January 27, 2012
At the sendoff at Prajwal’s back in Portland, I heard from Bonnie and her husband (name?) about the smell of India. They talked about how when they get a package from India, they are excited about opening the box and breathing in the “smell of India”. “It smells awful, but it makes us mad with nostalgia”, they said. I knew exactly what they were talking about. When I was a kid growing up in Bombay, my uncle, who lived in Germany, once sent me an erector set. When I opened the box, it wasn’t the colorful, shiny parts of the erector set neatly packaged in a Styrofoam mold (a completely alien material to me at that time) that I was drawn to at first. It was the smell of an alien, exotic, faraway place that made the first and lasting impression. It conjured up images of a world that was so different that the air itself was made of something else.
But I also knew what Bonnie was talking about, as far a as the “smell of India”. Every time I step out of the plane and go through the jet way into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai, it is like going through a star trek wormhole into the gamma quadrant. You know you are on the same planet, but barely. The laws of living are different here and the smell is the first thing that reminds you of that. It was no different this time, except, I was aware of the impending olfactory transition this time. I counted my steps as I stepped onto the jet way from the Lufthansa plane, leaving behind the sterile, unremarkable air of Germany and bracing myself for the heady mélange of outer Mumbai. It didn’t take long. It hit me right away, a potent cocktail that perhaps starts with a breeze blowing off the brackish-putrid water of the Thane creek, picking up more than a few organic layers as it sweeps across the vast expanse of the Dharavi slum, mingling with the ubiquitous cloud of exhaust dust from the traffic-choked streets and finally gathering in the food smells from the stalls at the airport.
India had filled my lungs and put my nose on notice. For one month, my senses will be treated to (and assaulted by) a continuous stream of stimuli, each evoking a distant memory and stirring a new, present feeling.
The box was open. I had arrived.