Monday, 26 August 2013

Ode to odeur...

A favourite poet had once written that the smell of mutton being cooked, on any given day, can outdo the fragrance of several blooming flowers taken together.

When I talk about smells, this one sentence dictates my entire olfactory existence. When I was a child, Sunday lunches were synonymous to mutton. A warm concoction of spices: bay leaves, caramelized onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric and chilli paste and down in it, went the mutton! The pieces tossed and turned themselves in the brown paste and as they swam, their rigid bodies relaxed and softened. The sight reminded me of my first swimming classes. The spices penetrated into the mutton, making them more tender and succulent. The smell of oily orange gravy of well-cooked mutton was ambrosial. I would rush to the kitchen every ten minutes, deep breathe the aroma and wait for the opportune moment when Grandma would offer a piece of mutton and ask me if it was adequately soft. *tears of joy*

My grandma would often sprinkle a mixture of powered cardamom, cinnamon and cloves on the cooked mutton before serving. In winters, she would garnish them with tufts of coriander leaves, finely chopped. (I was too small to know what orgasmic meant, so I would settle for the word ‘heavenly’ here). In Sanskrit, there is a saying: “Ghranen ardhha bhojanam” which means “having smelled is half eaten”. How true!

Time flew. We grew up. Mutton, now is no more a Sunday-affair. The easy access to ‘savourites’ has diluted its charm. The fights among siblings for the most coveted cylindrical bone, the eternal tug of war between the bone and the mouth over the ownership of the brown bone-marrow, the potatoes half-slit and above everything, the richness of the aroma…the aroma that could magically transport you to the Wonderland of Alice, the kingdom of Narnia or the colourful world of Oz.

If childhood was a fairy tale, I would have dog-eared the pages on ‘Sunday mutton curries’ forever. 
There were days when the father (and the Father of the nation) would be kind to me. Instead of coins to be dropped in earthen piggy banks, Baba would bestow upon me, a crisp green five rupee note. It was like winning a lottery. If 25 and 50 paise coins made the city of Paris, the five rupee note stood as tall as the Eiffel Tower. For a child, its monetary value was nil, but the olfactory sensations it spawned was enormous. The very first thing I always did was to bring the note close to my nostrils. The smell of fresh, new paper currency, unadulterated by human touch would reek of a smell so dreamlike. I cannot remember the last time I held one.

I am sure they still make five rupee notes in the Mint. Perhaps, the ones that should have reached me, held hands with my childhood and fled. : (
The commonest of gifts from friends and relatives from foreign lands, were colognes, chocolates, cigarettes (alliterations amuse amateur authors). As children, tags and signs like ‘Made in USA’ fascinated us to no ends. When Baba dabbed the cologne or smoked the cigarettes, he smelled magnificent, regal. I would hold onto him tight and inhale the mixed fragrance of foreign cigarettes and foreign cologne (yes, ‘foreign’ is the key word here). It was an inexpressible feeling. The words which come close to describe is the feeling of smelling chilli chicken for the first time…the smell of something alien yet amazing.

The advent of shopping malls and internationalisation of domestic markets have robbed us of that feeling. You name a foreign brand, you get it right here.
A conspicuous part of childhood was spent with my maternal grandparents. My grandma had a leather banded watch. When she travelled in a bus, she would fold the ticket longitudinally and tuck it under the leather band out of fear of losing it. Once she was home, she would take off her watch and hand over the ticket to me. (Yes, I collected bus-tickets and playing ‘bus conductor’ was one of my favourite games). But more than the tickets, what mesmerized me was the smell of the leather band.  It would be slightly wet from her sweat, yet it exuded the soft lavender fragrance of ‘Cuticura’ talc (which came in orange and white bottles when we were kids). The blended smell of sweat, talcum powder and leather was one of the things, I wish, she left for me when she left. Its worth would have been a million times higher than all the jewelry I inherited from her.
My mother always told me that the secret of Rapunzel-hair was coconut oil…the coconut oil which came in narrow plastic bottles in summer and broad-mouthed cylindrical tin cans in winter. The comb would dig in its teeth into my tresses and make way for the oil to flow. Ma would run her fingers across the scalp and I would close my eyes in ecstasy. With eyes closed, I would be transported to the seas. I confess that I was never particularly fond of the smell of coconut oil, but the feeling it emanated when eyes shut was magic! I could instantly see rows of coconut trees lining up the coast, sand drenched in sea water, the unrest of waves and the smell of salt. While Ma braided my oil-soaked hair, scenes from the seas also wove themselves into long plaits of memories.
The courtyard at my maternal grandparents was a powerhouse of fragrances.

