August 26, 2013

Invisible Memory-Chest Openers

Most of us rely on our sense of sight, to such an extent that we’ve taken the sense of smell for granted. People wonder – “How difficult it might have been, to live blind, deaf or dumb?” As though our sense of smell would forever be intact.  Allow me to remind you that “the sense of smell gradually diminishes roughly on yearly basis starting from childhood” and unlike the sense of vision or sound which can be restored using hearing aids, glasses etc. There is nothing that could possibly be done to restore it for it is the smell receptors in the brain that gradually diminish in quantity and quality as we age.

 The sense of smell helps children to spot food, arouses lust in adults and is equally capable to shut it. Not to mention the fact that sometimes it’s the deference in the smell that seems to alter the ‘flavor’ (crazy but true). For some animals, the sense of smell is equivalent to how we value the sense of vision.

As a helpless newborn, I relied on this very sense to identify my mother (an amusing fact that I read from ‘1000 Fantastic Facts’ book way back in my upper primary years.) it’s a fact that triggers in me a ‘empty nostalgia’ for I don’t have neither have any memory of the time. God, I wish if we had the technology to capture smell (like in the movie ‘Perfume’) videos/photographs would’ve been more realistic.

I remember once while my mother was wiping my hair dry, she sniffed my head and said with pride: “you have the smell of your father.” I don’t know how she did it but if she could then I guess I could too. And yes, I did too and what I got is what I used to get as a toddler I guess.

To truly realize the nostalgic essence within smell, you’ve got to lose it without your acknowledgment and a moment comes when all of a sudden they hit back at you. In my case it was that special moment when I got home from a house away from home after quite some time. The moment when I truly realized the value and joy within many little things that I’d taken for granted. Unlike vision, smell blends into us in time into a unified entity that might at first appear to be nothing as one ‘gets used to’ them.

Here are some of those invisible ‘memory-chest' openers in my home.

Onam flower rangoli
1.       The smell of cow dung (from a fair distance) – Onam, the most extravagant days in Kerala. To please the kind hearted, loving demon king who ruled Kerala, Maveli. It was believed that Onam is the time when he would be granted permission to visit the land he ruled from his luxurious exile in the underground. All houses would lay out flower mats to welcome him and there was a good old time when cow dung was used as the base to lay the flower mat. Mainly because of its antiseptic properties (its methane) the festive-holiday mood would come tagged along with this smell. I used have a digit age back then. All that’s changed, thanks to globalization my family had to live apart. After 15 years, we’ve come back. Very few families now use cow dung. They seem to have lost the spirit in a busy world. All celebrations seem to happen in TV and malls but guess what? It’s the NRI’s who mostly celebrate it with full spirit despite of being in a different place, for they seem to know what the value of togetherness and tradition is. They miss it. The cow dung triggers in me faint memories if unselfish childhood joys.

2.       The smell of old clothes – when clothes are washed, dried and preserved in a suitcase (the metal trunk of 90’s
) they possess a unique smell when taken out after a real long time (say around 2 years in my case) there used to be a time when I was in digit age and my father alone worked abroad, leaving me and mom behind. When he came back after 2 years, mom had preserved his cloths on that old trunk. I remember that beautiful smell. It was brief, stayed only for the first night of my father’s arrival. In the bed as I hugged him I use to sniff the old shirt he wore often. Then next day onwards, branded perfumes of Arabia replaced that smell and I barely even noticed its disappearance. I and mother would soon leave with him to Gulf. After another two years, when we returned back to our homeland my aunt had done with my clothes I left behind what mom had done with dads when he left us. “Try this mone (beta), it might have become tight though” she said as she took out my dress from a similar trunk and it hit me, the smell…the old night of excitement with my dad. Wow, it was a unique experience.

dettol3.       The smell of Dettol – now that’s an aroma that indicates cleanliness and it, could be easily produced provided one has the need for it.  It reminds me of the time I contracted chickenpox way back in class four. My mother, to ensure that it doesn’t get transmitted to dad (chickenpox, the older we get it the worse) had her trust in Dettol and our house kind of smelled like a Dettol production unit. A couple of years before that incident I had burst the family into silly laughter (though I doubt its authenticity) asking “Dad, if Dettol kills germs, why not drink it to kill the germs in our stomach?” The answer was “there are quite a lot of useful germs in out body too son, we can’ get them killed, in fact they would kill the bad ones.”

When I was in class 6 we were expecting a baby. The early points of gestation. The good news had been confirmed and happily messaged out to folks back home.
“Now that mommy is going to deliver a baby we’ve got to give hand at cleaning and maintenance.” Said my dad, and that was one of the times I had hands on training of using Dettol with my dad(which proved to be useful whenever I wiped my hostel room floor, besides those memories just flashback.)  As we cleaned me n dad talked about naming the new born, whether it would be a male or female? “What if it were twins?” etc. . . .
Well, none of that happened… an unexpected death of fetus. L

