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Olfactory India. Can the character of a city be determined by its’ aroma?

c1OK, the title may cause some sniggers.  ‘’OMG, India stinks!’’ declare all the people who have never been there, the same ones who are convinced that all you will be confronted with are an overwhelming wave of poverty and will be struck down imminently, never to recover, with Delhi Belly as soon as one foot is placed in the country. However, as we know, my India is a very different place.

In my first blog piece on here, I wrote about my return to India last year and the smell that confronts you as soon as you arrive at Delhi airport. It’s a hard one to describe, a mix of grime and dust and struggle and survival, if such things can be translated into a ‘smell.’ I noticed a very similar odour this week on, or should that be ‘in’, the London Underground.

Now before I head off into my romantic observations of the olfactory senses which assaulted me on this trip, I am aware that India has its fair share of unpleasant aromas.  I am not going to go into these you will be pleased to know. As low as I will go is to tell you about when my first negative realisation of what living in India as a ‘native’ might entail.  Six weeks after arriving in Kanha, it was my first ‘lie-in’ in over 4 weeks as there were no guests to get up at 0430. I awoke, savoured the realisation, stretched languorously, partially twisted and caught a whiff of my own armpit. Oh My God, curry!  I surreptitiously turned the other way, yup, that armpit too, it was in stereo, surround aroma.  I was mortified. I officially smelt like the eponymous corner shop to be found gracing most streets in West Yorkshire.

It’s something that you don’t notice when living there, but each nation has its own smell. Is it the French that think Brits smell like milk? It’s an unavoidable by-product of the diet that is eaten and you simply get used to it.

Delhi was naturally, as per the above, struggle and survival, dust and pollution.However, back to the point. I was in India two weeks ago, and perhaps, knowing what to expect from each destination, I inadvertently became aware of senses, which when confronted with the visual onslaught of India, quite often pale into insignificance. What I noticed, is that on ‘de-planing’ (forgive me, I had two weeks of being delightfully immersed back into Hinglish – see we speak like this only) each destination has its own distinct aroma.  When one arrives by train or car and therefore gradually arrives into the scent of a city, it is not noticeable, but when arriving by aircraft, the doors open and in wafts the whiff of your new destination.

c2Jabalpur was the smell of fresh rain. Yes: I was lucky enough to land in Jabalpur just as the rains started.  This is not limited to being an African or Indian experience but one anyone who has been in these areas where there are vast expanses of dried, parched tracts of uncultivated and unfarmed land will appreciate. You are alerted to an impending storm before you feel its first drops.  Gazing into the distance upon the approaching trajectory of rain clouds, black and ominous rolling in, the fragrance of their impending approach reaches you.  Far ahead of the first drops landing in your immediate vicinity a scent is released into the air and is carried ahead on the breeze. SPLAT, the first bulbous drop lands on the arid land, POOF! The dust is displaced, forced from the ground and up into the air where it is carried along by the warning gusts. Those first drops themselves bounce back up as the scorched land rejects its immediate advance and a mini-crater is left in its wake. The smell of the rains in the heartlands of Central India is a delight to experience and one to savour. The battle of water on scorched land, before the force of the water wins and rehydrates mother earth. In an area where water is scarce, the smell of the rain heralds new growth, rebirth and most importantly, the surety of the next season’s food. It is a smell of relief and joy.

The aircraft doors opened in Mumbai and we were hit with a combination of sea air, salt and fish, a result of its particular c4location.  Now it’s not that a major conurbation like Mumbai has any less than its share of struggles than Delhi, but it was originally made up of seven islands and is located on the coast. Who can deny the magical power of a body of water? Even when living in the jungle, we had a dam, and the relaxation one is able to achieve when gazing over the calming influence of this and the nature it attracts was undeniable.  Similarly in Mumbai, it is wonderful to watch, either in the early morning, or more particularly in the evenings, those lucky enough to be in close enough proximity to the 4.3 km long, Marine Drive aka Queen’s Necklace, flocking to the edge of the Arabian Sea to meet friends, share the stories of the day and forget one’s troubles under the rosy hues of a setting sun.

There is no such thing as privacy in a land of 1.2 billion, but ‘courting’ couples get together in the closest they will have to a secret meeting and share shy giggles and bashful exchanges. Despite the struggles of living in such a major conurbation, there is a scent or sense of hope for the future.Incidentally, there is an old Ittar Wala (perfume maker) in Old Delhi who can mix this fragrance and package it up for you to take away. One can never beat the real experience of smelling the rain but it is wonderful to have an easily accessible reminder.
c5Cochin was next. Here it was jasmine and coconut. Kerala is the land of plenty, where nature flourishes (more water you see), where people struggle less and can enjoy and live from the bounty of the land. Coconuts abound. Tender coconut is offered as a welcome drink (ahead of chai!), food is cooked in coconut oil, and coconut flesh is added to curries and desserts alike.  Next comes the jasmine which grows in abundance. The sweet and heady scent of jasmine which manages to overpower even the bouquet of the coconut. Virtually every lady wears fresh jasmine in her hair, it is hung from the rear view mirrors in cars, it is placed on the pillow in hotel rooms.  Jasmine is unavoidable. It is such a wonderful reminder of the gentleness and beauty of the state of Kerala that during jasmine season in Delhi, my driver would ensure that there were always a string or two placed in my car and I planted and have nurtured jasmine plants in my garden in the UK.

Noticing all of these aromas of India, distinct from city to city, made me wonder if the scent of a city can determine its personality?  To me, on this trip, it seems it can. Living in India I really got to see that each city has a very different personality. Delhi is tough and aggressive, there is no give, it is about survival, man vs man and dog eat dog and the smell is one of enduring and existing. Smiles are hard to come by.  Mumbai is frantic but friendly, the sea relaxes and calms, it is chaotic but has more of a carefree attitude than Delhi.  Smiles are quick to turn into a laugh and quick to dash off again into the trials of another busy day. Cochin has always been the land of plenty, it is a chilled out destination due, ironically, to its permanent balmy climate, but one where smiles are frequent and come straight from the heart.



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