The grey Godrej cupboard with a difficult handle is still my magical place at home in Baroda. Magic because access to it was limited. The family documents and an occasional piece of jewelry and some imported things that my dad got from his travels across the world, were stored there. And my cousin Shankar and me being the unruly kids that we were, were forbidden to use the cupboard or climb into its shelves to reach the locker that had the goodies. I had once broken the gold tipped nib of my father’s Sheaffer’s pen and so the rules were laid down. My grand-mother called it ‘biro’ and its treasured contents included blankets, pens, pen-caskets, a near – empty jewelry box with a few annas and copper coins that my grandma used for her poojas as well as perfumes! Or the spray as it was called – that came out on festivals and some weddings we attended.
Even today when I open the cupboard I can sense the fragrance of Intimate – a perfume that fascinated all of us. Not that we shared it like Bhupen Khakkar’s Phoren Soap.
The spray came from Tokyo and had a distinct fragrance to it that took over the contents of the whole cupboard – my mother’s saris largely. Its inner steel doors still smell faintly of the perfume long after it is gone. In fact my first ever gift to my mother, years later, was the very perfume.
Olfaction has memory associated with it. Smells take us to spaces that we might remember, have hidden or forgotten in the folds of memory. Which is why home cooked food is so comforting. It reminds us of people who represented security, comfort and perhaps puts us at ease into non – threatening spaces.
No wonder then, a small cluster of plant outside my office reminded me of my childhood. I have learnt to call it the Damru– that comes from the Tulsi and basil family. As a child the Damru grew outside the IPCL Township swimming pool where I spent a large part of my growing up days. And as a flower and plant gatherer (my official job at 7, where I tasted seeds and flower, sometimes ending with black lips, I atleast got to know which one was edible and which one was to be avoided) I would pluck a few damru leaves and throw them into my plastic bag that had my dripping wet swimming costume. The mixture of smells was heady – the chlorinated water from the swimming pool mixed with the fragrance of the Damru leaves was quite a strange and funny combination. So the mind associates- the Damru– to the chlorinated water, the swimming pool, my wet chappals and my way back home from the pool. The string of memories is uncut.
In the film Ratatouille, the food critic Ego who loves to say, “Surprise me” to all panic-stricken chefs and restaurant owners is humbled by this nasal food memory. It is when Remy the mouse makes him a Ratatouille, a veggie dish Ego’s mom made for him as a child, he softens to reality.
So, while the fish-eating homes were clearly identified by my big nose, so did the typical Gujarati homes and the garlic-flavored theplas being roasted on tawas. Nasal memory stays on like audio memories and visual scenes we see. It is like a stream of consciousness that travels inward like a rocket and picks and chooses what it wants to flash on our mental screens! Try closing your eyes as you drive past your home today (not when you are in the driver’s seat) and see if you identify spaces by smells. I can identify Dubai International City for sure!