Olfaction, or the sense of smell, is a beautiful means of exploring the world. Waking up to the smell of your love’s skin instead of the ranting of an alarm clock is an amazing feeling to start the day with! I had the good fortune of starting a day like this once; it was pretty much the best day I had during the Christmas break. It was three days after Christmas, to be precise, that I decided to sell my old books at a well-known second-hand bookstore in the city, and in exchange bought a set of Dickens’ classics for my literature class reading assignments.
I didn’t realize until I entered the bookstore that olfaction did a great deal of exploring by itself; I didn’t need eyes to tell me where I was! But this is not where my day started; it started at home. I woke up to the smell of the sickly sweet perfume I spray on my dog after giving him a shower. I knew he was trying to wake me up, and so he was. His tiny paws pushed me gently, followed by a whimper and a few soft cries. ‘Good morning,’ I said to the little white fur-ball with my eyes still closed.
He pounced on me then, singing a song only he understood. I sat up and kissed his head, as is the custom, before walking out of the bed and into my bathroom. My toothpaste, I realised, had a strong, almost pungent smell. It was a desperate attempt at trying to be ‘minty-fresh’.
Walking out, I discussed with my mother what was to be done about breakfast. We settled on the lazy Sunday afternoon brunch – buy something from outside; we’re too lazy to cook. My father was sent out to but some idli and vada – a south Indian staple. He bought, along with the necessary, a little too many oranges. ‘We’ll drink some orange juice today!’ mother said.
I went to the kitchen and put out the 20 odd oranges in the biggest washbowl I could find before pulling out a plate and starting to peel them. After I was done peeling some 5 or 6 oranges, the oil making my hands sticky, my mother called to me and asked me to have breakfast for we would have the juice later. So I did; I put the plate full of peels aside and covered the peeled oranges before having my breakfast. Later, all was forgotten about the orange juice.
Gagan, a friend called me soon after and asked me if I had any plans for the day. I hadn’t really spent much time with the guy in a long time and so I came up with a plan where I could spend time with him and get some work done at the same time. I collected all the books I had to sell and asked my sister, Sahiti, to do the same. I told her we would go to the bookstore with Gagan, sell the books, hang out for a while and return. Although she didn’t like the company of Gagan a lot, she agreed, for more than Gagan, she disliked bus-crowds.
We agreed to pool-in the money for petrol and the plan was set. This would be the first, and probably the last time I stepped out of my house in the Christmas break.
I quickly took a shower; the soap smelled antiseptic. That’s probably because it is supposed to be, but I have never liked the smell of medicine in things such as soaps, lotions or bed-covers. I applied to my face the only cream that suits my skin – baby cream. I haven’t exactly figured out yet if it is the babies that smell like baby products or baby products that smell like babies, for even the babies whose mothers do not use any products on them smell like baby products. However, the major concern here is that baby cream is the only cream that I can use and every morning my face smells like a baby’s butt. (…which is nice, as long as the baby-butt is clean.)
Sahiti and I stuffed our bags with books and left for Gagan’s place where Rishabh, his friend, opened the door because he was still getting dressed. I sat down on the sofa and tried not to notice how Gagan, my friend with benefits (until he found a girlfriend), walked around shirtless from one room to another, trying to figure out what shirt to wear.
Although it’s been a while since we stopped ‘availing the benefits’, the smell of his skin, or his deodorant, made me want him. But of course, I never acted upon my feelings – and that’s the whole scene with being with a friend-with-benefits: You’re friends, no matter what. We still crack jokes, and hang out, still visit each other and even swim together, but we don’t do the dirty. We’re friends.
Tired of how long he was taking, I walked into the room where he stood in front of the cupboard for an eternity and asked him what he was doing. He changed three shirts until now, and finally ran to the other room and put on a regular t-shirt, only to cover it up with the best sweater he has. Then he spent another 15 minutes setting his hair and wearing his shoes… ‘And they say men wait for women to get dressed,’ I muttered.
Finally we the house that smelled like sex to me, and entered a car that smelled like children. It was musty, and chocolaty – like biscuits and wafers in the old outhouse of a garden drowning in petrichor. It was the smell I could smell when I hugged Gagan’s nieces. We left for the bookstore.
On the way we inhaled white smoke, and grey smoke, and a little bit of black smoke before we shut the windows and turned on the a/c. The car had no air-freshener, and the a/c air smelled funnier. It smelled like the breeze on a beach – salty, cold, and a little fishy. We arrived at the bookstore.
The two boys went to park the car while my sister and I entered the paradise. The place smelled like old books do – wood, and words. Somewhere through the smell of wood, you could smell dust and printing-ink. You could smell the laughter in the fairy-tales section for kids and smell the mystery as you approached Conan Doyle. You could smell love when you met John Green and smell sex when you opened the Fifty Shades. I had been looking for Dickens, and surprisingly, he didn’t smell any different from the book store. He didn’t smell like London would. He had an ancient odour – that’s all; a classic smell of oldness.
I found my books soon enough, but my sister didn’t. Gagan and Rishabh were both not book-people and were buried beneath a thick pile of boredom. When I found them, they suggested we go to a nearby pub while my sister did the shopping – she would take ages, and we all knew that well. I told Sahiti of our plan and it was agreed upon that we would meet again in half-an-hour, and then eat something before we went home.
Now, I can tell you we went to a pub because I know we did. As we walked the streets, I had no idea where we were going, and I have never been to a pub before this. I simply followed the two boys and on our way we crossed several interesting places. There was a restaurant, right next to the bookstore, which smelled like sea-food, but I doubt it served sea-food.
