There are no particular scents I associate with the corner table of my local café. Occasionally the nearby colony of cats give off a certain whiff. Or a drain behind an adjacent wall can overflow from time to time, honouring us with its faint stink of effluence. Sometimes, even, a new-rich young man keen to hide what nature gave him has emptied the cologne bottle onto his shirt. Environmental smells are seriously enhanced in the monsoon – often with vile notes – when extreme damp combines with high temperatures. It all depends on the wind.
Today was an exception.
Suddenly I was affronted by a scent that took me to other parts of the world. It was undeniable and totally out of character. I smelt Italy. I smelt the South of France. I smelt the Northern California side roads lined with tall trees. It was the unmistakable smell of pine.
Pine trees are not so visible in this part of India. They belong to points north, terrains with mountains and valleys and sometimes snow, such as Himachal Pradesh. We are on a tropical plateau, more in tune with palms than pines.
Not that we are short of odours here. India is generally known for the extreme and varied ways it accosts the olfactory nerves, and many a first-time traveller from the relatively odourless West remarks on the swarm of different smells that inundates them on first descending from the aeroplane. Especially during the rainy season.
Most of our rainy season smells start with petrichor, that wonderful rise of wet on dusty earth, when, after a hot summer, the first rain hits the ground. And as things get wetter, they move to damp bark and the mulch that fills the muddy puddles; and as more rain falls, to the unsubtle stench of overflowing drains and river rot. At home, after a long, consistently wet rainy season, mould might creep up and start blooming in unwelcome places, always accompanied by its unique fungal odour. Cotton pillows and mattresses don’t stay neutral either, however dry. Suddenly they carry an ancient musty smell we associate with old books and long-abandoned living rooms.
Raat Ki Rani
But there are frequent occasions when the local smells deviate towards what we love: the bright fruity fragrance of oranges and guavas out on the open street carts, and the perfumes of jasmine and the rich scent of the raat ki rani, the night-queen flower that accosts you unexpectedly on your late-night walk. And then there is the fragrant mogra and the tall droopy tuberose that accompany bouquets everywhere… And there’s the citrus-scented, sweet fragipani, with its stiff white petals and soft yellow heart, a flower that can bloom all alone as a solitary blossom at the very top of a curiously blunt and otherworldly branch, as if the flower were a flame atop a grey and bendy candle – a wondrous tree with a wondrous scent.
And I haven’t mentioned cooking spice. Or the odour of golden oil in the wok filled with deep frying samosas. Or the mash of vegetables sold on the street with a bun as pau bhaji.
But far too often these diverse street odours are submerged in clouds of grey exhaust fumes as decrepit three-wheelers long past their use-by-date rock by, emitting dark nitrous oxides and deadly carbons that make you want to cover your nose.
Normally, I do cover my nose. Mine is a western-made cycling mask complete with carbon filters… But everyone else around me covers their noses too – in scarves, balaclavas or handkerchiefs. The girls pull their huge dupattas and wrap them behind the ears and around the head, restricting their face movements and giving foreign newcomers the illusion that what was once a predominantly Hindu country had suddenly become Muslim.
And all this scented waffle is prelude to my little story…
Eucalyptus or Pine?
Because I am sitting there in my café enjoying this unexpected glut of my most-loved scent, bemused by where it may come from, when I notice a box on my neighbour’s table with the word: Eucalyptus.
Aha! Eucalyptus! That’s the ‘pine’ I’m smelling.
But how can a box emanate such a strong smell?
It turns out my neighbour had brought a luxury eucalyptus-scented candle from the US. It came surrounded by fine white corrugated card in an elegant striped tissue-infused box name-tagged Henri Bendel. The young man lamented that on his way over from New York, the candle had melted, and he showed us the white wax surface as it lay at a steep angle in its graceful smoky glass beaker.
It was hard to imagine where, on his journey from New York, scorching heat and designer candle had collided.
This melt of what must have been a very oily offering was now everywhere – making his table-top shimmer, glistening on all of the box’s surfaces and running down the side of the beaker in a stiff stream. It was not a hot day for the tropics and it was hard to understand what had suddenly combusted in the candle to have it melt both en route there and then again on the café table. But that is what seems to have happened. Someone had over-oiled the wax.
After he’d offered to let me sniff the candle and identify my pine smell, I checked out the box to source its origins – and it almost slid out of my hands. Such a delicious smell, I couldn’t let go of it. But super slippery.
I began to take extra napkins from the napkin rack and clean up, first the candle and then, so I could hold it to read the label, the box itself… And after returning it to its bemused owner, I now found I had a bundle of strongly scented paper napkins.
I buried my nose in them. How divine!
My little paper flower
So I wrapped the cluster in a fourth and a fifth napkin and took them home. Once there, I arranged them all in the shape of a white scented rose, mounted my paper flower in a frill of silver foil and set it in a wine glass.
And there it stood for several weeks, sending waves of eucalyptus throughout my flat. And blessedly hiding the other more mysterious odours that creep in through the garden each monsoon season.