My Sunday Guardian column this month:
"When he regained consciousness, the first thing that hit Ali was the smell of fish. Rich, pungent and briny — with a hint of decay. This was not the mild, innocent fish that was tandooried every evening by his neighbourhood kebab vendor. This was formidable fish, fish that boldly declared its presence, fish that, once consumed, would stamp itself on you at the cellular level and define your character in strange, unpredictable ways. This was fish whose odour could transform, cleanse and purify you."
That’s a passage from Shovon Chowdhury’s superbly funny 2013 novel, The Competent Authority. Describing a smell is a great way to transport the reader. It’s even better when you have a time-travelling protagonist just coming to, in a place he doesn’t recognise. We’re forced to think on our feet, like Ali. We inhale the very air he’s breathing, until the smell reveals where we are. Of course, it’s Calcutta.
Smell really is about time-travel. Most people will have had the uncanny experience of entering a place for the first time and having their nostrils assailed by a deep, distinctive sense of familiarity. A trace of some remembered scent is often all that’s needed to throw one into another space, another time. The whiff of mothballs in a long-closed cupboard, the steamy smell of starched clothes being ironed, the damp Cuticura scent of a swimming pool changing-room — these are smells that can propel me with unstoppable force into my own Calcutta childhood.
Eventually, though, those are mild smells. Let us return to fish, which is the very definition of odorousness — to many people, not in a good way. The very expression “smelling fishy” suggests dubiousness, odd though it is that the phrase comes to us from an island whose biggest culinary export to the world is fish and chips. But then fish-eating doesn’t necessarily acclimatise people to the smell of fish. In his 1950s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak, recently translated as To the Farthest Rock, the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh returns to Mumbai after a mere two-year gap, and is confused by “the overpowering smell of fish”. As Vir Sanghvi recently wrote in an accusatory column, North Indians seem to want to eat fish without the taste and smell of it.
Some of this aversion to strong smells is directly proportional to the degree of our post-liberalisation poshness. Even in Mumbai, where Sanghvi would agree with Rakesh that “the smell of fish was never very far away” some decades back, fish-buying has now become a “plastic-wrapped affair”. And when Sanghvi applauds the Bengali man for treating fish-buying as a sacred ritual, one can only wonder how long this proud act of baajaar will hold out against gentrification’s olfactory dictates.
I was surprised that Sanghvi didn’t mention the Malayalis, the other grand fish-eating, fish-inhaling community in the country. I sometimes think of Malayalis and Bengalis as engaged in a silent fish-eating contest, one which occasionally breaks out into fervent arguments about sea fish versus river fish. Then comes the invariable question of frying fish before putting it in a curry, and both sides decide there’s no point talking. Cue return to the silent contest. (In case you’re wondering, other fish-eaters — Maharashtra, Kashmir, Assam, and so on — are barred from competing.)
Anyway. I recently watched a Malayalam play called Matthi, where the sharp smell of fish was key to innovative stagecraft. The LTG Auditorium in Delhi was redolent of sardines when we took our seats. “Yes, the name of this small, cheap and popular fish is Matthi. A poor fish. Not to chide you, but some things have to be said to make people understand,” said the supertitles. As in Seema Pahwa’s wonderful one-woman show Saag Meat, the eponymous item was cooked on stage, and offered to the audience afterwards. Although wrecked by an inchoate politics that bundled a maudlin working class nostalgia with anti-outsider prejudice, the play managed to make the tang of matthi a stand-in for the life of the poor. “Don’t wash off the smell using soap,” one character urged the other. “Some smells remain even after us,” said another man.
Some smells certainly do. The writer Mrinal Pande has often spoken of how the lack of ventilation in the old-style Pahari houses of her childhood gave rise to a specialised vocabulary of smell. There was a word for the stench of burnt cloth, a word for the lingering odour of urine, and so on.
But if some smells are hard to get rid of, we have also spent millennia producing substances that can transform how we smell. In Delhi this January, the historian Emma Flatt spoke on the multifarious perfume palette of the medieval Deccan. According to the Itr-I-Nauras-Shahi, a remarkable treatise on perfumery written for legendary Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah, it was “incumbent that all created beings, particularly the followers of the Prophet, use perfumes and share them with one another.” Deccani poetry suggests that floral smells, like rose and jasmine, were prized, as were animal compounds like musk and amber. Paan was highly approved: bad breath didn’t just indicate lack of etiquette, but of social status. Of course, as Flatt pointed out, perfumes and unguents were—and are—a luxury. But if poorer people smell stronger, it’s not because they can’t afford perfumes. It’s because work means sweat, and they don’t have the luxury of spending their summers in fragrant khus-cooled (or air-dried) chambers. And so, to the many privileges of the rich, is added that of smelling better than the poor. And coining phrases like “the great unwashed”.