Smell and the City III

‘Arriving at the banquet, the statue interrupts it, neither sitting down nor drinking, neither smelling nor tasting; it consumes the menu: a mobile dictionary capable of memorizing the list of dishes, recipes and wines, but unable to commemorate a meal. Tomorrow it will talk of vintages, restaurant guides and chefs, effortlessly and competently—you’d swear it had years of experience. It can talk better than anyone of things it has never felt, but it betrays itself through vocabulary. The word uttered by the statue, local, says only rose: odourless because it only exists in logic; the language of the dictionary, global, has no word for the lack of smell or taste. By crosschecking like this, we can recognize a robot.’

—Michel Serres, The Five Senses[1]

The smell of death clasps my city. It hangs heavy, despite the winds and good weather, waiting, lurking, unmoving, watching, staining. It’s dark and bright, pungent and bland, noisy and inaudible, hanging over the furiously expanding crematoriums and graveyards, moving into the adjoining shanties, whose inhabitants hold their breath lest they get contaminated, at the same time plotting ways to escape the city that has forgotten them yet again, to go back to places they had escaped, to be a little less alone if death comes visiting. It screeches through quiet days, making its way through the birds chirping and the wailing ambulances, and through even quieter nights interrupted by the ominous ring of the mobile phone. It wafts under the double masks, watches over dreams and somersaults as the Lord tells us to be patient.

Those who can’t smell it smell it too.  It is present even where it is absent.

Do we learn how to smell it through suffering, loss and living, continuing to make homes and make love, breaking, mending, tearing, creating? Or do we anaesthetize it through language and codes, naming, recording, classifying, analysing, stripping it of its odour?

This guest piece by Sailen Routray is the third in our series on ‘Smell and the City’. It moves between the absence and presence of smells as he navigates living, remembrance and forgetting, the loss of a loved one and the loss of places, thinking through knowledge practices and thinking through the senses. Can we know without sensing? Can we write about the senses without taming them? Does the body and memory hold on to traces of smells of the one who has left? How does one grapple with the loss of a place, which continues to exist, but whose smells have been eradicated? Can smells be abstracted from other senses? Can we make sense of smells? Or do such exercises render smells lifeless?

‘I don’t believe, says the beggarly phantom behind the machine, that if there’s any sense to life, it lies in the word life; it rather seems to me that it arises in the senses of the living body.’[2]

—Samprati Pani   

What is the sound of one hand clapping?
A fart.

Farts produced by overeating fermented rice
have a de-hangovering smell,
like that of stale mint leaves.

The sound of a suppressed fart
borne by eating moong dal khichdi late in the night
has the consistency of claps induced by ghazals sung by Iqbal Bano.

Those brought into existence by eating lahmacun
have the flavour of tender onion shoots
marinated in wild honey for three days and four nights
during the waning gibbous moon.

When my childhood floated on the appliqué works of Pipili,
ghosts of farts populated the evening conversation.
Now Baba wants me to say ‘Excuse me’ when I fart.

Excuse me. There is someone clapping.

—Letter III, Room Number 5, Student’s Hostel, NIAS, Bangalore

Baba died in the room he shared at home with Ma in Bhubaneswar in 2014, when the year’s January had already shed its pretensions of coolness. The room in which he lay smelled slightly of bed sores, the water bed and the weight of words that he could no longer speak because of the malignant growth pressing against his vocal cords, the windows of the room shutting out the smell of areca nut blossoms flowering just behind, shutting out the world and giving the room a strong artificial smell—the stench of death.

When I try and remember Baba now, seven years after his death, I recall two smells immediately. One, of egg bhurji, of which he was an undisputed master in our extended family, and when he took to the kitchen for cooking it, the house smelled of complex, mixed odours of curry leaves, onions, mustard oil, a myriad ground spices and beaten eggs. And, two, of him dry roasting and then sautéing dried shrimps for his signature chingudi suhkhua chura. Both these dishes I do not eat now, although I was once addicted to them, having turned into a vegetarian culinary apostate in my traditionally non-vegetarian family.

But this is strange. I do not have a strong sense of smell. I suffered from tonsillitis grievously as a child, and it must have affected my nasal cavities. I also suffered from asthma in my childhood, and it came back with a bang in 2011 after beating a retreat in 1997. Any exposure to a strong smell is enough to start at least a minor attack; not having a good enough smelling apparatus offers no protection. Such is life.

