My first trip to Wayanad was spoiled because of bad timing. Or so I thought. I had been told monsoon in the forest could be breathtaking, if you could ignore the leeches. But as I sat cooped in our little homestay deep into the forest, looking out at the torrential rain showing no plans of slowing down in a hurry, I wondered whether it was worth the long drive at all. Even when the rain stopped, everything looked quite unappealingly wet and slushy, nothing that I would want to risk dirtying my shoes for.
And then it hit me. Softly but firmly.
That heavenly fragrance of rain-soaked earth after a warm, dry spell. And rooted on the spot, with that heady smell overwhelming my senses, it was not difficult at all to relate this word with its origin – ichor, the ethereal golden fluid that flows in the veins of the Gods and immortals as per Greek mythology.
Likewise, this fragrance is immortal. No matter how many times it is eulogized in poetry or gushed over in prose or breathed in with eyes closed, it is magical every time. Funnily, even before I ever heard the word Petrichor, let alone know its meaning, I always imagined that if the fragrance of damp earth had a color, it would be golden. Not the dazzling, flamboyant shade of golden. But the mild, shimmering one. The kind that you put out your fingertips tentatively to stroke, because you have a feeling that it would melt away at the slightest touch. It just glows translucently, alluringly. You could either turn around and walk away from it or you could dive headlong into its depths. There is no way of dipping your cup into it and sipping a little of it. I have never met anyone who chose the first option. So, I guess, there is no real choice here. You have to dive.
And when you dive, it’s like landing on your childhood. With a soft thud. Strange, but true. Believe me, I have been there. I don’t know what it is about this velvety musty fragrance, but every time it hits my nostrils, I am homesick. Even if I am home.
Smelling Petrichor for me is like opening an old family photo album. And the photos that stand out the brightest, looking almost Photoshopped, are the ones of me in the little garden of my childhood home – sprawled out on the grass, smiling toothlessly under the Deodar, or with my nose buried in the bougainvillea. And every time I open the album, I can see my grandfather, though he is mostly behind the lens in most photos, and smell him too. He had this faint fragrance of mulch and freshly-mown grass hanging around him at all times, from spending hours in the garden. Oh, I digress. But this is what Petrichor does to me. It whisks me off to my childhood and I can’t find my way back easily.
I have always wondered why nobody ever tried to bottle this out-of-the-world fragrance. I, for one, would love to buy cartloads of Petrichor room freshener and keep my world smelling woody, earthy and rejuvenating and fresh all year round. What the heck, I might spray a little on myself also. My Elizabeth Arden would remain untouched in the closet, of that I am sure. Could it be that this aroma cannot be artificially produced? That must be it. Mother Nature probably keeps some secret ingredient hidden in her treasure-house and pours just a few drops of it on the earth with the rains. And when we smear bottles of chemicals on damp earth and wonder why it is never the same as the real thing, someone up there is having a good laugh.
But this time, it was not just Petrichor. This time, the fragrance had taken one step beyond and surpassed itself in a way that I had never thought possible. The looming Eucalyptus trees had shed armfuls of leaves in the course of the storm. The forest floor was a cushiony carpet of soggy, mossy leaves, which was just starting to blend with the loamy earth.
The penetrating, stimulating, citrus fragrance of eucalyptus had rubbed off on the musty aroma of the drenched earth, and with the air clear after the storm, this unique conglomeration of fragrances was rising, thick and fast, and so solid that I felt I would bump my head on it if I was not careful. I believe the smell of Eucalyptus is the only fragrance you can actually see. Yes. The aromatic oil from a cluster of Eucalyptus trees can be seen to rise up in a blue haze during dusk.
I have a small bottle of Eucalyptus oil at home, given by my mother, to be used against cold. Even otherwise, I sometimes take the lid off and take a long whiff. The pleasantly medicinal (I wouldn’t have believed these two words could be used in the same sentence if it wasn’t for Eucalyptus) fragrance is overtly addictive. But it’s nothing compared to the aroma I experienced that day, in the middle of the dense greenery at Wayanad. I could only wish I had more nostrils; two were just not enough! It was easy to imagine that pollution is just a myth and global warming a figment of some pessimist’s imagination; the world was pure, beautiful and well, beautifully aromatic. Period.
My first trip to Wayanad was perfect because of right timing. I couldn’t visit the wildlife sanctuary or take a dip in the river; the rains stopped me from exploring the caves and from ‘checking out’ the touristy ‘viewpoints’. But I experienced that fragrance. And as I was saying, my first trip to Wayanad was perfect.