Perfume

The insides of the pub on Vicar Street were packed to the rafters. The crowd swayed to the tunes of the local favourite. A smoky film hung in the air allowing a phantom veil to those wanting proximity and the band played on with gusto obliging the patrons; too glad to wash away the week’s fatigue, seeped in music and inebriated.

Inahita sat at a corner, farthest from the dais. She sipped on her Mojito savouring the tingling sensation every time the cocktail travelled down her throat. Music and vodka was a heady sensation. Her proud head with a short bob of hair acknowledged the beats and chords from time to time. She preferred her own company when she visited this particular pub. Today was no different.

As the last strains of Light My Fire died down, she made her way out at a leisurely pace.

Out on the street, Inahita tipped the valet handsomely. He handed over the car keys to her. Taking the wheel, she put her cotton print clad arms up to her nose and took a long breath. It had become a habit, every time she left the pub. It gave her an incredible high, the feeling of being wrapped in the smells of the pub: the smoke, the people, the wood, the snacks and the liquor. After a few seconds she started the ignition and drove off Vicar Street, still thinking of the motley of aroma and odour.

At 30, Inahita was quite content with life. She had a well-paying job, a comfortable accommodation and a small four-wheeler that served her travelling purposes efficiently. She was only too glad to be spared the hassle of public conveyance on a regular basis.

Zooming past the street lamps casting eerie shadows on the quiet streets, she reached home half an hour later. Climbing up the stairs, her hand voluntarily went up to her face. It felt patchy reminding her of the season. Making a mental note of following a skin-care regime, she climbed the remaining stairs.

She could see her reflection in the heavily polished archaic two-paneled door. She liked the way it blurred her sharp features and hid the spots and patches. Still staring at the ghost of a reflection, Inahita put the key to the lock and let herself in.

***********

Closing the door behind her, she adjusted herself to the pitch dark. At times, she liked the stillness of her darkened flat. It gave her an odd pleasure to be devoid of all primary senses for a while – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – in the dark. Moments passed. Inahita reached for the window a while later. She found the latch after a split second of fumbling and threw the wooden frames open. The air felt tepid as neon light streamed in. She watched the insects dancing around the rusty lamp imagining the rains and the salty-earthy smell that it brought along.

A fetid summer followed by the heavy showers. Her mind conjured up the bright yellow of the lone mango tree amongst the towering eucalyptuses. She had drifted to that summer 18 years back; the one at the village farm house.

She thought of Benu Da and those crooked branches bending down with humility with the weight of ripe mangoes. “Inu baby, savour the smell before eating. It will awaken your taste buds”, he would often say. And indeed, it did.

Inahita was jolted out of her reverie by the honking of a passing car. She shuddered a little and withdrew from the window.

After a quick shower, she took a long hard look at her face, rubbing the vapour off the mirror. The patches were quite prominent. She uncorked a bottle of moisturizer and spread it evenly over her oval face, immediately feeling the now smoothened texture. A drop remained near her lip. She contemplated it for a while before rubbing it off.

She put on her worn out Pajams and T-shirt and settled inside her soft bed spreading a thick shawl over her body. As sleep engulfed her, she was back in the farm of her childhood.

***********

It had rained a lot on that June morning. Inahita stood on a stool, her face glued to the window grills watching the shards mercilessly lashing out at her beloved mangoes. She saw the neighborhood boys climbing up the low walls and running off with masses of yellow. If only Benu Da would shoo them off, she rued to no one in particular.

No sooner had the downpour reduced, she ran out to Benu Da’s hut and persuaded the old man to confront ‘those thieves’.

Inahita pranced along the muddy trail with Benu Da in toe. The urchins fled dropping off their last bounty as the duo came in sight.  She ran off to get to the bright yellow heap as soon as she could. The soggy ground hampered her pace. At length, she reached her destination and picked up her prized possessions gleefully.

