My grandfather taught me that each tree smelled different. And that they smelled different in the blazing sun from the way they smelled during a torrential downpour. And that they smelled their best right after the rains.Though I always loved looking at the rain, I would wait with rising impatience by the window, willing for it to be over, so I could rush out, trot around the garden barefeet, press my nose against each tree, close my eyes, and inhale. Deep.It was magic. Tulsi – sweet, fresh; freshly mowed grass – woody, earthy; the looming, majestic Deodar emanated this subtle fruity fragrance, even though it didn’t bear fruit. On the other side of the garden fluttered the freshly-showered hibiscus, each a pop of color – red, dark pink, orange, yellow, and white – against the verdant green. So pretty that you can’t take your eyes off them. But no matter how deep you bury your nose in them, all you can smell is the rain.
Why don’t they smell, mom? I would want to know, confused.
“When they came to earth from heaven, they put all their make-up but forgot to put perfume.”
And to a five-year-old, that would be a plausible enough explanation, and I had no trouble picturing the Hibiscus perched on a little stool in front of a giant mirror, reaching for each of the rows of tiny bottles and dainty pots on the dresser in turn. And then God said it was time, and they hurried to the earth, the bottle of Elizabeth Arden untouched.
But the Bakul (White Lotus)! They were something else. They were probably the ones who made good use of the perfume left behind by the Hibiscus and then some more. The huge umbrella of a tree would be full to bursting in the summer months and it was easy to imagine them spreading a blanket of aroma on the entire garden and over the length of the street for added effect. I have never met any person who is capable of walking by a Bakul tree in bloom, without stopping for at least a moment to fill up his senses with its balmy, heady fragrance.
And when I used to climb on my grandfather’s knee to listen to stories from a faraway land, I would be distracted by the unmistakable smell of the garden on him, of fertilizer and mulch, of flowers and wood, of the earth and the rain. When he died, the smell lingered for a while, around his bed, around his shovel, in his clothes. And then, it left, probably realizing that it didn’t have anyone to cling to. The garden never smelt the same after that either. Neither did it look the same anymore; it somehow lost its sheen. The garden was mourning with the rest of us. Or maybe, he was a part of the garden in more ways than we ever realized, and with him, that part of the garden – the soul – died too.
They say people absorb the smell of their surroundings. If you have just spent a day at a chocolate factory, you will smell of chocolates. Like my grandfather always smelt green, even though he took two cold baths a day all through the year. But then, at your home, nothing is ever predictable; nothing follows set rules. Like my grandmother. She used to spend most of her waking hours in the puja-room, surrounded by sandalwood paste, and jasmine incense and myriad flowers from the garden. She used to spend the rest of her time making incredible sweets, which are still discussed with deep nostalgia at every family get-together. Yet, she would always smell of green tea, exactly one cup of which she used to drink every evening. I can never sip on green tea without craving for home, though she is not in it any more.
When I think of my birthdays as a child, the first thing that comes to my mind is – no, not the bouncy balloons, or the rainbow-colored streamers, though I was crazy about them – the smell of baking. Come afternoon, and the house would be doused in the warm, warm, warm smell of the cake in the oven. I would sneak around the kitchen, waiting for permission to polish off the last of the batter from the mixing bowl (and ready to steal if not), literally basking in the fragrance that can start hunger pangs even after a full meal. I wonder why it hasn’t been eulogized more in poetry. For me, if there is one smell in the world that can beat the smell of the first rain, it is the smell of your mother’s baking. Sure, my last birthday cake smelled pretty great too – with its German Chocolate filling and Irish Coffee frosting. But somehow, it fell a little short in wrenching the heart and lifting the soul. Because only mothers know how to make a few dollops of flour, eggs and sugar to smell like heaven.
But then, mothers know how to make anything smell heavenly. Like her lavender talc. She would always dab some on her neck after her bath. And when I would snuggle up to her for an afternoon nap, it would be like sleeping in a lavender-smelling cloud in seventh heaven. I always thought I was smelling her lavender talc. But when I moved away from home and tried on some on myself, it smelled downright tacky, even a little stifling. It was then that I realized with a stabbing pain of homesickness that all these years, I was not smelling the lavender talc; I was smelling my mother.
I knew I had found my soulmate when I realized that he didn’t smell macho, he didn’t smell irresistible, he didn’t smell sexy. He just smelt like home. And it was only partly because he used the same brand of aftershave as my dad. He smelt like home because he smelt of protection, of comfort, of belonging. And when I smell him, it is the biggest dilemma – because I insanely miss home but know in my heart that I am already home.