Smell and the City II

Is the future odourless?

How would Delhi’s zealous planners chasing the idea of world-classness imagine the future of Khari Baoli, Asia’s oldest spice market? Would it be in the form of an ordered set of malls rising in the midst of Old Delhi, reeking of heady European perfumes and caramel popcorn, with clean marble corridors shining with pinewood-scented floor cleaners, while the spices and the smells remain hidden and safe within shiny packaging advertising their purity?

Anyone who has visited the market will have a smell memory of this area, heady zones of pepper, cinnamon, coriander, chillies and numerous other spices, sometimes distinguishable and sometimes jumbled up in potent concoctions. This is true of not just the spice market but of life in the city itself—memories often come laced with smells, sometimes fragrant and sometimes stinky. Can one remember the seasons of Delhi without its smells—of frangipani and raat ke rani in summer, of pungent squashed jamuns in monsoon and the earthy smokiness of dry leaves in winter? But what if the future did not accommodate these trees and seasons? What if their smells were obliterated—lost to another idea of civilisation, mode of capitalism or plan for the city?

This essay on Kochi, a continuation of our thinking ways of seeing and the cities of smell, offers olfactory memories of Kochi. In the era of curated cities and designed histories, Kochi emerges as an apolitical space, casting aside its colonial histories to offer sanitized places and stories, with recurring motifs of Dutch, Portuguese and French presence in the forms of hotels, churches, food, etc., for touristic consumption. The city walks a tightrope between being a lived city and a curated one—the Chinese fishing nets, the Jew Town, the St. Francis church, each deleting one aspect of itself, in the visual production of the touristic site. The fishing nets need to smell of fish, yet one hardly experiences the Fort Kochi walkway with these smells. The experience of the old town and its spice market have now shrunk to synagogue visits and curated shops selling Kashmiri shawls with pre-packaged sachets of spices—a bazaar without the hustle of one. The St. Francis Church, mostly vacant or under restoration, is musty, with the faint smell of trickling tourists and the absence of any frankincense.

Is the future then odourless? Do we imagine the future as a place where things have been brought to such order and every place can stand in for another? This essay contends with the present of the spice market of Kochi, once inhabited by people and smells, and now with the memories of those smells that it has lost to its future.

—Sarover Zaidi

Look the spices

‘Go to shops in Kochi? Best spices, very good, very good. Antique piece, very good. I take you there? You go to Mattancherry then, I drop you. I charge only 30 rupees for rickshaw, no charge for shop, I wait for you. You look in the shop’, Silu, the auto-rickshaw driver, tried to cajole me when I was early into my fieldwork in Fort Kochi in April 2015. I figured he wanted to take me to the tourist spots in the Mattancherry market. I told him I was not interested because I had come to Fort Kochi for fieldwork and was not ‘tourist material’. He kept telling me, ‘You go, you look the spices, very good.’ He persisted, ‘Go to the shop, come back, do not buy … but look the shop.’ I asked him if I do not buy then what was the point in going into the shop? Besides, I was interested in the spice market in Mattancherry—the oldest one, the one I had read about in books, the one I had googled for a long time. He told me with a sad face, ‘But if you go, I get 200 rupees per customer.’ I told him that even if I went, I was not going to buy anything. ‘That’s okay, only looking at shop, I get money,’ he said with a glimmer of hope.

Figure 1
Curio shop in Jew Town, Kochi 2016. Photo by Sarover Zaidi.

I finally gave in and visited one of the shops in Fort Kochi. It had spices, tea and coffee, neatly packed in thick plastic packets. And wooden Kathakali souvenirs. Everything looked fancy and expensive. I did not buy anything and requested Silu to now drop me at the spice market in Mattancherry. When I reached Mattanchery and got off the auto rickshaw, I saw red arrow signs on walls indicating ‘Towards Spice Market’. As I walked, I heard voices from the shops full of Pashmina shawls, antiques, silver jewellery and organic spices beckoning me, ‘Come, have a look?’ Following the signs leading to the spice market, I reached a street where I asked for directions and a couple of women pointed towards a shop. It was a centrally air-conditioned shop, full of small packets and glass jars of spices, incense sticks, essential oils, powdered henna leaves. After talking to some of the people there, I soon realized that there is no ‘spice market’ here. It used to be there, but now it is a tourists’ market, just like the one Silu had detoured me into.

