Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A whiff of memories

I stand at the kitchen counter, looking at various bowls filled with partially used flour, sugar and butter, and bottles of baking soda and baking powder. La Niña, my daughter, in whose presence every instance of mundane cooking or baking is transformed into an episode of La Niña ka tadka, watches expectantly and excitedly. She knows that she and I are continuing a tradition that began in my childhood home with my mother’s jugaad oven.

The timer beeps and I switch off the mains and, with mittened hands, pull out the cake pan from the oven.

And just like that, my childhood comes rushing in.

And I recall my Mum’s kitchen. Growing up, we had a very small house. So small that when we visited someone, I would try to imagine just how many times our home would fit into their house. Twice? Five times? Six times with two bathrooms to spare?

Understandably, the kitchen occupied a negligible corner of that small house. And yet, within that small space, my mother used to conjure up treats and every day meals almost as if by magic. Our kitchen had no window, and since we had only one gas cylinder at that time, it was the pumping of the old Primus stove until the cylinder was replenished. In spite of the sweltering heat in the kitchen, Mum would cook those meals with a smile, seeing them as a labour of love for her family.

I remember the sorpotels (non-vegetarians may continue reading, no gory details here) that were a staple of our Christmas and Easter celebrations. Mum would grind the red chillies, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cumin, peppercorns and turmeric using the stone mortar and pestle, referred to as paata in some Indian languages. She would wet the whole mixture with vinegar. As soon as she uncorked the bottle of vinegar, it would be like someone pressed a button somewhere deep within me. My mouth would start watering and I would begin to feel hungry.

Of course, vinegar is known to have that kind of an effect on the taste buds. But it wasn’t just that. Mum could create that kind of magic even with the most basic of dishes. She could make the tang and piquancy of each ingredient stand up so sharply that M, my younger brother, would be able to tell just what had been cooked that day when he was as far as a hundred feet away from the front door – guided by his nose alone. 

I admired him for this skill. I was rather nose-deaf (my contribution to the English language) when it came to guessing ingredients by smell alone. I can, of course, recall the peculiar odour of each ingredient when it is raw. But mix them together and I would be hopelessly lost.

Thanks to these aromas, we could literally smell Mum's presence in our home, and we would know instantly when she was away. Strange how the vanishing of a smell could bring gloom.

But other than the smells generated in the kitchen, there was the unique, motherly smell that was her own. It consisted not only of the perfume she wore on important occasions. It was also the distinctive smell of her, comprising a mixture of sweat and soap, of hard work and hope.

Dad, our original Mr Fix-it, had an individual smell too. It consisted of spirit and Fevicol and Araldite, his tools-in-trade for the numerous fixing jobs he did around the house. Whether the tap in the kitchen gave up the ghost or the radio-cum-tape recorder breathed its last, whether my doll's nose came unstuck or whether an Algebra problem defied my comprehension, he was at hand. 

Fixing. Mending. Repairing.

For all my childhood, we never ever had to call a plumber, carpenter or any kind of handyman for any job. There was no problem that Dad couldn't solve, something that remains true to the day, and the smells of the material he used to make things good again were proof of the same.

During the summer vacations, we would play outside the house and not return home until it got dark and Mum had called us back for the third time. Then we would return home, my brothers and I, all sweaty and smelly. We'd be smelling dirty, and yet we would be blissfully happy, the joy of having run around and shouted ourselves hoarse, the delight of unrestrained play.

After a bath, it was the carbolic smell of Lifebuoy that I would revel in. Even though we must have bought that soap no more than three or four times, I could recall the smell so strongly. It would always make me feel fresh and healthy.

Babies also have their own smells, something I discovered when M was born. That smell was more than Johnson's Baby Powder. It was pure, sweet, innocent. The smell of God's willingness to give the world one more chance.

As a mother, I discovered that exclusively breastfed babies can bless their mothers with an unexpected bonus. Pee and poop that do not smell offensive.

Very early in life, I discovered that inanimate objects also had their own distinctive odours.

Mum used to store the items from her trousseau in a special package, with numerous naphthalene balls for protection and an old unopened pack of some foreign soap (I think it was Camay) somewhere in the package. There would be embroidered bed sheets and pillow cases, table cloths with exquisite applique work, cross-stitched pillow cases, and crocheted doilies, table cloths and place mats. They were all things that she had made herself. Every time she bared that treasure trove, I would be entranced and completely consumed by the task of admiring the beauties within. That smell was special to both of us.

I would drink in that smell, and with that action, I would imagine that I was imbibing more than just that part-musty, part-fragrant smell. I would see myself as partaking in the joy of a young bride-to-be as she painstakingly made and put together the bricks of her life with the man she loved.

Books too had their own smells. Of course, books are not, strictly speaking, inanimate objects. My older brother and I used to smell books. We used to dig our noses into them and inhale deeply. We would make the words and thoughts expressed within those pages, the ideas and the ink, a part of our own sensibilities and sensitivities.

We would breathe in that sometimes musty, sometimes fresh off the printing press smell and make it a part of our system, our being, then slowly breathe out to make room for more. Then brace ourselves to breathe in that scent again.

I wish there was a way to bottle up those fragrances. I’m no fan of Christian Dior and his ilk, but if someone found a way to bottle up those fragrances, I’d buy a lifetime’s supply at once.

But there were some odours that were so horrible, I wished there was a way to do away with them. These included the smell of rotting garbage, on days when the jamaadar didn't come. Then we would have to wrap up the garbage bag and take it to the neighbourhood municipal bin. There was no Ambipur in those days to help us wish malodours away.

Another odour that terrified me was that of cooking gas. In those days, Doordarshan, our only TV channel, aired many public service ads about what to do and what not to do in the event of a gas leak around the home. It was then that I learned that cooking gas has no odour of its own. And that the peculiar odour of cooking gas that we smell, something like a mix between rotten eggs and dirty socks, is added to give consumers a warning in the event of any leakage.

There are many of these smells that I haven't smelled in ages. I can barely describe them any more. And yet, sometimes they creep up on me, as silently as a thief in the night, and before I know it, I am wallowing in the memory, luxuriating in nostalgia.

La Niña returns to find me still standing by the kitchen counter, a happy smile on my face. I give in to her entreaties and cut a huge slice of the cake for her. She beams at me and picks up the piece. She takes it to her mouth and is about to bite into it when she stops short. She lifts it up to her nose, and gently inhales the aroma of freshness, sweetness and her mother's love.

And just like that another memory is born, on the strength of a whiff.

This post is a response to the contest, Smelly to Smiley, run by Ambi Pur, in association with Indiblogger.


  1. How beautiful, Cynthia! I loved this post which transported me to my childhood and I could smell various things from my past. How nostalgic!


  2. This post is so sweet. I love nostalgic scents that take me back :)

  3. This was just such a warmth filled post Cynthia... loved it every bit... all those memories revisited :) :)

  4. Your Mom's kitchen reminded me of my Mom's. It is a lovely post:)



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