On my first day as a receptionist with Thomas Cook, New Delhi, where I was on probation/a temporary job for three months, I met a pleasant American gentleman. I think his name was Bruce. He was quite excited about his first visit to India. I could see it on his ruddy, freckle-riddled face. He was just the right kind of person to talk to and prod about the impressions only a visitor can have. One of the reasons I got into this industry was to see what people had to say about this land I love to love and hate in the same breath.
“Quite good, quite good, Priya. Even the beggar people at the airport were sort of all right, coz we’d been told what to expect. But I must say, the smell takes the breath out of you.”
“Smell, Bruce? Of the beggar people, you mean?”
“No. Umm. It’s in the air, you know? It’s umm like a huge blanket of mixed smells. Not all bad, of course.”
My keen senses didn’t fail to notice that his last sentence was a quick, guilty murmur.
This was my first ever personal interaction with a tourist during a tourism career that lasted a mere 2 1/2 years. But that’s besides the point. The point is that he wasn’t the last to talk of “umm a huge blanket of mixed smells.”
I recollected this incident this morning, when I was walking through the fading winter streets of a city called Raipur. The air had the perfect nip, the sun promised another soon-to-come balmy 9 o’clock. The people, unaccustomed to this chill, were huddled around leaves they had burnt after the trees didn’t need them any longer.
From one leaf-bonfire to the other, the breeze travelled, as if it had promised to carry the ether of all of them to someone in need of something earthy. As I walked on the seemingly endless road, I tried to see things, and indeed smell them, through Bruce’s senses. An American who, before he landed at the Delhi airport for this hell-heaven visit, had probably never seen a cow walk the road his Lotus cruises on. Leave alone smell its old-grass smell.
My nose, now fully awake, smelled things that decent bloggers should not read about. Leave alone smell. The Indian Melange of Life, if you please. Rotting litter, cow dung, human faeces, soiled-discarded clothes, open sewers, frolicking pigs — all sending their ambassadors for an unabashed riot inside the nostrils before the cilia can say “S.O.S.”. All of them — mixing with the smell of winter flowers, fresh chapatis the 18 year old bride is cooking for her fresh beau, dewdrops ripe enough to evaporate, the green, oh-so green grass that allows 14-somethings to cricket on it, the burgeoning load of fresh leafy greens the cyclist is carrying to the local market — invade me, overwhelm me until I say “Thank you, please.” Then they stop. For just an instant. And carry on. Claiming their existence in this vast land of beauty and ugliness.
All of that claims a millimeter each, or less, inside my nose. A huge, overwhelming blanket of smells.
I live in this country. Call it my own. Love it. Hate it. Smell it. The crux, however, lies in whether I understand it.
I feel obliged to explain the title of this post. I cannot claim ownership to this singular phrase. Here’s the story.
On a night of unspeakable mischief committed by the boarders of one of the schools I taught in, the house masters and the Principal were in a state of complete what-the-heck. Mr K, one of the house masters known for his remarkable ability to make trivia a stuff for prime time, was missing. Here’s the conversation between the Principal and Mr. K.
P: Where have you been, Mr. K?
Mr. K: You see sir, I was gone..
P: I know you were gone. Why weren’t you here?
Mr. K.: You see sir, I was smelling some..
P: How can you do this. I’ve told you to keep your indulgence to yourself until after the children are asleep!
Mr. K: But Sir! I was smelling, and I went to check!
The Principal, at this point, realised that Mr. K’s smells from an indulgent, bacchanalian evening were of tertiary importance. The witnesses, however, were focussed enough to know, that Mr. K had in fact ‘smelled something’. In boring English, his phrase can be translated as “I sensed something.”
All the witnesses of this incident are no longer with the school. Mr. K, however, continues to smell things there.
Inspired by my fellow-countrymen’s love for the Continuous Tense, I will try to write a post on it and enlighten the deprived population about the joys of English tenses.
And some more pictures, just because.