We walked along a stretch that smelled of dirty water and gutters. Following it was the sweet smell of paan from a store. Finally, we took a turn and were entering what looked like an old, abandoned factory. I was hesitant, but trusting Gagan, I walked in. We walked right past the people sitting and munching on their munchies and sipping coffee or beer. The place was like the ones I had seen in movies – dark, loud music, and who knows what lurks in the darkest corners!
I felt like Moose from ‘Step Up-3’, where he follows Luke around the club – totally lost and wondering why he was where he was; yet a little fascinated. The only thought in my head was a chant: ‘Oh my God, I’m in a club.’ It was then replaced by a question: ‘Is this even a club? Or is it a pub? What do you call this place? Why am I here? Where are we going?’
Yes, I was freaking out. I hated the smell of the place – coffee was welcoming, but the beer killed the mood. The food smelled Italian, but I have no idea what kind it was. To top it all, my friends decided to smoke and we entered hell – a smoking zone. I sat there while they puffed. The place, needless to say, smelled awful. One smoker; okay… Two to five; bearable… But a room full of people smoking is terrible! The place was stinking of different kinds of tobacco and nicotine ratios.
Rishabh ordered a beer soon after and offered it to the two of us – I declined politely and Gagan made a sensible decision of not drinking any because he had to drive. After around 30 minutes of discussion about cigarette types, of which I was a part, Rishabh finished his beer. The boys waited around for someone to present the bill and so without wasting a minute I asked the waiter to get us one. We left the hell-hole and entered the smoke-free zone which still smelled like Italian food, coffee and beer. We stepped out of the club/pub/whatever you call it.
I took a deep breath and smelled air. It was fresh and welcoming. Happily, I hopped along the two boys who we walking towards the bookstore once again. On the way we passed a bakery that invited my empty stomach by offering freshly baked bread. If you have ever been to a bakery – not an outlet but the actual bakery, where they bake – or if you have ever baked bread, you know what I am talking about. The smell is heavenly!
I called my sister and told her we were waiting for her. The boys took off to get the car and I was left alone, so I walked back to the bookstore and into the good smell of wood, dust and printing-ink. I walked through the narrow lanes that were aisles between shelves that were stuffed with books and touched the ceiling. I walked past the out-of-budget V for Vendetta comic that I so badly wanted and the Guy Fawkes mask that my friend promised he would gift me, and I walked up to the floor where my sister stood with a basket full of books.
I calculated the total amount that all the books cost us, and as it was way out of budget, spent another 10 minutes convincing my sister to take four books instead of eight because I couldn’t leave the four books I selected as they were for my course. Fifteen minutes and three phone calls (from Gagan) later, we billed, paid thirty rupees and walked out of the paradise with eight fat books in our hand.
We drove to the petrol station. Funny enough, I smelled absolutely nothing in the place where I often smell the black gold and get high. We drove ahead to find a good place to eat and decided to go to a mall closer home. As it was evening already, and the weather cold, I asked Rishabh to turn off the a/c as we rolled down our windows and smelled more smells and scents. After leaving the petrol station some kilometres behind, I smelled petrol.
Although I was overcome by the joy of smelling it, I realised something must be wrong – was our car leaving a trail behind it, enacting Hansel or Gretl? Before I could voice my concern, a fat, chubby man on a scooter zooming past us screamed at Gagan, ‘The lid of your tank is open!’ The boy almost froze when he heard the words and stopped the car. Rishabh walked out of the passenger’s seat and closed the lid before Sahiti could do so by leaning out of the back-seat window. The journey continued and we reached a mall.
It took us a good 15 minutes to park the car for the basements were full. I called the friend who had promised me to buy the Guy Fawkes mask and told him that he needn’t order it online as he lived close to the bookstore where I had seen it. He could just waltz over to the place and buy it for me. He thanked me and said that he would do that.
We went to McDonald’s, out of all places, and sat in our chairs, surrounded by noisy eaters, classy music, and the smell of sour-cream. Done eating, and tired after the day out, we decided to head back home. As boys and cars go, we had to perform a little stunt or have a little fun before we finally let the car rest; so about 400 metres away from home, Gagan stopped the car and said to Rishabh, ‘Yesterday’s marks are still here!’
I didn’t understand what he was talking about until it happened – Burnout. The tyres burnt, luckily not a crisp, before we zoomed into the apartment. The boys quickly rolled up the windows and turned on the a/c that smelled now like rotten fish. I was not really pleased, but then we ran into a friend and luckily had to roll the windows. Few minutes after the burnout, the tyres were still burning, the smell was as strong as it could get!
A freaked out Gagan checked the tyres and heaved a sigh of relief in the burning rubber when he saw that none of the tyres were badly damaged. Finally, we parked the car and parted ways to get to each of our houses. At home, our father was watching the news. There had been a bomb blast right outside the restaurant that was next to the bookstore, the one that smelled like sea-food.
It didn’t impress me that I escaped a blast, not because this was the third time, but because I had been trying, on Christmas Eve, to kill myself. I wondered if the restaurant now smelled like sea-food. Maybe it smelled like burning flesh now, like the smoke from the crackers on Diwali. Did it smell like blood? Was the bookstore okay? I didn’t want my first visit to the paradise to be my last! The idea of a burning bookstore was painful. The smell was that of tears, burnt memories and hurt feelings…
I went to bed that night and recalled the day in light of my favourite movie: V for Vendetta. Maybe I should’ve expected the bomb blast; after all there was that one Guy Fawkes mask waiting for a signal; a sound perhaps, if not a smell, of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture…