Smell and the City I

In the Foreword to Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant: French Social Imagination (1986),[1] Roy Porter writes that ‘Today’s history comes deodorized. Thanks to experts in art, architecture, and artifacts, our eyes have been opened to what the past looked like; and all who have immersed themselves in diaries, novels, and letters will have their ears attuned to the distant sounds of civilized life.’ Porter argues that despite smell being central to experience—the nose is apparently the sensory organ closest to the brain—scholars of material culture have ignored it. Notwithstanding the sensuous turn in anthropology and the popularity of smellscape walkabouts, Porter’s argument still holds in some respects. Despite anthropology’s chequered relationship with fieldwork, much of the doing of the discipline is based on ways of seeing and hearing (specifically the speech of informants).

The ephemerality of smell and its associations with uncertain memories and feelings perhaps make it an unreliable technique of research. But the discrediting of smell, as Alain Corbin shows, is also related to the regime of deodorization of public spaces. This regime of hygiene, backed by a scientific theory constructed by doctors, chemists and sanitary reformers, was not just about the control and management of smells but also about creating a distinction between the ‘deodorized bourgeoisie’ and the ‘foul-smelling masses’. Even as tactics of deodorization increasingly govern public spaces across cities, the complete containment of smells and the people and activities they emanate from can only be a utopian dream. It’s true that hospitals, offices, washrooms, restaurants, malls, airports and the insides of cars increasingly smell the same, a sickly lemony smell in my city Delhi. This olfactory homogeneity, while reassuring to some, can also be disorienting because distinct smells form the basis of our relationship with places and people. But then smells are continuously on the move, in interaction with the movement of people, objects, activities, weather and life itself. This often produces heady concoctions of food, bodies, stale air, things unsaid, perfumes, disinfectants and room fresheners in closed, supposedly deodorized spaces. On the street, outside of an air-conditioned car, smells have greater freedom to be, to become other smells and to dissolve. They are markers of the city’s temporality, of life carrying on, of decay and death, of rhythms of labour, production, consumption, seasons, festivals, worship and love. They form a dynamic archive of the city’s affective memories; they enable and foreclose navigating and knowing the city in intimate ways.

What do smells reveal about a city? How do smells make us see, understand and know a city? This piece is the first in a series of reflections on smell and the city. It comprises excerpts and photographs from the book Matsyagandha: Low Tide Smells from an Island City by Mumbai Paused, blogger, photographer and chronicler of the ordinary city. The title of the book Matsyagandha (literally, smell of fish) is another name for Satyavati, a mythological character from the Mahabharata. It is also the name of a superfast train from Mumbai to Mangalore, which runs along the fishing coast of western India. The book brings together an eclectic collection of smells of Mumbai—pollution, Bombay Duck, the metallic smell of trains, garbage, vada pav, mold, rust, diesel, coconut oil, salt, sweat, nostalgia, worship, money, crowds, food, purity, books, fear, men and women. The book ‘explores the smells of the city that lurk below the surface like the smell that rises from the sea when the tide is low in the city’ (p. 15), revealing forms of sociality and segregation that make the city. The photographs in the book evoke smells, real, absent, half-remembered, imagined, drawing attention to the complex relationship of smell with the other senses—Do we sometimes see smells before we smell them? How do we smell absent smells?

—Samprati Pani

Is there a Mumbai smell?

Kanjurmarg station about an hour after rain … It sticks so much it has to ‘legit-ly’ be given an Aadhaar Card or something as a recognition of the individuality. It’s the black mud and for some reason, cow dung. And obviously, parked bus ka petrol leak, random traffic, sweaty people.


Fish. Because I lived next to Sassoon Dock until I was 14. Then the smell of fish and dead rats on Colaba Causeway after midnight when the trucks have gone by. Also, the smell of sea sometimes and definitely the smell of the earth after it rains.

—Binaifer Bharucha


The city of Matsyagandha and its strong smells has a strange effect on the strength of sense of smell the residents of the city possess. If you are a long-term resident of the place, you rarely notice the odours.

Trying to place the smell of Mumbai … It is the odour of our collective, partially treated waste, stewed slowly by the tropical heat and gently churned by the tides. The smell is not unique to Mumbai. It is shared by other cities along our coastline with Kochi–Ernakulam in Kerala sharing an odour closest to our own and even Chennai on the east coast. They are similar but different.

Under the dome of odour where 20 million people live are the individual smells, fragrances, scents and aura that make the city interesting.

Smells fishy

The one species of fish that would stand apart on its own in this island city is that of a fish that is named after the city—Bombay duck or bombil. May be it had a role to play in the name given to the city by the European traders who became invaders and colonizers. May be it had no role but it sounds good and smells right. May be people in those days had a better sense of smell and it played a role. After all, this low-lying group of islands nestling a safe harbour has ribbons of bombil hanging along with flags.


Long before I came to Mumbai, I got my first whiff of the city from a Tamil neighbour’s kitchen floating through the pollen-flecked, dry air in the outskirts of Bangalore, where I grew up. This neighbour would fry what is called Bombay karuvad or Bombay dry fish once a week. In Bangalore, the smells float around and strike you with sharp edges and this one stayed as a memory in one part of my brain. The name was fancy and I carried the memory of that weekly wave of the Arabian Sea with me, all the way to Mumbai.

In the heavy air of Mumbai, the same dried fish didn’t have the same sharp edge, but I discovered that it has depth. The many ways in which it was cooked and was presented in dabbas colleagues brought to work during the monsoon season was a pleasant revelation.


When you travel in Mumbai, you can smell markets that sell dry fish from far. Saturdays is a very special day, and there are two markets centred around dry fish markets that I frequently encounter. The first is the market near the railway crossing at Sewri Railway Station on the Harbour Line and the other at Marol, of which you can have a bird’s eye view from the metro line. The centre of these markets is fish and dry fish, but on Saturdays, they become very large weekly markets or flea markets. This may be true for dozens of other markets in the city, but I am yet to visit them. The one in Marol is particularly interesting because you can actually watch fish (not bombil) being salted and cured. Most of the dry fish made here is sold within the Mumbai region itself. But the best places to see bombil being dried continue to be the beaches of the fishing villages like Danda and Versova.


The best way to enjoy bombil is to place it on your tongue.

The whiff of opportunities

Over the ages, million have slowly made their way to Mumbai from all over the world to sweat it out. It’s a city where people come to work and build careers and business empires. Many come to become stars and, most of all, to earn and save money and send some to families back home. It’s a city that doesn’t care much about where you come from and it rewards sweat. It’s a place where your work can define who you are and not just where you come from. While chasing his or her dreams, everyone sweats, 365 days a year on this hot and humid island floating by the sea.

The air in the city is always sprinkled with dust and tiny bits of fabric from cotton markets, mills, shops and fabrics being cut in the many sweatshops. The sirens of the mills that made this city are now silent, but the textile and cloth business still employs thousands. They are hidden in sweatshops or on display in shops. You will see it as chindi or waste cloth dumped along with your garbage.


A little over a decade back, the railways introduced new and shiny steel coaches for the local train network that finally pumped in air at a good enough force and on to the sweaty commuters from the roof. We smell a little less of the sweat and the passing stations now.


Are smells that disappear lost forever? Some of them lie dormant in our memories and then burn bright suddenly when chance encounters in the city wake them up.


Cartography of smells

If streets are named after smells, a lot of streets in the city will be named after foods and masalas that preserve or add taste to what we eat. Taste after all is linked directly to smell … a masala market will be called just that. Chivda Galli too. Magazine Galli retains the smell of paper and printer paper.

Homes and apartments in the city are famed for being small and cramped. It is also a fact that the homes and workspaces can’t contain the life within and it often spills out. The smells from the kitchen is one such uncontainable thing. They fill the streets, corridors and quadrangles with scents. Mumbaikars can, if they make up their minds, take a deep breath in a locality or a corridor and decipher the ethnic makeup of a place purely through smells. The ethnic signatures of masalas are sometimes as good as names on doors.


Smells that divide

The days of separate tumblers and plates are in the past. But sometimes the bricks that build the walls of purity are made of tiffin boxes children carry to school. The children are segregated into different schools based on class and caste. The adults build walls around them inside pure veg eating houses of all grades that are equally fire complaint. In offices, there are bosses with a sensitive nose on the prowl policing the daily dabba. Two microwave ovens in the multinational company’s canteen for the pure and the not so pure castes.

In 2018, we have offices with bosses who are worried about what everyone around them eats. Housing ‘societies’ too. Like nosey mothers or relatives in an upper-caste home suspicious of everything outside the walls of purity they have built around them … The unbreakable bricks of these walls have to be imprinted with surnames, adarsh balak calendars and purity that grandparents wish.

The smell of rivers

When you walk the streets of Mumbai, you will observe that in places where the roads intersect drains there is a concentration of activities and smells.


In a city without space, the industries that emit smoke, recycle things and are not assigned zones in the city are bunched together along drains. Some of these drains are actually rivers—rivers that residents discovered when there were floods in 2005 (Mithi River) and again in 2017 (Dahisar River). These are rivers that ran wild and clean in the not too distant past. But for now, they are drains.


The scent of monsoon

There is no smell so Mumbai as the smells during the annual monsoon rains that drench the city. For three months and sometimes more, a seemingly unending river rises from the Arabian Sea and flows over the city, dumping rain, life and occasionally death. It is accompanied by steady strong winds and strong ocean currents. This is when the sea spits back at us. It is the time when every thing that the city throws into the sea comes back to the city’s shores

—Mumbai Paused
Text extracts and images are reproduced from the book Matsyagandha: Low Tide Smells from the Island City. The book is available at The Footpath Bookshop. Mumbai Paused, aka Gopal MS, is a blogger who documents Mumbai’s streets.

[1] Roy Porter. 1986. ‘Foreword’, in Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa, Hamburg & New York: Berg Publishers.


3 thoughts on “Smell and the City I”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s