The Steel City Express from Jamshedpur to Kolkata finally arrived at Howrah station. Alighting at the platform, I lugged my bags to the car and headed out for a visit to the Victoria Memorial and a chicken steak at my favourite restaurant Moulin Rouge in iconic Park Street.
When I finally reached my friend’s house, tired and ready to crash after battling a sea of human, animal and auto mobile traffic, she greeted me saying…. ‘Wow,you smell of travel’. Now that was a new one and immediately arrested my imagination. My olfactory nerves have since then been on an over drive like never before. The aroma of cakes being baked, the smell of spices in the bazaars I walked through, the musty old photo albums I flipped through … all have been constantly reminding me of scenes from my past travels that have suddenly jumped out of their distant confines. Little windows have opened to much larger realisations.
Sometimes my thoughts transport me to my childhood days when I would travel with my mother to Kolkata to meet my grandparents. The highlight of my annual visit was always the customary lunch at my dida’s (grandmother’s) place that consisted of a traditional Bengali favourite mix of steaming, hot rice mashed up with boiled potatoes and eggs and a generous sprinkling of ghee and salt. There was something powerfully soothing and comforting about that smell and even now, on days when I crave for comfort food, I toss up this delightful concoction of yummy carbohydrates and nostalgia.
Another time I was reminded of the US embassy in Kolkata where I had to appear for my visa interview. As a 16 year old, standing in a serpentine queue, I observed nervous grown ups loaded with documents breaking out into a sweat. An elderly gentleman fainted because he could not handle the fear of being refused a visa. The air was thick with the smell of anticipation and desperation. Finally entering the heavily guarded embassy with its polished floors, stern staff with not a hair out of place sitting behind tiny glass windows,for the first time I took in the disinfected and almost clinical smell of the ‘First World’.
A few days later I waved out to my parents anxiously one last time before the doors of the international airport in Kolkata closed behind me. Over the next few weeks as I travelled through the lanes of London, USA and South America, I had to cross over from all the smells that represented comfort and familiarity and open myself up to brand new sensations. The bold perfume worn on the daring red dress by my host Brazilian mother was a sharp contrast to the smell of incense and ‘Rin’ soap from my own mother’s cotton sari. The aroma of sizzling pork and beef being grilled on a barbecue at an outdoor picnic in Cascavel ran riot with my overwhelming memories of fish cooked in a mustard gravy back home.Through the haze of smoke, trance music, young adults snaked up against each other with beer bottles in hand, for the first time standing with local friends at a night club in Iguacu, I smelt both overpowering freedom and a very adult fear of having to make a choice.
A few years later when I felt lost and lonely during my stint as an intern in a firm in Kuala Lumpur, I was really glad when Christine, a lovely Chinese lady from my office took me under her wing. Christine smelt of friendship and hot chocolate. Picking me up for office everyday, introducing me to KL’s bustling China town, street food scene, taking me out with her family and buffering me from a lot of problems that I may have had to face as a young foreigner, her simple gestures helped me realise that even in a foreign land it is possible to sniff out a comfort zone that is closest to home.
Standing in the immigration line at the border of Nepal and Tibet, the air was heavy with fear and anticipation as Chinese soldiers marched up and down with guns, shouting angry slogans. Every act and movement was heavily regimented.I was used to living in an independent country and for the first time I was in a country which was not. The landscape was breathtaking and the Everest peak was a sight to behold, but the suffocation by the Chinese authorities was invisible yet very immense. There are those moments when you smell nothing, because you just cannot breathe and almost choke.
Browsing through Istanbul’s busy down town Taksim, I saw a poor street vendor selling water chestnuts late on a cold, windy night. On the streets of Ibiza, I was shocked to see young women wearing just make up and lingerie,adorning the entrance to night clubs while middle aged men ogled at them. I was even more horrified to see under age children in Cambodia selling their bodies for money. At Barcelona’s La Ramblas I passed by people sitting statuesque in mid air for hours,pretending to be mannequins as fascinated pedestrians dropped coins in their bowl. At Udaipur, Rajasthan, I watched helplessly as a little boy fell off a tightrope while putting up a show for tourists. All through this, I smelt the unapologetically powerful smell of human survival…. no judgments made and no reasons given.
Sitting at a sermon in an old Konkani church in Goa, mesmerised as Dalai Lama smiled at me for a fraction of a minute in Dharamshala, watching people pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ in Jerusalem and sitting by the ghats of Varanasi at sunset, I breathe in the delightful fragrance of peace, totality and the bliss of finally arriving. All that remains are fond memories of ‘the smell of travel’.