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.