Look the prices

‘Mattanchery is no longer the spice market it used to be.’

‘We could not even step inside this market; it used to be hustling and bustling with traders, buyers, labourers. Now people can play football here because there is no one.’

These two statements were the most common responses I got from long-term residents of Kochi and traders in the spice market. The owner of Oriental Crafts told me that his shop has been spatially reorganized four to five times in the past twenty years. This was mainly because he wanted to give it an ‘exotic look’, but when that look was replicated by other shopkeepers, the look of the shop was changed again.

As I spoke to members of the Indian Pepper and Spices Trade Association and traders and people residing near Jew Town, I learnt about how trade practices in the marketplace have changed over the years. For example, in the heydays of the spice market, traders used a towel to keep their hands underneath and negotiate prices with buyers through hand gestures. Raising the index finger and then shaking hands with the buyer would mean raising the price (of any spice) by Rs 10 per kg. This practice has now stopped because the number of traders and buyers in Mattancherry has decreased drastically over the last 20–25 years.

Figure 3.jpg
‘Spices’ for sale, Kochi 2015. Photo by Nishpriha Thakur.

When I went to Ganesh Trading and Co. with Kishorebhai, a middle-aged Gujarati man working there, I noticed a towel on a table in the front office. He told me about the practice of negotiating prices underneath the towel. After looking around the warehouse with gunny sacks full of dried ginger, we came back to the front office. Kishorebhai picked up the same towel I had noticed earlier and dusted the table and a chair. When he saw me looking at him, he laughed and said, ‘Touch was important when prices were decided. Smell was important when spices were examined. Now who will come here and ask me the price like that? At least some use of the towel! Now, they look at the price on the board here and decide if they want to buy or not.’

Aromatic memories

‘It took me half an hour to cross this market if I had to go from one end to the other. There was constant elbowing, touching the carts, stepping on the lungis, on the gunny sacks.’

‘When we used to pass anywhere close to the spice market, we would smell the aromas of the spices, and it used to be so distinct.’

‘A dosa stall, a cheap one, used to be right near the entrance of this market, and you would always get the aroma of freshly prepared dosas and suleimani tea relished by the labourers of the spice market. Now there’s Crafters restaurant, where you don’t even know what is being cooked, and for a sandwich you pay Rs 200!’

‘Those days, as an accountant, I remember counting at least 20 lakh rupees cash every day. That’s how I remember the spice market in the 1980s. And those days, 20 lakhs meant a lot more than they do now! That was the spice market.’

In the course of my conversations with Gujarati traders and with people who were born and brought up in Kochi, the most vivid memories invoked were of a once bustling spice market and of aromas—be it of the dosa stalls or spices or sweat or all of these. For people who live near Palace Road or Bazaar Road, the aromas of spices are integral to their memories of these places. Even for people who visited Mattancherry some 10–15 years back, the smells of the spices are inseparable from their experience of the place. Some even located such memories in the authenticity of the spices—smells that, for them, the spices no longer have.

Princes Street.jpg
Shop without a market. Spice shop in Princes Street, Kochi 2016. Photo by Samprati Pani.

Sometimes, aromas help people reconstruct the grandeur this once famous trading centre. For instance, Michael Krondl writes, ‘I arrived during the pepper harvest in January [2005], to see those little black berries picked and dried, to get a more intimate whiff of the aromatic cargo that drove at least some medieval Europeans to go on holy war. In the bustling spice market of the Old City’s ‘Jew Town’, you get a sense of the biting aromas that must have hovered across the quays of the Rialto five hundred years back. In the winter, the warehouses are filled with enormous mounds of ginger, so, as you pass the open doors of the wholesale traders, the scent of the tangled knobs wafts out of every other doorway, flavouring the noonday heat with their sickly sweet smell.’[1]

What the sense!

