Perfume and remembering

Some smells stay with you. My grandfather used to shave using a sort of arcane Godrej soap called shaving rounds. It had a lemony disinfectant smell that lingered on him through the day, mixed with the scent of fresh earth. I could smell it in his white cotton vest while going to bed, lulled by stories of ghosts and princesses in faraway lands. My father, a savvy man for his time, used Old Spice—he still does. This was the aftershave that came in milky white glass bottles. The white layer flaked off if you scratched it, revealing the heady, colourless fluid inside. 

My mother's hands had a faint smell of ginger and ground spices, thanks to her years spent in the kitchen. Her nails tinged with yellow. The warm hue showed through when she dressed them up in a thin coat of nail varnish. Family outings, or someone's wedding, meant dressing up. I parted my oil-slicked hair and polished my glasses. From my mother's pink tin, I dusted myself with light, flowery talcum powder, reserving a pinch for my face. My father, in full-sleeved shirts, helped himself to a tiny spray of English Leather, which he kept locked in his cupboard. The small glass bottle was a coveted grey market purchase. He had special fondness for it. Those evenings, my father exuded smoked leather and oakmoss, a man-smell that lingered on his shirt for days.

Keo Karpin, a sweet-tinged, dark green hair oil, was primary among the smells in my grandmother's room. Her grey-silvered hair curled at the ends. Through warm afternoons, I uncapped the emerald hued bottle and inhaled long, invisible swirls. These expeditions to borrow the precious bottle were secret. I was scared of the strict matriarch, whose siesta could break by a single careless movement in the room. Our house in the village was heavy with the smells of musty twigs and fishnets drying in the sun. Some afternoons, when the weather changed, I would run to the terrace before the clothes got folded from the clothesline. I cocooned myself in the drapes and breathed in the soft, fading aroma of the setting sun. I still do.

Back in the city, after school, I would take a detour through the neighbourhood and stand near the small shop that repaired ancient refrigerators. The paint gun sprayed a fine, magical blue-grey mist. The sticky-sweet smell of raw paint over the strange, gnarly machines was addictive, like some strange, striped candy. It was magic.  

At my father's flat at the edge of town in Calcutta, a dozen sparkling hasnuhana trees line the walkway. Gloomy autumns were when mosquitoes multiplied everywhere. The occasional waft of the hasnuhana lit up adolescent evenings at the study table. In college, I saved up money to buy a can of Axe spray. When we sneaked out on some nights, the synthetic, sticky smell morphed into blurred memories of first outings at the Olympia bar, mingled with smoke and desperation. To look cool, to fit in, to grow up.

It has been some years since I've left home. A whole new world of scents opened up. I discovered ittars and saved up to buy long-coveted perfumes, names I would linger over in secondhand magazines. Azzarro. English Lavender. Green Irish Tweed. But one of the smells I miss the most is that of the old, English Leather-stained shirts. The last time I went back, the small, square bottle was still stowed aside with care in the cupboard. My father does not like throwing away things. The bottle was empty, a brown residue stained the bottom, smelling of oakmoss and aged leather.

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