Homemade pickles placed for sun-drying was not only one of the prettiest sights in the world, it also smelled delightful. The aroma of raw mango, red chilli or lemons embedded in mustard oil was a delight for the senses.

The mali (gardener) would water the plants in the courtyard and a delightful fragrance would spring from the wet earth. It smelled of life, bloom and greenness. After watering the plants, he washed the courtyard. The cemented body bathed in the stream of water rushing down from the hosepipe. What if it didn’t rain every day, the smell of the wet courtyard made up for it.

With the advent of autumn, its grey body would turn white. Hundreds of Shiuli flowers dressed it up for the upcoming Durga puja. The smell was intoxicating. The Shiuli tree also offered the joy of finding my favourite tricolour. White petals, orange stem and green leaves. 

The tree was infested with caterpillars. The branches were chopped off. The tree died eventually. The house changed its owners. A slice of my childhood changed too. Forever.
Every evening in summer, guests would flock in. They were huge in number and infamous for spreading Malaria. Fancy repellants were unfamiliar. To ward off the little monsters, there were homemade secrets. “Dhuno” was one such. Fuming coconut shells were arranged in a terrracota pot (with a funnel base and an open top) and powdered incense was sprinkled on top. The smoke traversed from one room to another as someone constantly flapped the haat-pakha (hand-fan made of palm leaves) in order to keep the fumes alive. Sanjay Dutt may have glamourised the other-wise humble ‘Dhuno’ by performing a Dhunuchi-naach in Parineeta, but the truth remains that one of the chief purposes this wonder substance served was making Bengali households mosquito-free. The overwhelming fragrance of camphour and burnt coconut shells spread all over the place. Ethereal!

I wonder sometimes. Was it because camphour was its chief ingredient that Dhuno vanished in oblivion? 
Mosquito-infested evenings also remind me of another common phenomenon in Kolkata. Power cut. Every now and then, electricity would make a disappearing act. In those days (late 80s and early 90s), inverters or generators were not common in middle class households. So we would resort to hurricane lamps or lanterns. The flat wick would be rolled up and lit and the flame guarded with a glass chimney fitted in between four tiny spikes. The tinted glass-bodied fuel tank down below would be filled with kerosene every morning. The black soot clinging onto the inner surface of the chimney was cleaned too. As I write this, I am drowned in goose bump-evoking nostalgia.

As soon as the wick was lit, the room would smell of kerosene. The smell! Aaaah….how delightful it was. The delight was rudely distorted by the fact that there would be school tomorrow and homework needed to be finished.
As I mention school and homework, my mind dips into huge plastic packets full of new books, note books and brown papers I got at the beginning of every new academic session. The books and ‘exercise copies’ got new clothes just like we received new school uniforms and black Ballerina shoes. The exercise books were differently dressed. The Maths notebook wore a white and blue checkered shirt while the others wore white shirts with horizontal blue stripes. Ma put brown paper jackets on each of them and they looked and smelled nice and new. When I was in junior school self adhesive labels were not in vogue. I would cut each label and stick them with glue on the covers while Ma wrote my name, class, section and subject. The smell of the blank pages, brown paper and adhesive was all-encompassing. I wished ‘studying’ was equally interesting. :/   

I also loved the smell of new erasers. The tiny pink ones encased in silver sockets crowned wooden pencils. I never used these erasers. I only smelled them. My love for the tiny fragrant things served another purpose. I refrained from chewing the ends of the pencils.  
Then, there were white erasers with a green translucent layer on top. It used to have an alphabet printed on it and a picture of something the name of which started with that alphabet. They had a strange smell which amused me to no ends.

New session and new shoes remind me of white shoe-polish which Ma put on Keds canvas shoes when she couldn't wash them. The smell of the whitener left me speechless.
Baba had a wooden box. It had a honey-comb chamber. The beehive pattern resembled the steel-bodied armour guarding the external bellow of a harmonium. In each aperture, stood tiny slender glass bottles of Homeopathic medicines, corked up tightly. Some held white round sugar-coated balls while others contained ‘mother tincture’. In all those cute little bottles lied a smell so thrilling. The strong pungent smell of alcohol escaped the containers every time Baba opened them. Baba stroked the bottles and small droplets of liquor jumped into the mouth. The effervescent liquid mixed with the happiness of popping the small white sugar pills was ethereal. If I was a doctor, I would have relentlessly suggested Homeopathic medicines for all ailments. More than their healing values, I felt that they were instant mood-fresheners. They smelled magic!

