I am smelling something

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.

The mixture of intolerable absurdity, guileless beauty. And heart-wrenching smells.

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.

Who’s racing with the rats?

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.

Xuanzang (or was it Fa-Hein?) is said to have said that India had not a beggar in sight, not a fly to annoy, not a piece of garbage any where. Between these travellers and Winston Churchill, who is known to have deeply experienced all that these Chinese men missed, something seems to have gone askew and made us the way we are today.

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.

Interesting, the kind of colours the beggars come in these days.
The road I walk each morning.

17 thoughts on “I am smelling something”

  1. The dialogue between the Principal and Mr. K is wonderful. The first thing which came to mind is the famous phrase embedded in the work of a master of the English language, one Mr. Bill Shakespeare. In his play “Hamlet”, Horatio and Marcellus have a little chat and it’s Marcellus who says, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. It’s been abbreviated over the years to “something’s rotten in Denmark”, but the meaning is the same – and they’re not talking about rotten eggs. It’s the “sensing” of things gone wrong to which they refer.

    One other note about odors and the sense of smell. Sometimes it’s their absence which is remarkable. One of the most amazing things I learned during my sailing career is that the first sense of land after long periods at sea doesn’t come by sight, but by smell. The scent of earth and green carries a long, long way.

    1. Linda! Good to see you back!

      I wonder how your country smells. Will it have a smell to a stranger like me? As Linda Paul puts it, the cities have a distinct odour to them, and the countryside doesn’t. I thought it is us who overwhelm strangers with our elaborate celebration of the natural and the man-made.

      Is sea-faring a confusing thing to do? On the one hand, you enjoy the beauty, the rush, the adventure. On the other, you feel inconsequential and irrelevant, and perhaps lonely, in the presence of a vast, vast being. What do you like about it? I am assuming you had a sailing career because you liked it.

      1. Hmmm.. No, I don’t remember being confused while sailing, or being offshore. But of course, sailing is a learned skill, as is the navigation, etc, and by the time I set off I’d learned enough to be comfortable. There always are unexpected challenges – especially regarding the weather – but the ones who are really, really confused about those things generally give it up.

        And I never felt inconsequential, irrelevant or lonely, but I suspect that’s because every time I loosed the lines, I was going off to see a good friend – the water. It never made any difference if it was a bay, the Gulf or the sea.

        Now lakes – those are something else. I don’t like lake sailing because I don’t like the sense of being trapped. In a lake, you only can go in circles. Setting off from Galveston, for example, I could be in India in a relative jiffy! Some friends made it in a year. 🙂

  2. Your photographs, narrative, and dialogue always work well together, but especially so in this piece. I feel as though I just took a ten-minute trip to India. “…dewdrops ripe enough to evaporate.” Beautiful writing. I can’t wait to read your post on the use of the Continuous Tense.

    1. Wait till I increase the time and make you hear the sounds and eat the food, Charles. The hell-heaven trip is incomplete. Thank you for the appreciation. About the Continuous Tense: I am pasting what I wrote to Linda — I think I’ve been too hasty! I don’t know deuce about writing that kind of a post. But think I’ll try anyway.

  3. My heart skipped a beat when I read your words about probing a visitor’s impressions about the “land I love and hate in the same breath.” I, too, love to seek out visitors to not only the United States, but to my own out-of-the-way little city. On the one hand I shudder over the provincialism, paranoia, and excessive waste of my fellows, but on the other hand, I love to hear my locale described as “friendly, open, fresh,” or any of the other pleasing descriptors that strangers to a place may use. What is it, I wonder that prompts us to view our lives or our locals with this love/hate dichotomy?

    I’ve heard people talk about the “smells” of India. But I’ve also heard the same ofactory discussions of any large city that mixes many cultures into a finite pot. I’ve heard city dwellers ruminate on the lack of odor of a more rural area, such as mine. They miss the concotion of cultures that permeat a busy subway car. There must be an olfactory equivilant to the visual rainbow.

    I enjoyed this post immensly and look forward to enlightenment about English tenses!

    1. Familiarity breeds contempt. Who said it? Though contempt may be too strong a word, but it does throw light on why and how love haste to scuttle to a corner to make way for the hate. Knowing a place, or indeed a person, has its disadvantages. Not only do you love them, you also know enough about them. The love makes you protective of them, hence expecting them to respond to that urge of yours to keep them safe. If they continue to reek of smells that make the world uncomfortable, you begin to hate them! Does it make sense? Even if it doesn’t, I am going to hit the Send Reply button anyway!

      About the English tenses: I think I’ve been too hasty! I don’t know deuce about writing that kind of a post. But think I’ll try anyway. Thank you, Linda.

    1. And the yellow in your blog makes me feel right at home! I look forward to reading about the ghost in your blog. And many other things, too.

      Thank you for liking my writing, even though it takes you to unfamiliar feelings.

  4. I think I would be desperately existing on the surface if I couldn’t smell the world around me. I don’t know that anything else works like the sense of smell to wake one up to the layers that make up our reality. Is there anything else so subtle that can gain one’s attention like that? I don’t think so. This fingerprint that is each place we live in is unique. Priya, you have an exquisite skill in your writing. Your words do what many writers strive for – they dance and ripple on the page. Your India is a complex place and visiting it through your eyes is helping me see it as being less foreign.

    1. “… is helping me see it as being less foreign.” Really? Wow. Thank you!

      When I began considering writing about India and Indianness, I had only thought of it as a writing exercise. (for what better to write about but the exaggerated dual existence of this nation?) And perhaps as a purging exercise as well. I had not thought of conveying an image to someone alien to this everyday phenomenon that is India. I am really very humbled that you find that I have been able to show you my land in this way.

      And you are very right about the necessity of smell in our lives. If I can’t smell the coffee I am drinking, what’s the use?!

  5. Love the post, Priya. I understand about the smells in a country that are unfamiliar to outsiders. This is also the case when one is new to a place and moves into it. I found this area I now live in pretty stinky when I first came – I was overwhelmed by cow poo and sheep poo and chicken poo (the latter is spread over the fields a couple of times a year and when fresh it’s horrible!), also smells of stagnant water at the side of the roads as it rains a lot in Wales. But now… well, these smells are still here but, apart from the chicken poo, I’ve got used to them.

    But it’s not all bad, is it? For instance, one smell I adore which my mother loved too, is the smell of freshly mown grass. Lovely sweet smell. So when Bruce mows the lawn (I don’t have the strength for it), I’m treated to memories of my mum and our garden back home.

    1. Yes, it’s not all bad. It’s like eating your favourite dish with a dash of something you don’t like much. But it’s all good. 🙂

      Forgive me for replying so late. I have been too deeply immersed in life. You know that feeling, don’t you?

  6. Beautiful writing and LOVE your photos Priya. I’ve wanted to go to India since I was a small child and I thank you for taking me with you down your road.

    You’re right that we don’t see cows walking down the street. And I love this sentence:

    “Rotting litter, cow dung, human faeces, soiled-discarded clothes, open sewers, frolicking pigs— mixing with the smell of winter flowers…”

    and I love Mr K’s “I am smelling something Sir…”

    1. Thank you for your appreciation, Rosie. This is why I write. And perhaps also because I can talk of rotting litter, cow dung, human faeces, soiled-discarded clothes, open sewers, frolicking pigs without having to sound like a person who’s lost her marbles. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s