaged delivery from Flipkart and the cardboard packing is somewhat moist with humidity. We used to maintain a study and a computer room in Allahabad, where all the old books would be kept. Time and again we'd give the worn-out books for hard-binding until one day we found that the termites have got to them from within. The uplifting aroma filling that room and the disheartening feeling of losing good books have been consistent in metaphor, to the bittersweet rise and fall of childhood memories. Stands true for everyone, I guess.

"A book has got smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. An old book smells like ancient Egypt." - Ray Bradbury

Moving on. Remember Vicco Turmeric, 'nahi cosmetic?!' Before the advent of Fair and Lovely and Ponds Age-Miracle, there were just Boro Plus and Vicco Turmeric, the ayurvedic creams of choice for the Indian ménage. It had an unmistakable fragrance of haldi or turmeric in it. I know its hard to come by nowadays, thanks to all the deodorants and colognes and perfumes and creams and gels and foams in the market. It's the smell that will forever remind me of my grandparent's home. Both my grandparents should be declared brand ambassadors for the fragrance. It also helps me recall the look of the cramped kitchen and the glorious smell of gulaab-jamuns that she used to keep prepared before our arrival. Whenever I smell Vicco Turmeric, I find myself closer to home. Perhaps I would love to have this fragrance as a room freshener for my work environment.

Third, the smell of Ma preparing mutton in the kitchen! I'm a Bengali, and Bengalis are known to be hoggers. But its not the scent of the cooked meat. Its the scent that comes particularly when mum slyly declares on a Sunday morning that she's preparing brinjal for lunch. We begin to sulk, until a familiar aroma fills in the house and we can't wait for lunch-time to arrive. That was childhood of course.

The scent of marker pens would be another one of those things I'd capture. The scent of that caramel popcorn at the multiplexes. Scent of cola. The distinctive fragrance of one's mother. Scent of a freshly mowed lawn. Scent of vanilla. Scent of a woman's neck. Scent of a retired travel-case. Scent of mothballs.

Hello?! Folks from Ambi Pur, you listening to any of this?
Oh time-travel, I tell you.

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Submitted as an entry to the Indiblogger AmbiPur Smelly to Smiley Contest.

25 comments:

  1. Espresso, rain, old books, goat milk, mutton! Hell yeah.. U should be a poet and not a scientist! :D

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    1. Oh stop it, you! :D Thanks anyway.. but I know I'd suck donkey balls as a poet! I'm better off being all prosaic.. *wink!*

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  2. OMG, OMG, OMG!
    I have just read the first three paragraphs but, I couldn't read more without telling this. You should read this -http://mycactusdress.blogspot.com/p/about-me.html
    and you would know, how much same are our thoughts. For me smell and music have been the best form for preserving a memory. Infact, all the bands and songs that you mentioned, also strikes nostalgic feeling to me. You could've include Vengaboys too! huh
    I've got such a sharp nose, if I come across the smell of deodorants/perfumes I might've used in the past, they pull me to that phase so strongly, I cannot breathe with all the rushing memories. I swear.
    You seriously did a great job by putting all these in to words. So, now I am not the only one.
    shhhhh shut up Dhara. I need to read the remaining part..

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    1. I read your 'About Me' aaaaaand you're sure we weren't separated in the Kumbh Mela? LOL! Andrew Oldham Orchestra's The Last Time is fine, but I'd like The End - The Doors to be played on my funeral! :)

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    2. BTW If you're including Vengaboys, what keeps you from quoting Aqua's 'I'm a Barbie girl' and 'Roses are red, dum di da di daa!' and Whigfield with her 'Ooh ooh, aah aah Sexy eyes!' :D

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  3. Choorrr you are.. Smell of a freshly brewed coffee is my smell.
    "If I could capture smell and keep it in bottles, I'd do so."
    If I was a scientist, that is what I would invent.
    You are killing me with the resemblance to our smell stories
    Vicco Turmeric reminds me of my mother. Popcorn, markers, mowed lawn etc all brings memories to me too.
    My other addition would be, wada pau, clinic plus shampoo, old Liril soap, blue lady - a deodorant me and my friends used in school, neem trees and so much more. All these bring memories in the form of fabric softeners, hand wash,dish soap, scrubbing pads etc here in the US.
    These is by far the best post I've come across in a long long time. Really enjoyed it Deeptiman.

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    1. After going through your 'About Me' I see that I missed freshly baked bread and cookies!! There are so many outdoor smells that we love too - Petrol, yes Clinic Plus (even its distinctive colour!), Neem, Guava, so so many others.. Thank you for your comments and for loving the post. I hope to repeat this feat, time and again.. :)

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  4. Wow! this is such a nice post. You involved me totally in to it. Thanks for the post. I'll run and finish my post on the same right now!!! Following you :)

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    1. Thank you Sayantini! I'm glad you liked it.. Finish yours, I'll wait for it.. :)

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  5. Now, you go ahead and get me all nostalgic. That was a brilliant post Deepti-man. Extremely well written.

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  6. Thank you, Dip-tea di! :)

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  7. Thank you, Dip-tea di! :)

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  8. Thank you Sayantini! I'm glad you liked it.. Finish yours, I'll wait for it.. :)

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  9. After going through your 'About Me' I see that I missed freshly baked bread and cookies!! There are so many outdoor smells that we love too - Petrol, yes Clinic Plus (even its distinctive colour!), Neem, Guava, so so many others.. Thank you for your comments and for loving the post. I hope to repeat this feat, time and again.. :)
    I read your 'About Me' aaaaaand you're sure we weren't separated in the Kumbh Mela? LOL! Andrew Oldham Orchestra's The Last Time is fine, but I'd like The End - The Doors to be played on my funeral!

    BTW If you're including Vengaboys, what keeps you from quoting Aqua's 'I'm a Barbie girl' and 'Roses are red, dum di da di daa!' and Whigfield with her 'Ooh ooh, aah aah Sexy eyes!' :D

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  10. Oh stop it, you! :D Thanks anyway.. but I know I'd suck donkey balls as a poet! I'm better off being all prosaic.. *wink!*

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  11. Well said.
    Thank you.
    We sure can.
    #InThatOrder

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  12. Hopelessness is what I feel sometimes, in the current state of affairs.

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  13. Thank you ma'lady.

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  14. Mm, I agree.. But why exactly, can you point out? Everyone liked him, but I just cannot seem to pinpoint any particular reason for that.. Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Khan on the other hand, did his best so far.

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  15. Wasn't a discovery! He's already an established actor in Kolkata, don't you think?

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  16. Everybody's. :)

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  17. Well, I'm a budding research student and I can totally get what you mean. True indeed, happens to us each time in lab! Followed your blog, will surely keep up! And thank you.

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  18. I am Awe-struck by your writing abilities. I'm wondering how could one just makes you travel into the past by mere words. You did it! About this post ? hell yeah It is truly Magnificent. Thanks for letting me know the smells could work wonders on nostalgia.
    keep Writing :)

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  19. Thank you so much man. I'm glad you liked it. :)
    I'm not too sure on my "writing abilities" as you say, but I'm certainly glad to be able to get things across to my readers and touch them deep.

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