I don’t remember how my father smelled.
It has been over 20 years since he passed away. Of course, I don’t remember. But I am fairly certain that if someone were to bottle his scent and present it to me, I’d recognize it. In a heartbeat.
But there is another scent, something that is already bottled and sold at almost all grocery stores in my neighborhood. A scent that does not require magic, imagination, or time travel to transport me to the time when my father was alive.
It is also a scent that I’d much rather forget exists.
It is a room freshener with a distinctly flowery, lingering smell. A thick scent that my mother had hoped would mask the many clinical smells of my father’s room while he was bed-ridden, body ravaged by the last stages of cancer.
Instead, it mingled with them and created a smell that became the calling card of the losing battle we were fighting and the death that awaited us. It was an oppressive reminder of an impending tragedy as much as it was a comforting sign of the fact that my father was still around.
After my father was gone, we never bought that freshener again. It’s been over 20 years now, and yet neither I nor my mother can stand the fragrance of that freshener.
Scents and memories have a much a romanticized association. Science, for once, supports the romance, informing us of all the myriad ways in which smells can evoke memories. And why not? Sights and sounds fade. But smells linger. In more ways than one. And the associations we form with this invisible but potent sense leave an indelible mark on how we process and remember the various events in our lives.
Perfumes have always been personal to me. During a brief breakup in my relationship, the one thing that tormented me the most was the accidental whiff of the cologne my partner used to wear. I’d be standing in a shopping mall, or seated in a bus when someone would pass me by wearing that same cologne, and I’d find myself frozen. Frozen with sorrow I didn’t even know I was carrying.
For some reason, it wasn’t the photographs or emails that reminded me of what we had lost. It was always the smell. After we got back together, I asked him to never wear that perfume again. It became a relic of a pain I no longer wanted to remember.
Much like the exiled freshener, it was a banishment that marked our re-entry into what we hoped was our new reality.
Smells don’t evoke memories. They are memories. The fond ones are easy to cherish, easy to hang on to. I want to bottle the smell of my mother’s mango jam that hangs low in our house every summer, or the warm fragrance of the many curries she cooks every day. Away from home, what makes me miss it the most is the aroma of homecooked food floating from windows that I wish were mine.
Every memory has a scent attached to it. The wild memorable party we had towards the end of college, the first date, the first office I ever called my own, the last time I went hiking and smelled the forest.
Pleasant smells, happy smells, smells that mean comfort and security, much like fond memories are easy to process and live with. But what does one do with the scents that mean pain, and trauma and remind us of a time we’d much rather forget?
What does one do with the scent of grief? But more importantly, what does one do without it?
I lost my sense of smell right around the time the air in India was thick with the stench of its many burning dead. Covid had hit home, but unlike a million others, at least I was accorded the luxury to stay alive. And so, sitting at my home, isolated and quarantined, I watched in horror with the rest of the world, as our timelines were flooded with SOS requests, and our newspapers were inundated with human lives reduced into data by an unprecedented calamity and an uncaring system.
A negative report at the end of ten days indicated that Covid had indeed spared me. My anosmia, however, refused to relent.
Losing access to a sense makes you more acutely aware of what it means to possess it. I found myself sniffing for more than just smells, looking for missing pieces, holes in stories we were witnessing, gaps that I knew were there because I could not smell them.
Everyone across the world saw the pictures that became India’s story in those few weeks. Pictures of the dead and the dying, of a country burning like an inferno with its dead while the living gasped for breath.
The thing about even the most devastating pictures is that they never tell the whole story. Because pictures don’t have a scent. And I wonder if we will ever know what it means to burn the way half this country was burning unless we could smell the fire and the charred flesh.
Most people in India choose to bid their dead goodbye by cremating them. It is messy and chaotic, in sync with what India has always stood for. Because even beyond the exoticized western view of what India is, we have always been a country of bizarre extremes and unfathomable excesses.
A British friend visiting India for the first time had once told me, that of all the things that took him by surprise in this country, it was the smells that really got to him. The vibrance, the colors, and the chaos one expects but the visceral tsunami of the many smells that define an Indian landscape is hard to predict and overwhelming to process.
This riff-raff olfactory landscape has always been an inexplicable source of comfort. Every city, every place I have been to had its scent that imprinted the memories I found and formed there.
Mumbai’s pandemonium is complemented by the gentle, salty odor of the sea. The countryside always has a whiff of the summer holidays we spent in my Grandma’s village. Delhi smells like business, pollution, and smoke, while Lucknow carries the scent of home.
Varanasi is where death finds its meaning with people sitting by, watching bodies burn, the smell of burning dead hidden underneath the cloying fragrance of myriad incense sticks.
But at the peak of the second wave, Varanasi was choked. Death had overtaken everything. And the stench was so thick, even the most hardened patrons of death, and the ones who make a living off it in the ghats of Varanasi could no longer bear it.
With my sense of smell plugged off, I kept thinking about all the times I could smell death and chose not to. I thought about my many visits to Varanasi, and the freshener we never buy at our home.
When my father passed away, we moved on by leaving a scent behind and never going back again. It was something tangible that we gave up, a kind of a bizarre catharsis that helped us make peace with our new reality and the truth of my father’s absence.
It made me wonder what would be left behind when all of this is over, those of us who did not even have a smell to make sense of this chaos and grief. For those of us who could, the smell of a sanitized hospital lobby and the rusty old oxygen plant would forever be the scent of their trauma. But what of those who didn’t even have that? How do they process this grief? Where is the catharsis that they deserve?
There is something intensely cruel about plugging a sense mute while the world around explodes. Or perhaps it is comforting. A friend, who also happens to be a professed monk, confessed that losing her sense of smell was a relief. ‘It was a burden less’, she said. And maybe it was. But the hole in my heart felt otherwise. We kept losing family and friends and people in the neighborhood we wish we had said hello to. The grief deepened, and I longed to smell the freshener in my father’s room again.
Grief is not linear. Much like the scents, it changes hues and notes, morphing into phases we can neither predict nor prepare for. Making sense of grief and surviving it by extension isn’t a linear, predictable process either. It just swings from one impossibility to the other, until one day we find ourselves in a place where at least something makes sense, and just as unexpectedly as grief, healing becomes a thing.
Driving back from my mother’s vaccination appointment, I accidentally rolled down the window. A whiff of freshly cut grass hit my nostrils. I breathed in the faint scent. After weeks, I found myself re-entering a world where scents and smells were more than a memory. They were faint, but real things.
Losing my sense of smell wasn’t the end of my world. And to be able to smell again wasn’t some dramatic homecoming. It was just a tiny piece of my existence silently clicking back in place.
It didn’t matter. And yet, it did.
Maybe catharsis isn’t always about leaving things behind. Maybe sometimes it is about rediscovering them.
That day, on my way back, I wondered if I should buy that room freshener again.