But it is not as if all strong smells affect me equally. I am especially susceptible to room fresheners and strong deodorants and perfumes. Spending extended afternoons in the early 1990s bunking school and collecting jamuns in Janpath in Bhubaneswar did not affect me, despite the strong turpentine smell of the jamun blossoms, nor did the night-flowering jasmine peeking into the balcony at home.

Smell is often discussed as the sense organ par excellence, as it reputedly brings forth memories buried deep inside the psyche. Having a bad sense of smell has meant having a memory like a sieve with large holes, which keeps back nothing apart from the biggest recollections, and often loses even them. The most bizarre manifestation of this process is when I can consciously remember something visually and know that there is some smell associated with that ocular memory, but for the life of me cannot recall the exact smell.

Senses are supposed to be our windows to the world, but they often also have shutters, especially the sense of smell. One of my most persistent olfactory memories is about an absent one. I remember walking as a child on an evening in a narrow lane in Bhubaneswar’s Old Town. It was not summer, that much I am sure about, as it was cool. There was a roadside food stall frying stuff, under a huge peepul tree. I passed it. After a few seconds, a strange, strong smell hit my nostrils. It smelled like something fried in sesame oil. But as far as I know, there are no popular Odia snacks that are fried in this particular oil. I could have gone back to check. I did not. That smell still haunts me. I do not know till now what the smell was.

What is it about the olfactory sense that seems to hint at absences as much as presences? Why does one recollect so many peripheral details about ‘that particular smell’ but not quite the odour itself? Perhaps smell forms the base, the foundation, for our sensory memories, sending out tentacles into visions, hearings, giving them nourishment, yet ultimately laying hidden, subterranean. It is only when, for some reason, one does not use a particular sense organ that one gains faculties related to the others. This seems especially true for the sense of smell.

~

Shabdādibhih panchabhireva pancha
panchatvamāpuh svagunena badhdhāh |

kurangamātangapatangameena
bhringā narah panchabhiranchitah kim ||

The deer, the elephant, the moth, the fish and the black bee—these five have died, being entangled with one or other of the five senses. What then of humans who are attached to all the five?

—Verse 76, Vivekachudamani, Shankaracharya

Can the sense of smell be a source of knowledge? This question begs a larger one: can sensory perception provide us with valid knowledge? A large part of Western philosophical traditions constitutes various ways of answering this question. Certain Eastern traditions suggest that such a way of thinking about sense perception might be erroneous. According to Advaita Vedanta, for example, the path of knowledge for cognizing absolute reality lies through a mastery of the senses and turning them inwards.

What does such a view of the world and its relationship with the sensory apparatus tell us about the city that is not only seen but also heard, tasted, touched and smelled? What is the association of a specific sense of smell with a place, for instance, a street? When we prepare a map of a street or take its photograph, we are aware of the individual ocular elements that strike us. But at the same time, we also have a sense of how the street looks like a street, as different from being merely the sum of its elements. But of the same streetscape, if we were to recreate the olfactory experiences that it produces for us in its entirety, how do we go about doing it? How does the street as a whole smell when specific parts and nooks of it give out very different odours?

Even in a tradition like Vedanta, based on some idea of ‘total cognition’, why are sensory metaphors used to describe the errors of our perception, such as ‘seeing’ snakes in ropes? Why are these mistakes, as well as  their correction—to cognize the individual human soul as a reflection of the ultimate reality, in the manner of the moon being reflected in a multitude of water pots simultaneously—so overwhelmingly visual in nature?         

~

As a child, one of the strongest smells that I remember was a stink. A few years after a brief, ill-fated fling with schooling as a child, I rejoined the third standard of an Odia-medium municipality school when my family shifted to Bhubaneswar. The school was located near the southern walls of the Lingaraj Temple complex in Old Town. On many a summer day in March and April, we would have to close our windows in the classroom to avoid the stink that was blown from Bindu Sagar, a sacred tank located near the northern walls of the temple complex.

The terrain around the Lingaraj Temple complex has changed. Bindu Sagar itself is almost unrecognizable—it has smooth laterite stone banks now, with steps going in till the water, and a picture postcard garden of medicinal plants flanking its western side. From the locals to the tourists, many seem to like the demolitions that have happened around the Lingaraj Temple complex, especially on its northern side, that have been premised upon clearing a view of the spire of Lingaraj from the northern banks of Bindu Sagar.

