Odeur de l’Inde – Parfums des Indes : ballade olfactive down Memory Lane. 

from Sandrine L. Mehr

 

Bangaloruru. Memories from my youth. Almost lost in time and yet, so present. Of a place then called Bangalore and still dozing in the shade of its eucalyptus-lined avenues. The Bangalore I first saw – or rather met, as I believe one meets a city (and fell in love or friendship with it – or not) as we do with people. A question of skin, of smells, of fluids…intimately. A Bangalore that doesn’t exist anymore: it has been cut from its inhabitants’ life like its trees. Taken down as a sacrifice to a buzzling, soulless ideal of a modern megalopolis. Complete with its cloying pollution: a toxic and intoxicating mix of cheap diesel, rotten things better left unidentified, especially during the monsoon rains, agarbattis burning in front of makeshift shrines, melting road tar in summer, cheap perfumes in the stalls of Ghandi Bazaar…

 

And yet, Prajna’s evocation of the very distinct, odoriferous atmosphere at Basavanagudi Bull Temple threw me back to the core of my most cherished, living images of a city that, despite the hectic changes and pace adopted over the past thirty years, is still there. Always will be. Defragmented, like thousands of tiny, timeless shards of a giant mirror. Its eternal, immortal soul. Dispersed over its many quarters and suburbs, like so many added, tiny, timeless, shinning traces of a former, dismembered yet so powerfully alive Goddess. A vibrant presence to be perceived and followed through its countless, shape-changing aspects and odorant vibes. For those who notice them. But few aren’t, even if not always fully aware of it. The evocative power of the scent of jasmine, mixed to the powdery texture of curcuma powder and the greasy, balmy texture of the vermillion-hued kum kum, or the buttery smell of sandalwood, sold by the merchants at the entrance of a temple I was of course never allowed to enter:

I do not need any other trigger to plunge back into my early days as a student, lost and enraptured in the many worlds and interwoven, fragrant dimensions of an intensely vibrant subcontinent.

 

All of my memories of India, the ones that I so fervently call back to my mind when feeling homesick and so desperately wishing I can just close my eyes and be magically transported back to the banks of the Mula river in Pune. Reeking of mud, refuse, bracken water and sun-dried, white-washed stone strewn with insolently fresh and glowingly orange marigolds, around the tiny temple to the Goddess, near Yerwada Bridge. The flavour of the pedas bought as an offering to Lord Ganapati at Chitale Bhandu Mithaiwale, on Bajirao Road. The one and only sweets’ and confectionary shop acceptable by all traditional devotees from the old town’s most conservative boroughs. For Lord Ganapati, Ganesh-ji, is a true-blue gourmet: he would accept any offering presented with true devotion and respect, of course, but it’s so rewarding to make that extra mile and ensure he will have the best sweets available in town.

 

Save for the festival days, when my heart-sister Meena prepares her sinfully-rich modoks: the rich, heady flavour of pure ghee mixed with the sharpest hint of jaggery, the sugarcane raw sugar favoured for those stuffing, heavy, sweet delicacies all Maharashtrian homes will serve especially on Ganapati festival. And the melting, freshly grated coconut. Wrapped in a little ball of soft rice flour dumpling dough, delicately steamed, so that all the perfumes of the God’s favourite sweet can harmoniously mingle, like so many tiny, indecently rich, subtly perfumed sugar-bombs. Especially when drenched in a dollop of ghee… A dietary horror. An epicurean treasure. With its subtle hazelnut smell: the golden, vibrant, olfactive signature of a home-made, pure veg ghee no cook or home-maker worth her salt would ever dream about trying to ever so slightly lighten on the caloric side.

 

Yes, indeed: India is an olfactory map in itself… a universe of smells, perfumes, odours, fragrances and… well, yes, stench as well. Sometimes. In the sun. Reminiscences of my long walks through one or the other slums-slowy-turning-into-a-residential-area near Parvati Hill, when I was coming back to my old landlady’s home after my daily research sessions at Deccan College. Open sewers caked in dry mud, where pigs and crows were happily foraging in friendly comradeship. The smell of sweat mingling with spices and cheap mustard oil in the overcrowded lanes of Shukrawar Peth, on a market day. The metallic tang of the bloodied carcasses in Bangalore’s butchers’ area when I first visited, in the early, already stuffy days of a precocious summer spent in the Deccan in 1992. The smell of Nilgiri oil in the green glass bottle delivered to me over the - pure 19th century-polished-wooden -counter at the oldest drugstore still surviving glitzy modernisation on MG Road. The rich, heavy, dark scent of the earth after the heavy July showers, so evocative of the sultry scent of pure patchouli oil. The glory of the over-ripe, soon-to-be-dead flowers in the gardens, at sunset. And of the fruit and vegetable stalls at Crawford Market, in Mumbai. The pungent smell of a rare kus kus attar unveiled with the grace of a performing magician by His Highness the Maharaja of Udaipur’s Chief Perfumer, when I was discovering the fascination of traditional Indian perfumes in his magical, fragrant den near Shastri Circle. And the power of their magic, so strong that it used to be considered an art of royal political mastery to use them as a political weapon.

 

Because all humans are sensitive to perfumes. And smells. They influence our mood, soothe our sorrows, enlighten our days. Or spoil a meal when inadequately chosen. “The heat and smell of spices” glorified by Kipling – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “L’Odeur de L’Inde”- The Smell of India. A vast, multi-hued, fragrant, smelly, perfumed 3D-tapestry of scents and memories, of reminiscences and evocations, of fragrant, strange, disturbing, exotic smells, intermingling, disappearing, elusively present in all my thoughts when thinking about India. A never-ending travel. But a fragrant one. Always. And forever.

 

>>back