In Defense of Smell

Chanel-No-5-perfumeOn the bus this morning, I was reading Natasha Narayan’s book, The Maharajah’s Monkey. I enjoy the Kit Salter series about the Indiana Jones-like adventures of a bold Victorian-era tween even more than my daughter does. My mind was absorbed in the hunt for a missing French explorer when a new passenger boarded the bus in a miasma of herbal odor. Since the passage of I-502, such fragrance on the streets of Seattle is not unusual. But this particular gentleman’s variety was of an extreme skunk such as I hadn’t experienced since my own days in the subcontinent.

Everything smells more in India. I’ve been to other hot climates, but no place reeks like India. One of my classmates in Tamil Nadu once complained that India is a place of bad smells. But I disagreed. Yes, the entire of city of Chennai reeked of sewage. In the un-air-conditioned villages where we lived, we often stank ourselves. The hot dusty smell of livestock was ubiquitous, as was the diesel smell of two-stroke engines and unmuffled buses. Smoke from cooking fires choked our nostrils daily. But the smoke was accompanied by the spicy odor of the curry it cooked; meals accompanied by the sweet sugary smell of chai. Rich incense wafted from every doorway. The strings of white flowers I wore in my hair were a protective turban of honeyed scent wherever I walked. India is a place of hellish stench and heavenly fragrance, Shiva’s rot and Parvati’s grace inseparably intermingling.

Photo found here.

Photo found here.

The muted, watercolor odors of the Pacific Northwest – moist earth; musty house; mold; the Northwest at its most pungent, low tide – pale by comparison, if not literally, at least synesthetically. We work in offices with windows that don’t open, where notices are posted announcing policies against perfume and fresh flowers on behalf of those with allergies. The fragrances in the industrial cleaners used in those offices are designed not to be noticed – to create the illusion of sterility. We strive for odorlessness, forgetting that sterile is, by definition, the absence of all life.

Not my hair; photo found here.

Not my hair; photo found here.

Living in a world without smell is a little like living with your eyes closed. When you finally open them, the light can be blinding.

But once opened, you’re not likely to close them again.


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