Oh yes, I miss Baba’s medicine-box and I miss its slow-but-steady therapies. The smell of Arnica, Nux Vomica and Bryonia 30 is missed too. : (          
The smell of Inland letters and postcards was subtle and beautiful. It is one such smell which you cannot describe in words. If emotions had a smell, it would emit the fragrance of letters. I am not really talking about scented letters that lovers sent each other, but about every other letter or postcard which carried the smell of the person sending them. Picture postcards sent from relatives travelling abroad were special. I could almost smell the place from where the postcard was sent. Figments of imagination of a little girl…..nevertheless.

With the advent of emails, the personal touch, the smell and the warmth have reduced manifold.
My grandmother never kept Naphthalene balls in between woolen clothes. She would make small pouches filled with dried red chillies, bay leaves, black pepper, cinnamon and other spices and put them in the trunks and suitcases, stored in the attic. In addition, she would put Eucalyptus leaves in abundance, sandwiched between the woolens and blankets. With the arrival of winter, they were brought down, soaked in sunlight and the whole place would smell like a valley of spices.
I was six years old when my brother was born. I thought babies looked like those from advertisements of baby products.

26th August, 1989. I saw him for the first time. He looked like a lizard. I could almost hear my heart break into thousand pieces. Yes, I was sad at the sight. I didn’t like him at all.
One day Ma wasn’t around. The baby was fast asleep. I had been deputed with the task of vigilance over him. I brought my face close to his neck and smelled him.

I can never get over that feeling till death.

That was the best smell in the world. He smelled of powder, pee and poop all mixed together. I unfolded the tiny palms. I rubbed my nose on his belly. I ran my fingers through the few strands of hair on his almost-bald head…..And, I cried out of joy. Nothing could, till date beat the experience I had on that day. He was the best smell in the world.

He still is.   

It’s been many years now. The tiny lizard has metamorphosed into an attractive young man (It was inevitable. After all, he has my genes). And, he turns 24 today. (And no, I won’t turn this post into a mushy birthday post)

I may have my own babies someday, but he shall always be my first. The joy of holding him in my arms and drowning in a pool of baby-fragrances was, is and shall always feel like paradise…a paradise that I call ‘home’.
This post is written for a contest hosted by Ambipur. And the guidelines are here.

Image courtesy: Google images.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Soul sisters...

We went to the same school and often shared the same sections. We remained classmates for almost 10 years. In junior school, she was amongst the top rank-holders and that was a rock-solid reason for staying away. As a little girl, I believed that people who came first second or third were boring people and avoided them like I avoid early mornings, vegetarian food and Facebook game-requests.

It was in the year 2000 that a miracle happened. A unicorn jumped over a rainbow, a fairy swirled her magic wand and we started chatting in the library (which had a big “Silence” board). We instantly became friends. (Ok, I made up the unicorn and the fairy part.)

I was overwhelmed by her wit and intelligence. She had the most amazing sense of humour I had ever come across. I still say this because in all these 13 years she has untiringly found all my wisecracks funny and erm, wise.

I excitedly told Ma one day, “Anwesha and I have become very good friends.” Ma panicked. “You’ve made friendship with Anwesha?”. In my defence, I declared that she was well behaved and sufficiently good in studies. Ma exclaimed, “I know she’s a nice girl. That’s exactly why I am worried about her.”   *jaw-dropping silence*

“Sharing the same section” turned into sharing the best and the most important things in life (barring boyfriends/husbands, of course). We shared interesting content of lunch-boxes, shared answers during exams (mostly leading to disastrous results for both), our ‘his’-stories and their geographies, the crush list (which was and still is as long as the river Nile), our clothes, dreams, maths problems…and thousands of Facebook and non-Facebook pictures.

