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Olfactory Obsessions


This is the first time, nay the only time I didn’t have to agonise over what to title my piece, which is indeed an achievement for a person who spends a considerable amount of time over titles for even academic papers. But this time the title emerged from my mind fully formed, just like Athena from Zeus’s head.

So what is that about the olfactory sense that I obsess over? Is it the fact that I have a sensitive nose that triggers nausea at any sweet strong smells? Men and women who walk in a cloud of perfume and deodorant are the bane of my life thanks to this. But no, I am not chronicling the lists of fragrances that nauseate me. This is more about those scents that hit the chord of nostalgia in my mind.

I had been mulling over this post for a while when I came across the Awkward Yeti cartoon that I have featured here, it perfectly captured the essence of what I wanted to convey, the special relation between our sense of smell and our memories. Material sentimentality is something frowned upon in my household because there is no space for sentimental knick knacks when you have to move houses and locations every two years; as a result I have collected an incorporeal box of keepsakes in my head.

These keepsakes include songs that trigger memories of people, places and times in my life and more importantly smells and fragrances that lead me straight to particular memories. The easiest smells for me to remember are the fragrances that people around me wear, certain perfumes that my mother wore only to parties that take me back to my those days when I watched my mother get ready for parties, perfecting her make-up and coiffure. My association of smells to people is so strong that I get seriously disconcerted when I smell the same perfumes that I or my loved ones wear on other people, of course it is irrational to expect that these scents are exclusive to me and mine, but what can I say it is what is it.

My close friend is a connoisseur of cologne’s, she always notices if a person within sniffing distance is wearing a good cologne and often associates them with certain men in her life. Most of you will agree with me on the fact that how a man you’re attracted to smells is something that doesn’t fade from your memory easily. There was one such moment in the recent past where one such man wore a fragrance disturbingly similar to what my father wore, a scent that I loved because thanks to my nauseous tendencies my father always takes my sniffed approval for body spray or perfume for himself. But associating a similar smell to a guy I found interesting? Stuff of nightmares, but to my utter relief I did find differences between the two scents that convinced me to stop feeling uncomfortable about it.

Turn back the time machine to a few years ago, to my first and last official college crush that lasted well, half my college life and maybe more, that sounds more pathetic once it’s written down. This boy-man wore a particular scent that reminded me of a subtle spicy version of the desi gulab i.e. the Indian rose. But the plot twist is that none of my friends who have been around him have ever smelled the same, not even my cologne connoisseur friend! It was even suggested that I was having olfactory hallucinations; do they even have an official name for this? Must Google it, also I love how Google has become a verb since the noun has become so popular, but I digress.

Coming back to this phenomenon known as Phantosmia, meaning phantom smells which I generally experience with respect to food. I know I am really craving something when I start smelling the aroma in the air without this food item being anywhere around, like the smell of cheese omelets in the middle of an exhaust smoke full road, or the smell of pav bhaji when I was fed up of hostel food. So when I crave for certain foods strongly enough, my brain pulls these memories out and starts playing them for me, sweet isn’t it.

It is not just mine, but all our brains are a repository of all the smells that we ever experienced and that made a mark on us, remember all those Facebook posters about petrichor, the smell of rain on dry soil? That never really did anything for me, rain is not something I like so things reminding me of impending monsoons are memories I want to revisit.

On the other hand the smell of wood smoke, accompanies by a slight nip in the air that marks the beginning of winter holds a special place in my memories. For this smell reminds of the festive season that replaces Autumn in India, Dussehra, Diwali and all the colour, beauty and simple happiness that accompanies it. Fast forward a few months to late February- early March, the Indian spring is pretty much done and so is Maha Shivratri, the mark of winter ending, this time the smell is of dusty gardens and roads along with the prickle of sweat the beads my neck as even the evening sun makes the environs considerably warm. You will ask what is so memorable about the hellish heat that Indian Summers bring; it’s not the season of summer that is so appealing, but all the interesting times of my childhood that it reminds me of.

Summer season meant a new school session, new school books to read with fascination, the possibility of new friends being posted in and of course Summer vacations. Roughly two months of uninterrupted naps, reading and occasional games of teacher-teacher and other immersions into the world of make believe. If we were to play the word association game in smells, summer would also remind me of my brief visits to the swimming pool and the accompanying smell of chlorine, you all remember it don’t you? Did it make you smile? Swimming pool memories must make most of us smile, unless there were some traumas like near drownings or bullying attached to them. Negative memories attached to smell aren’t as rare as we would like, who can forget the smell of spirit from hospitals, or the smell of your teeth being ground down by the drill at the dentist’s, not something I would like to remember but these associations are also retained by the brain, such is life.

But the point is that smell is one of the all-important five (or six if you ask some) senses of the human body that tell us more about the world around us. Inferior beings that we are, our sense of smell is not of practical use as that of our canine friends (unless you are a perfumer or a winemaker) but it’s not completely without it’s uses, it does give us the gift of relieving some memories that could possibly bring a smile to our face and elevate our spirits. Candle makers have started making scented candles with all sorts of interesting scents like those associated with the Harry Potter fandom, which in itself values scents greatly due to the existence of the notorious love potion “Amortentia” which smells different to each person depending on what attracts them. If it were up to me, I would make capture all my memories in vials but instead of silvery memories directly visible in a Pensieve, they would be swirling scents that would take me back to moments from the years passed.


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