It is the holidays, and I am going home on the bus after a long time. Travelling on the Maharashtra bus service is more or less a complete assault on all the senses. The noise, the crowd, the bad suspension rattling your bones throughout the journey tire you out, but the worst thing is the smell.
It is overpowering: workers going home from a long day in the city raise their signature stench which makes me wonder if they have taken a bath even this morning. The grime on the bus floor has its own stink and of course the latrines, I will not get started on public latrines at bus stations.
But there are pleasant things vying for the attention of my nose as well: the tea stall at the bus stand, right outside the window, boiling the tea to death with cardamom and ginger, hoping the flavoured wafts of steam will catch my attention; my deodorant which is fighting a losing battle against my own body trying to sweat off the heat; that whiff of jasmine coming from the flowers in the hair of the girl in the seat in front of me. It smells of travel and it feels good.
The aromas change as we leave the city and climb up the mountain ghats on our journey. The inside of the bus still reeks, but luckily for me the wind brings relief through the window.
I get off the bus and walk home on the road with fields on either side of me. In a short while I am there. I bang at the door and the maid opens it, everyone else gone someplace, they will be back in a while, but for now the house is empty.
But it still feels like home. There is no sound and no one there. But it all looks familiar and more over if I close my eyes it still feels like home. Every whiff emanating from every corner is like a perfume to me. And then I begin to wonder about scents as I settle down on the sofa and holler for tea. (Tea on demand- another luxury I cannot have in the city, *sigh*)
How much of feeling at home is about the smell? I would say a lot.
I spent my childhood in a one room-tin-roofed-leaking-house. It had a large open ditch in front of it through which the town’s sewage passed. The smell was horrible and it was crowded because all five of us had to fit into one room. It was even more crowded because a lot of my friends used to come and stay there, so sometimes, we were fifteen to the room.
But I was brought up there, and my friends all assembled there every day. We had long talks about life, the future and what not- right there in front of the gutter. That was the place where I first held a girls hand- In a romantic early teenage sort of wayJ.
My parents owned a pharmaceutical store selling medicines right there near the ditch in front of the house, I had to sit in the store after school. I was surrounded by medicines, sweets and soap. I sold cosmetics, perfume, headache pills and was secretly intrigued by the condoms and pictures of girls in bikinis on them. I never figured out why women got embarrassed when they were asking for Mala-D tablets (If you do not know what is “Mala-D”, Google it and smile) until I got a hold of some biology books and an internet connection towards the end of my teens.
Maybe that is the reason I am not so uncomfortable around gutters, ditches and open sewage drains. I am pretty much oblivious to them actually, and I adjust pretty quickly. Maybe the smell takes me home.
I have many good times with my family still and we have moved into a new bungalow on the outskirts of town. But we still have a ball when my whole family crowds into our little flat in Pune on weekends with everyone sleeping next to each other, getting into fights because nobody remembers to bring enough mattresses around and everyone wants the fan at a different speed.
I get the best sleep there and what senses are working when I am sleeping besides smell? I think all those senses- the familiar smell of my dad who still smells distinctly like a westerner after twenty years of India, my mother who bathes with Neem Leaf Soap, and a bucket of clothes for washing in the corner. All of these smells come together to make me feel at home.
It may also because of the times I spent in the pharmaceutical store, which was joined to our house that I keep a bunch of over the counter medicines in my bag. The scent of medicine evokes a feeling of comfort for me. I never use the pills, but because I carry them around, a part of my childhood comes back to me every time I open my bag. I also am the go-to man for painkillers.
My new house is awesome, not in the least because there is finally enough space to live and move around for all of us. But also because it smells the same (Except for the sewage drain, some things you cannot and should not go back to, even for nostalgia!) My mother cooks just the way she used to. There is still my dad’s extremely milky tea fragrance in the morning and the bucket of unwashed clothes is lying there in the corner.
When it first rains in my new house, the water lays the dust and a sweet smell rises. That smell was there too in my old home. I get transported back there, sitting at the medical counter facing the sewage gutter filling up with rainwater, watching a little trickle turn into a raging stream of brown dirt, the water nearly entering the store.
And maybe, after six years of moving into our new house, I am finally feeling more and more at home. A new house always smells fresh and unused, the smell of paint is overpowering, but very soon the aromas change. I always loved the new place, but because my sister and I were in college in the city, we did not come home very much. So it took time to be familiar with the nooks and crannies, and when a house is new- it takes a life of its own. It grows up, acquires its own character and then settles down cosily till the end of its days.
It has been over five years since we moved into our new home. It now has a distinct character behaviour and odour. It is going to stay pretty much this way- with various add-ons and small changes till this house becomes old and crumbled, ready to be torn down. And then the debris will buried and a new house will come with new memories of strange people.
But that is in the future, as I look outside there is a house being built- not far from where I live. During my evening walk I go over to it. They are digging into the ground for the foundation. I know the contractor- he built our house and he gives me a smile that says hello.
They are scooping out rich black earth. One of the workers calls us up and throws a few shards of pottery out of the hole he is digging in. He also finds a few bricks. It seems there was once a house here, many years ago.
I look at the shards and bricks as I pick them up, the dirt clinging to them and not letting go. I bring them near my face to look at them up close and the smell strikes me. They smell like the soil they have been buried in, the earthly fragrance penetrating almost every pore of the brick.
And maybe that is why we feel so good when it rains after a long dry spell and the dust is laid. When that sweet smell rises up towards us- It pulls us back down right towards the ground. Where everything has lived and died and continues to reside even now, maybe that is why it is the most beautiful smell, reminding us of earth.
P.S.- To prevent your kids from having nostalgia about bad smells in your house- buy room freshener.