4.       The smell of cuticura – my grandpa is one weird dude when it comes to some silly thing like usage of soap and powder. For as long as I can remember, the only (the one and only) brand of powder he uses is cuticura and for soap, pears. Even now, believe it or not. He is now on the later stage of 80, healthy though. Back when I was a kid cuticura came in long cylindrical containers. He’d never throw them away but used them as his piggy bank (strictly coins). His room always smells of cuticura. At the bottom of his cupboard there were (and still do) around old cuticura cans filled with coins up to the brink.
Back then when I used to ask him what he’d planned to do with all those coins he’d say – “I have 3 more daughters to marry off apart from your mother”
Cuticura talcum powder17 years have passed. Those cuticura cans remain filled (cuticura changed their container which didn’t seem to please him much). Me and my little cousin sisters approach him (yes sisters, daughters of those daughters he wanted to marry off apart from my mom). When asked the same question, his reply would be – “use this money to meet mine and your grandmother’s funeral expenses”. He appears a bit serious when he says it but we know he’s joking. And his room still smells of cuticura. Even the Yardley brand which we brought him from mile east didn’t seem to alter his liking for cuticura. He is my example of a self-made person and will always be. My cuticura and pears man.

How To Clean Burnt Food from a Pan5.       The smell of burnt food – a not so sweet memory and it still haunts whenever it hits me.  It turned out to be a smell to which I am always vulnerable no matter how hard I try to overcome it. The memory seems to be hard coded in to the archives of my brain. A time when I feel so insecure and become engulfed in fear. It was a morning on a holiday; I awoke to the smell of burnt food and verbal assaults. The first time I witnessed the ‘not so sweet’ bits of living together as a family. The first time since me and mom came to stay abroad with dad, a common husband-wife argument that probably went way off the limit. Dad had a 1000W speaker embedded and mom was like the angry goddess of Hindu mythology - kali. That was followed by a long weeks of cold-war between the two and frequent ego clashes. They blamed each other for my existence (and believe me, that was so painful) everything would soon turn normal and happy and peaceful life did surface but moments like these did happened once or twice every year (with variable intensities). I kind of started ignoring it nowadays while before as a helpless kid I used to go to the corner of the room and cry while they would come(one by one) try to appease me by blaming, trying to convince/persuade me to take their side. There were also many embarrassing times when I tried negotiating. I even tried calling grandmother hoping she might be able to do something but I just made her sadder though she was my only source of being soothed. I realized I wasn’t the only one with warring parents when I came across columns in magazines like reader’s digest and young times when many teenagers/children like me post anonymous complains highlighting their depression. Strange, it’s as though their attitudes change like the toss of a die – peace – war – friendly nation – cold war – war- love- and so on.
I came across this beautiful book- “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”. On one such horrific moments I even took an oath to be the most loving husband ever – God knows how things might turn out to be in my case when I get married. I know that will be the time when I truly understand my parent’s weirdo personality fluctuations. Whenever my parents argue, I kind of feel like something is being overcooked and I check for the same and vice versaJ. My parents been married 21 long years and I guess that arguments combine with patients did seem to play an integral role of gluing their love .Now that I am living away, years together have started feeling nostalgic.
I guess the only way I can hopefully possibly overcome this is to somehow be awaken by burnt food from deep love-making with my ever loving wife(whom I have yet not met)…he he just kidding!!!

65d9408ef8d3401fdded0024341c9184    The smell of spices – my aunt, mom’s sis. A fatal fall during her teenage years left her handicapped, limping. She never gave in to her disability. At her early twenties was when I was turning from a kid to a child and she was like a second mother to me. She acquired herself a job in a spices shop, overcoming the strong oppositions from my mother on grounds that: “she simply wouldn’t be able to handle it”, my grandmother “she might fall and injure herself for she has no sensation in her foot” and my grandfather – “that job is below the family dignity.” There was no one to support or speak for her wish for she needed acceptance and recognition in the family.
Whenever she came back from work she’d have this peculiar smell of spices dust that would make me sneeze as I hugged her.  I am now as old as she was back then and I truly realize her boldness. It’s something even beyond what I possess. Perhaps hardened by the disability that couldn’t win over her will power. The pocket money(coins) which she’d give me had that smell too.
The smell of spices in store room of my house always reminded me of her (and still do), especially when we lived abroad. She quit that job years back and now receives government pension (the only child among my grandmother’s children to serve in government sector).

Bahrain       The smell of Bahrain – in 2007 in came back to my old home in Kerala from a ‘home away from home’. A few years later a friend of mine who was still in Bahrain brought me a t-shirt from Bahrain. The first thing I noticed was the smell, slowly being replaced by the smell of Kerala. It was the smell that got me spiraling to my long years of life as an NRI. The smell of an entire island of thicker air and hot sun that doesn’t harbor many insects for it was dry with little rainfall and oil instead of ground water. That was a highly nostalgic in sheer magnitude for it spanned a fair part of my life then. I wonder if the entire middle-east smells similar. it was a home away from home too.

Upon writing this post I realize, from an aromatic viewpoint, the influence of the two homes that I spent most of my life so far in. They may be countries apart but is united by memories triggered by smell (along with moments, incidents, future plans etc.) 
Then there are air freshers in the market to steal it all away...: )

1 comment:

  1. That's a lot of smell you could recall upon! Its true,though I did feel most of them but never noticed it to this extent. But one thing is the smell of some special dishes.It would just recall all those sweet memories of the childhood. :-)