As a child, Russi was affected by garlic and onion smells from his mother’s kitchen, wood and floor polish from his home, chalk and ink from his classroom, his classmates’ lunchboxes, his grandmother’s lap moist with sweat and urine, and his house servant’s vegetable-dyed clothes, hair oil, and talcum. In fact, soon smells had names and associations for him.
Like a nose bleed – heady and thick like a swim through a chlorinated pool, the dankness in a cinema hall like the smell of lost innocence, exhaust fumes from a BEST bus like the fear of not completing school homework, or the smell of rain on the streets like a hooker’s armpit he had once seen at the Kamathipura bus stop.
Russi marked his girlfriends too by their smells. He knew who he would date – the limey, grassy, fruity, dewy, rosy-smelling ones, not the foody or sour-apple smelling ones. He gifted them half-used perfume bottles from his mother’s dressing table: Chanel, Dior, Coty, Rochas, and asked which ones they liked. Once, smells were associated with a girl, they were never lost to memory. By now Russi had 5000 smells in his head, if only one could slice open his brain.
After graduation, Russi got into the perfume business; his shop a 4 feet x 4 feet booth on Pedder Road. His father had invested his post-retirement, bank employee savings into this kiosk in the most expensive part of Bombay. Russi imported vials from Dubai and Turkey, and sold them by this lane facing Jaslok Hospital, and a crossroad of cars and buses screeching off the gravel.
Amidst this crumbling of dirt into air, dust with sea-winds, an island of better smells is needed, thought Russi, sitting atop his high stool in the kiosk of “Russi’s Parfumes”. He made profits – and by every humble standard – was getting rich.
But that wasn’t Russi’s goal.
He wanted to make perfumes. Those smells that had no names had to be capitalised upon. They needed to be sensed from the depths of one’s nose, under the pink of eyelids, dreamt up, and explored. He wanted, like a musician, to be composing tones between staffs, a writer scribbling on tissue paper in an Irani restaurant, a painter working his furious canvases.
Every morning Russi left shop to go to the Marine Drive bay and watch the sunrise hitting the promenade – this smell of pink he wished for. He rode the trains and buses to Grant Road – this smell of hard work on grab rails he wished against. The flight of flamingos at the Sewri mudflats – this smell of water flapping and drying, he wanted.
Russi walked past second-hand booksellers at Flora Fountain. The way they screamed around their wares in humid passion – that’s what he wanted. The traffic that slowed at the signals – gruffness on pebble – this texture – the feeling of mud in his mouth – he wanted… as an end note. Light dappling on the hurried masses at Churchgate station, past the patient shopkeepers and slow beggars, reminded Russi of the garden swing of his childhood – that ebb and flow of seller-buyer, glacier-river.
What he didn’t want was the smell of fish, fever, sea, but instead petrichor, or a fistful of wet sea sand.
Then he met Marinette.
She was the embodiment of every smell Russi had liked – the garden of his childhood, the pubs of adolescence, the odour of overripe apples from his granny’s kitchen, his mother’s Sunday jasmine perfume sprayed before a visit to the fire temple, and his dog Ruffus’ musk on the day he mated.
Russi had to marry Marinette – the person who completed him. She was his biography. He would never have committed to a young thing so soon, but he had to see her, rather smell her every day. Usually when he met girls, they reminded him of the dread in subways, sweaty crowds in buses, musty smells in long-haul airplane cabins.
No, Marinette was the woman for him.
She was 21, half-French and half-Parsi, and always worried about her nails, be it in the opulent Taj or colonial-styled Tea Centre. Either that or whether the flowers on her bangles matched those on her dress. She had to halt and peer into every glass door or showroom window, or fumble for a mirror from her bag. She cat-walked in high heels, and Russi felt all the more dwarfed.
He made up for it by taking her to Nashik because it smelt of full-bodied grapes before they were crushed into rose-red wines, or Panchgani, where the air was thick with the pulp of strawberries, Matheran, which brimmed with the piquant of jhambul and red-earth, or Dehradun for the coolness of snow-crushing melting mountains, Goa, where the sand underfoot dissolved like caramelized bebinca.
Yet he couldn’t get any closer to her. He smelt failure; it was rust in rain, soggy skin under a worn-out band-aid, the rustle of leaves scraping against his eardrum.
Yet, Russi pursued. And finally, she relented. They married.
Women seemed to like perseverance.
They made love, and Russi had more of her smell. They slept besides each other on the expanse of their bed and he had his weed and LSD late-night psychedelia, the smells of his first internship, first sexual encounter, all under one roof, in the one-stop shop of Marinette’s body.
Excerpted with permission from Bombay Hangovers, Rochelle Potkar, Vishwakarma Publications.