For the last week or so, my brother has been in Bangalore for work. He’s been emailing his trials and tribulations and posting oddities from the tech ghetto. I’ve enjoyed them tremendously. In the middle of my brother’s dispatches, I also received an email from my internet friend, West Seattle neighbor, and writer extraordinaire, Marika. “I thought you’d enjoy this,” she said, and attached, an email written by her dad, who’s also traveling in India. I enjoyed it so much that I asked if I could share it, and Marika’s Dad, as he asked to be credited, consented.
You asked for the definitive description of the “smell” of India. So, as the newly self-appointed (you get to do that here in India!) Director of Definitive Descriptions for All of India, I hereby proclaim it to be as follows:
Perhaps it is as simple as saying “inclusive”. I doubt there Is a tang or fragrance or odor or however myriad synonyms of “smell” there are in Roget’s lexicon that is missing at any given time. Perhaps it is only the regional infusions and their level of intensity that vary.
But let’s start at the root of it; the earth.
And in which season? I can only speak currently in my new position to that part of the monsoon season after the first wash of life-bringing liquid has been transported by meteorologically shifted winds from the Bay of Bengal, in great crowds of cumulonimbus clouds to the parched earth of the continent to stack up against the Himalaya, begin to rise and then DUMP lakes and lakes of rain.
So that means mud! Mud of earth that has taken a prolonged seasonal beating from sun, overuse and inappropriate additives from human consumption; garbage…excrement…petrochemicals….
That’s the base: let’s say it’s the dough. It has a deep musty-yeasty- swampy kind of smell that sort of hangs about nose-high.
Next, add cow shit. Pervasive! It ranges from a small pinch of odor wafting on a breeze to a huge glop right under your nose from the cow standing beside you on the sidewalk ( if there is indeed a sidewalk….).
Throw in vast but fleeting quantities of diesel fumes from a multitude of motorized honking machines.
We’re now ready to add the exotic elements that provide that nuance of nose a great recipe needs: hot frying oil (not too fresh!); currygarliccoriandercumincinnamonpepper…that unique blend of spices that make Indian food taste and smell so, well…Indian.
It comes in waves from open doors; from roadside, street side, train side vendors with their propane-fueled cook-stands parked…just about anywhere. It is a welcome overlay intermingling with the base ingredients.
Finally we come to the finishing fragrance; the piece de resistance; the cheap cologne to the teen boy’s sweaty body: Incense! Yep! Shiva and his great gang of gods smelled down on India and said, “Holy Shit! This won’t work! We live above this!” And so, they each invented their own unique brand of aroma and made it a REQUIREMENT for reincarnation that everybody use it all every day.
And, so, my dear, you have it! The official and definitive fragrance of India…and I love it!
– Marika’s Dad