She is the best woman I chose for myself in these 29 years. She is the solace of ice-golas on power-barren afternoons, the yolk of a poached egg, the imli-chutni in the bhelpuri, bubble-wraps, the happiness of weight-loss, one of the foremost things I want to carry if marooned in a deserted island, the feeling of milk powder clinging to the corner-most teeth….hard to get rid off and enjoyable till the last bit.  She is the one that makes my life heaven; she is the one I want to go to hell with.

Why she? I have tried to excavate answers like archeologists. The only reason I could find is: She makes me happy. Simple. She is a part of a big warm pool of memories I have stored at the back of my mind. On lazy days, we dip our toes in it, make tiny paper boats by folding our souls and sail them…
The memories: Bunking Maths classes in school as a matter of birth right (FYI: Bunking classes in our school was next to impossible….as impossible as believing Shakti Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor are father and daughter), wedding-crashing, doing shameless things in Kolkata’s biggest mall under strict CC-TV surveillance, forcing strangers to click our photos and not letting them go until they have produced “slender-arms-no-double-chin-flat-stomach” results, co-authoring extraordinary stories which the then-leading English daily refused to publish, giving each other random words every now and then and encouraging each other to write, sharing the best conversations in the world from books, movies, men, biriyani joints, weight-loss tips, recipes, bosses, pennilessness, Raghu Ram, Arjun Rampal (yes, we agreed in unison that if either of us were Maya in Inkaar, we would have NEVER EVER lodged a complaint), status messages, husbands, other people’s husbands…oh, it’s a long list. I read somewhere that printing your Chat histories, making a booklet out of it and gifting it to your best friend is a great idea. But then, I didn’t want to put Mahabharata to shame. I also spared a forest full of trees.

We talk every day. My husband often asks if I have saved a guy’s number with the name “Anwesha”. “You laugh like a school girl when you are talking to her”, he says. My anti-ageing cream, she is.

PS: In all these years, we have only fought once or twice. Barring the Jai-Veeru love, the other reason being, we can’t afford to miss the fun for too long.

Ms. A, this is my Friendship Day-cum-your Birthday present. (A blank cheque would suffice as a return gift, thank you).

I am also sharing our favourite ‘just-the-two-of-us’ picture. Here's to the 13 years of being 16!

Footnote : The Truth ~ “God made us best friends because he knew our parents couldn’t handle us as sisters.”

This post is written for the Soul Sisters contest hosted by Women's Web. 

And, I won!!

You can read all the other posts for this contest here

Friday, 16 August 2013


“Terribly tiny tales” had invited guest story tellers for writing a tale on Freedom for their 15th August feature. The following were the guidelines:-

1.                  Must be a story within 140 characters (including spaces).
2.                  Must not be an abstract musing or poem.
3.                  Must convey a passage of time.
4.                  Must have a beginning and an end.
5.                  Must include a character – could be anything from a cat to a letterbox.
6.                  Must include the word freedom in the story.
7.               May not be about India or the freedom struggle or patriotism but about freedom in all its hues.

They published the tales (you may want to read them). Mine wasn’t selected. But the joy of writing it was enormous. So I am sharing it here.

The tale:
Rik couldn’t swim any longer. He gasped for breath.
Someone pulled him out.
Ah freedom!
The rescuer tells Rik’s dad, “Congrats! It’s a boy!”

Thursday, 8 August 2013


His son never understood that Dad needed him.
Arun lived all alone.
At 75, Arun started making new friends. They gave him company.  

One of them would arrive at daybreak. He would share with Arun the tales of the world. He was Arun’s favourite.
One would make morning tea for him.
Arun took one of them for his morning walks. He would hold Arun’s palm firmly.
Sitting in the balcony, a friend narrated to Arun little incidents happening all around.
One would sing for him, while another made him laugh.

All his friends were indispensible. The newspaper, the electric kettle, his walking stick, his specs, the music-system and his dentures.  

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The love child...

Neera bustled with life.  She laughed like a brook, danced like a river and talked like a cascade.  
Aditya was the brightest and the most sizzling man around. The attraction was inescapable.

Every morning when Aditya woke her up, he saw in her eyes, the reflection of the happiest man in the universe.
Neera learnt what rising in love meant. When they made love, Neera could feel her body turning into a wispy mass, soaring high. She could walk with the clouds.

The child grew in her womb. 
Labour hit her like lightning.  Neera’s shriek sounded of rolling thunder.
Little Varsha was born.
Aditya held Varsha’s fingers.
A rainbow appeared.


I won: :)