Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Itinerant: Of Smells and Bells

Stepping out of a Lisbon home one warm summer afternoon, what hit the itinerant first was the stench. It wasn’t overpowering, but it was there, hanging in the air like a silent, but unwelcome guest at an intimate party. It was the stench of dog droppings. These droppings are an unpleasant fact of Lisbon life, given that most residents of Lisbon, unlike in some other parts of the “developed world”, do not normally scoop away the waste their pets create on public sidewalks. This tendency of course is pretty much like the attitude to waste in India, where we prefer to leave this task to the public sanitation workers. Perhaps this smell was so obvious because; unlike in the European winter, when these smells melt away with their source, under the beating of the unending rain, in summer the odours of city streets intensify, building up like the strong perfumes of spirits in snifters.

If the smell of dog droppings was the smell of this Lisbon street, then the stench of human waste is the smell that one associates with urban north India. It’s not a smell that goes away. On the contrary, this stench sticks to you, and not just to your skin, but to your memory. The stench returns to haunt you for years after you have left the Gangetic plains, coming back every time you think of the suffocating heat of the summer, when as in Lisbon, the odours of the street intensify in aroma. Indeed, after walking away from the smell of dog droppings on that street, it was the fecal smell of North India that hung suffocatingly like a plastic bag over the itinerants nostrils, like some phantom twin of the legendary third note of a perfume.

It seems a shame to not share the following anecdote while on the subject of the ubiquitous fecal presence in north India. While the facticity of this anecdote is dubious, the person who recounted the story swore it was true, producing as evidence, the fact that his brother once worked for the Indian Railways. The story tumbled out one festive evening when he advised us to not consume in any form the water that runs in the plumbing of the passenger coaches of the Indian Railway. It turns out that the lids of the water tanks on the roofs of these coaches would invariably be improperly fastened, coming loose in the course of the journey, exposing the water within to the elements.  What makes this situation bothersome is that as the (t)rusty steeds of the Indian rail swoosh towards their destination the currents of air created apparently sweep up all forms of minute particles in their path, depositing part of them in the exposed containers of water on their backs. Given the manner of waste disposal on the Indian rail, and the alternate use that the tracks and their vicinities are put to, it is not surprising that an examination indicated a high content of fecal matter in the water contained in these tanks!

It is smell that stays with you long after the moment has passed. Smell that strikes a bell somewhere in your subconscious and draws out memories long-forgotten, to be mulled over again. Some smells however, and indeed, their associated memories, one could do well without. 

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 8 Dec 2012)

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