Even when some of us nostalgia-minded folk remember the good old times and rue the wanton destruction of many heritage structures around the temple complex, including an eighteenth-century Maratha-era police outpost, what is missing in these accounts (mostly oral) is any mention of how the place actually smelled.

And the smell around the temple complex was not just about the stink from Bindu Sagar. What I miss from the malodourous past of Old Town also includes the smells of rotting vegetables in and around the Lingaraj haat; the rotting flowers and bel leaves near the temple, left behind by the pandas and the devotees; and the smell of mosquito fogging carried out by the then municipality (the city has a corporation now). Old Town had a distinct character in the way it smelled.

If someone were to restore the environs of Old Town to how it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there are visual references to aid in such an effort. A large number of them are ethnographic in nature, for example, the photographic documentation by the anthropologist James M. Freeman of the surroundings of the Kapileswar and Lingaraj temples. With the aid of photographs, one can perhaps attempt to undertake an act of ‘restoration’. But how would one recreate the smells of Old Town, especially those around its temples? What aids would we have for such an act of restoration? 

~

How do we recreate the visual? We paint, make a map, sketch, take a photograph or make a video. How do we recreate a soundscape? If it is musical in nature, then there is already a grammar of notes and their arrangements that helps in its recreation. If it is an ordinary human voice one wants to recreate, then one may try and capture it through mimicry or recording. How do we recreate a particular touch? We try and evoke a concoction of specific texture, temperature or adhesiveness by using material that mimics the desirable characteristics of the original surface. How do we reproduce certain tastes? By thinking about and finding out a specific set of ingredients that can then be made to react with each other through fixed chemical processes to produce that specific taste that we desire.

Experiences of sensory cognition through the sense of smell are perhaps not reproducible in the same way as objects of other senses are. But at the same time, scent artists like Sissel Tolaas are now using chemistry to explore and recreate specific smells through processes that are as much high science as the art of curating experiences. Smells can perhaps be recreated by putting together the things themselves, but the way things smell (or for that matter taste or feel) is always related to the immediate context of time, place and people.

~

Smell is the sense organ par excellence because it is the sense that is intimately tied to things in themselves and has a deep resistance to being reduced to a technological artefact. Because human sciences research primarily takes the shape of an explanation or a critique, perhaps it has found it difficult to deal with it as an object of study.

In anthropology, for example, the focus has largely been on the ‘visual’; therefore, the idea of ‘visual anthropology’ is a bit of misnomer, because as a discipline anthropology relies so much on ‘observing’. But this begs the question, does something akin to pure observation really exist? To ask in a similar vein, is there anything like ‘pure taste’ or ‘pure touch’ and, most dominantly, ‘pure vision’ possible that is unalloyed and uninfluenced by other senses such as that of smell?

~

After I shifted back to Bhubaneswar, soon after Baba’s death, I started working as a part of a collective of researchers and performers. As a part of our work, I started visiting a tribal hamlet of migrants from north Odisha in a village called Gadakana, which now forms part of the city. When I visited this basti for the first time, my first sensory impression of the place was the stench that pervaded everywhere. It came from a recently created garbage dump yard, one of the largest in the state. I found out later that this was a new feature of the geography of the place.

The people of the hamlet had fought hard to shift its location, after they had figured out the plans of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation to have this garbage dump in their backyard. They lobbied hard, held protest marches and even ended up having a pitched battle with the police forces, but all to no avail. By the time I started visiting the basti, the dump was up and running for good. The stench from the yard was like a blanket that enveloped me while I would be there. I could not imagine living in the locality because of the smell, but of course people lived their lives there, despite the foul odour that seeped into their bodies, houses and dreams persistently.

The process of deodorization of Bhubaneswar’s Old Town started soon after Gadakana got its garbage dump. What we smell and whether we have a choice in the matter then is linked to who we are—whether we are first-generation Santhali migrants living in a marginal urban hillock or a third-generation Gujarati entrepreneur with a heritage property on the banks of Bindu Sagar. But is the interface between the city and smells and smelling completely reducible to one’s social position, or is it possible to fashion ways of knowing the city through smell that creatively link the personal and the social, and the sensory and the rational?  

—Sailen Routray

Cover image: Edvard Munch, The Smell of Death, 1915, woodcut on paper.


[1] Michel Serres. 2008. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingles Bodies (I), trans. by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. London and New York: Continuum, pp. 193–94.

[2] Ibid., pp. 195–96.

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