The shops selling spices that I visited during my fieldwork mostly had dry ground ones like sambar masala and Malabar biryani masala, stored in big glass jars, while a few stocked whole spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Most shops had small packets of spices, about 5 centimetres long and 7 centimetres wide, hung in display. When I would tell the shopkeepers that it would be difficult for me to judge the quality of spices in packets, they would tell me, ‘You have a look, no?’

Figure 4.jpg
Looking for the spice market, Kochi 2015. Photo by Nishpriha Thakur.

In the Cochin Oil Merchants Association, a lady showed me around their laboratory, pointing to pipettes and burettes and explaining how they test the quality of coconut oil. On asking her how one could examine the quality of oil at home, she told me, ‘You simply take the oil and taste it—you will know if it is acidic. It is the same with red chilli powder—if you rub it on a white cloth and smell it, you will know its quality.’

Most shops in Kochi, however, regarded ‘looking’ as the most apt way to judge the quality of a spice. The visuality of the commodity itself was often juxtaposed with that of other images that were meant to fabricate the authenticity of the commodity, like the image of a woman carrying tea on her back next to a signage saying ‘authentic organic tea’. Such juxtapositions index a shift in the engagement between commodities and the senses. In the past 20 years or so, there has been a shift from the sense of smell to sight, with a hierarchical positioning of the visual imagery over other senses, particularly smell.[2] How can one particular commodity engage only with one sense? Don’t all experiences involve synesthesia or an engagement of all the senses? Positioning my observation of practices in the spice market between sellers and buyers, I argue that the senses are also trained. The seller offers a visual performance to establish that a commodity is authentic, which the buyer ends up focusing on. Similarly, marketplaces offer an excess of visuality, which a buyer or an onlooker ends up engaging with more than with the smell or the lack of it.

In Mattancherry, I saw images depicting aroma in the form of white smoke emanating from rice or tea, implying that the ‘smell is really good’. I was shown such images and I was shown packets with commodities to ‘touch’. Many shops in Mattancherry had signage saying ‘organic spices’. When I asked the sellers what it meant, they either did not know or said that the spice was cultivated through some ‘natural’ way. Amarbhai explained to me that it is rarely possible for them to get spices like that because most of them buy from wholesale dealers and then package them in small sachets. And the spices are not organic as claimed by the sellers. On probing further, some sellers told me that the term ‘organic’ was merely to attract foreign tourists. They told me that the moment foreign tourists see ‘organic’, their conception of that product changes and they are willing to pay more for what they think is ‘healthier’. The term ‘organic’ in Mattancherry evokes a multiplicity of images of commodities as well as their production process, from ‘hand-made’ chocolates and ‘handwoven’ fabric to ‘authentic’ spices, which are believed to have been produced without the intervention of machines or artificial or chemical additives, and therefore natural and pure.

The smell of the matter

After a couple of weeks in Fort Kochi, I got to know that the shops that are further away from the monuments (Dutch Palace and the Synagogue) have a deal with auto drivers and cab drivers to whom they pay Rs 200 and Rs 500 respectively for every customer they bring in and 30 per cent commission if the customer buys anything. Jalil complained to me one day saying how these tourist guides and auto drivers have disturbed the set-up of the market, how no one comes to his shop even if it is the first one near the entrance of the market and how this will eventually lead to the handicrafts market in Mattancherry closing down. He told me, ‘I have the best space in the market, but no sale.’ However, Arshad, a Kashmiri migrant who has a shop a little further away from the main street, told me that this is not a bad strategy, ‘People use advertisements in newspapers; they use big boards to attract customers. This way is much cheaper; this is also a way to advertise. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

One day, while I was sitting with Jalil in his shop, at some point, he tied his lungi and said he had to go somewhere with a friend. I noticed a man roaming on a cycle on the street outside the shop. Jalil went with him to a shop close by, but I couldn’t see what transpired inside. Later, when I met Arshad, I asked him about the incident of Jalil going into that shop and whether he knew what that was about. Arshad smiled at me and said, ‘Earlier, they could smell the spices; now they smell the money.’

—Nishpriha Thakur
Cover image by Sarover Zaidi.

[1] Michael Krondl. 2008. The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 81.

[2] Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott. 2010. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London: Routledge.


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