Monday, December 04, 2006

Home is where the incense burns

The other day I was walking home when the sharp combination of mustard seeds, gingelly oil and tamarind stopped me in my tracks. Veththa kozhambu was bubbling away in someone’s kitchen and I couldn’t help but envy the recipient. There's nothing quite like vengaya veththa kozhambu and sutta appalam to thaw a wintery soul.


Many months ago, Sunil at Balancing Life had written a post on the science of smell and how our noses function. I must admit, I needed to read a few things twice over to understand them but the post made me think about something else – the emotions that a scent can evoke.

There’s something nostalgic about certain smells. The brow furrowing whiff of sour curd always brings back memories of wooden classroom benches, stainless steel lunch dabbas and secret exchanges of curd rice and vadu maanga for chapathi and kurma. Anais-Anais conjures up my mother in pearl encrusted green organza and the memory of being six and watching her in this ethereal oufit is part of the reason why the scent remains a personal favourite. A freshly opened bar of Cinthol always takes me back to the hot summers of my childhood and waiting for the thanni lorry.


Every morning I wake up in a foreign country that perhaps will never be home. But when I open my canister of carefully rationed Leo coffee powder the strong aroma reminds me only of Madras. And if I close my eyes, I am there.

Amma’s home is the smell of rose petals in an urli, bodhi sattva incense, withering parijatham and malli. Ripe mangoes in season and water infused with vetiver roots in summer. Coriander, curry leaves and Sabena. These smells mingle to produce a bouquet that can perhaps never be replicated, and even if it were only two people would want a bottle of it – my sister and myself.

I’ve done my best to recreate the smell of home in my small corner of London. Every trip to Madras sees me return with ridiculous quantities of Auroville incense sticks and Giri Trading’s annual stock of sambrani. I go overboard though, and it’s not uncommon to see my husband red eyed and spluttering as he drinks his morning chai, enveloped in a white gauzy aromatic mist.But I can’t help myself. The scented candles and incense you get in London do not remind me of my home but of Laura Ingall Wilder and her little house on the prairie. Sweet Potato Pie, Washed Linen and Spiced Cranberry say Thanksgiving not Thai Poosam.

A few weeks ago I was at The Pier – a store with an impressive range of some very bizarre candles. Coastal Winds and Tamarind Raspberry were just two of what seemed to be many questionable combinations. But then as I billed my Ginger tea and green mango pillar candles I realised that perhaps to someone out there these smells were reminiscent of a sweet distant memory of their own.

As I write this, patchouli and the citric smell of orange juice tickle my nose. I realise I am creating a smell unique to my own home and perhaps that is the first step to feeling at home.

24 comments:

Coffee-on^the-housE said...

"water infused with vetiver roots in summer"

Nothing like that smell, trust me. The chilled vetiver water from the mud pots. Can keep drinking it all day long on a burning hot summer day.

Any yea, every country you visit, where ever you are, you get different types of aroma, sometimes you love it, sometimes you prefer it not. And you carry bits of memories of such aromas for a long time. But then the strong smells that you have savored back home will be a part of you... for a lifetime. True that.

alpha said...

loved the last line.

Chronicus Skepticus said...

Lovely post, Shoefiend.

Anonymous said...

nice one. have you read 'the emperor of scent'? its about a perfumer and his
journey , and his nose....
I've always thought that smell is the one sense which cannot be invoked from memory, unlike a sight or a sound. a scent invokes a memory, but never the other way around.
In the book, there's a perfumer with a funny disease..called anosmia or something, he's lost his sense of smell. but he continues to be a perfumer and conjures up great combinations, by smelling them...in his brain.
fascinating read..

shub said...

love the last part.

Ravages said...

* bows *

TomCruiseChellum said...

Talking of vetha kuzhambu (or apropos vetha kuzhambu, if you like), in a period of enforced bachelorhood (or bdom if you like), I kept making this item for a couple of years without having read the recipe properly. I was giving the miss to venthayam. But when I woke up to this monumental disrespect to vetha kuzhambu and added venthayam one rather sunny morning in Singapore, the smells that wafted up from the kadai--- oh my my

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Coffee on the house - :)

Alpha, Chronicus skepticus - Thanks!!

Partly Cloudy - I've haven't read the book but I'll keep an eye out for it. And thanks

Shub, Ravages - :)

TCC - Veththa Kozhambu with no vendhayam??? You have greatly displeased the kitchen gods.

Kavitha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kavitha said...

Giri trading's sambrani for you; it is the matti paal bathi and sambrani from the nearby Srividya manjal kadai for me... reminds me of when I was a little one prancing around in my grandparents' house in Adayar. Mmmm...!

Lovely write-up! Made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Thank you.

Abhipraya said...

Mangoes in the season...always remind me of my summer holidays in my grand mother's place. This was a lovely piece Shoefiend. You are very good at reloading nostalgia:-)I especially loved the last bit.

The Inquisitive Akka said...

That was lovely!

Achtlandia said...

mmmmmmmmmm. how long does it take for that fragrance to become your own...when does it become home?

i love anais-anais...

ammani said...

That's got to be your best. Why do I get the feeling that I will say that again? And again?

Anonymous said...

Sweet Potato Pie, Washed Linen and Spiced Cranberry say Thanksgiving not Thai Poosam.

You have a fantastic way with words. Lovely post!

Anonymous said...

Nice theme. Wonderfully expressed.

MumbaiGirl said...

Anais Anais reminds me of my mum too. Makes me homesick.

smallfontkuttebaspam said...

If you go to Saravana Bhavan on Radhakrishnan Salai say between 5 and 5-30 in the morning, you will get lost inside a great swell of incense. You have to be there to believe the qty of sambrani they burn every morning.
And then there are the bhais who go around from shop to shop with a tiny pinch of sambrani to bring you good luck in exchange for a small donation.
But I am not sure that those are smells you recall.
Nothing like the joy of venthayam for the first time in a vetha kozhambu in Singapore (TCC's comment), I suppose

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Kavitha - :) Anything from Madaveedhi rocks if you ask me!

Abhipriya, Akka - thank you

Achtlandia - I think the components need to simmer for a while and get acquainted before it becomes a signature scent.

Ammani - you are too kind. hugs!


desigirl, srihari - thank you!

mumbaigirl - :)


sfk - Sundari Silk TNagar have a similar evening sambrani ritual!

smallfontkuttebaspam said...

While the sambrani ritual is the same in both places, I think the Sar Bhavan people use a much larger quantity of the divine powder in a slightly more confined space producing a very thick misty atmosphere as compared to Sundari. Otherwise they are the same only la

Anjali said...

That was utterly lovely. And rang so true. I firmly believe that smell is the most powerful sense we have.

Anonymous said...

hmm.. interesting stuff! dyu also indulge in poetry?

Lakshmi said...

Hi, I wanted to write a post on smell and memories in my blog, and during a search came across this post of yours....looks like you preceded me...
If I were to write the post as intended, it would echo yours in and out !
Great blogging...your hundred words are fantastic.

Tone Dealings said...

Hi all,
Have a nice day.
sambrani