“Benu Da, climb up the tree and get the remaining mangoes. I do not want those thieves to lay hand on a single one of them,” she had said haughtily.

“Inu baby, it’s very slippery now. I won’t be able to climb, “ Benu Da reasoned.

“I don’t care. Get me those mangoes now,” she screeched.

The old man gave in and went near the tree. Finding a foothold, he started climbing. Inahita clasped her hands as he went higher up. A few minutes later, there was a dull subdued noise. She remembered Benu Da hurtling down at her, even as the broken branch knocked her unconscious.

***********

The shawl had slid down her waist and the chill woke her up. She tried to remember her last subconscious thought. It eluded her. She tried to sleep again. At 3.00 in the morning, sleep had completely abandoned Inahita. She switched on the reading lamp and the first thing she discerned in the semi-darkness was the bottle of Chanel on her dressing table. A friend had presented it to her. Most people liked the perfume she wore.

The last thought had come back to her.

***********

Benu Da had fractured a leg while Inahita had sustained an incision on her forehead. The scar of the stitch was still visible. Thamma had made arrangements for her to return home, to the city, a couple of days later. Inahita met Benu Da before leaving. The old man lay on his rickety bed with his leg in a cast. Inahita went near him with down cast eyes. He smiled weakly and fished out a ripe mango from his side and held it to her nose. Inahita breathed in deeply. The intoxicating smell took a while to register. When she bit into the fleshy pulp, it tasted terribly sweet; nothing fruity or tangy about it.

Back in the city, she missed the earthiness, the wafting smell of freshly ground spices in the kitchen, Benu Da’s nicotine tinged breath, the muddy grounds but most of all the sight and smell of ripe mangoes. She wanted to hold on to them forever. The more she tried, the more they slipped away.

Surrounded by fumes, smoke, trash, open drains and cacophony, she couldn’t tell one thing from the other. She seemingly didn’t care about the incense in the air at home after the morning Puja, something she had always been keen about.

As the days passed, Inahita felt something was amiss more often than not. But she couldn’t quite place it. It was as if a part of her was lost.

**************

She left the bed and splashed lukewarm water on her face. Tenderly she picked up the green-coloured bathing bar and put it to her nose. The wrapper had said ‘green-mango flavour’. She couldn’t tell the difference. Back in her room she sprayed a bit of Chanel on her wrist and saw the small misty spots settling on her skin. The scent belied her.

It was two years after that summer that she had fully realized it. The broken branch; the incision just above the bridge of her nose; her inability to tell coffee from tea; everything tasting sweet, bitter, salty or sour and nothing beyond that; forgetting how boiling rice smelt; how her own body smelt; the fumes and smoke on the street failing to irritate the insides of her nostril; the garbage refusing to stink; every bit of familiar smell becoming nothing but a wispy memory.

Inahita had steadily lost her sense of smell over the years. By the time she had realized its extent, it had become irreversible. Her emotions ranged from horrified, dejected and anguished to finally that of reconciliation.

*************

Then one fine morning she decided to relive all that had faded out and access the innumerable new things she had hitherto missed out on.

She got friends and acquaintances to describe olfactory experiences to her: food, a new book, a drunkard, the seaside, a crowded bus, the fish market, a railway station, a sari shop, an old house, a construction site, a florist’s shop, a fruit vendor’s wares, a scrap dealer, a sweet-meat shop, a mall and even a lonely road. One of her friends had similarly recounted her olfactory notion of the pub on Vicar Street; one of the best descriptions Inahita had ever heard.

She probably had a more varied repertoire of ‘stenches’ and ‘aromas’ inside herself than an average person could experience.

Inahita glanced at her wrist. The droplets of Chanel had evaporated. She heard an admiring subordinate say: “that is a nice fruity smell’. Placing the perfume on the dresser, she switched off the reading light and went back to bed.

Tomorrow was a busy day. She was heading an ad campaign for a leading skin care brand. Their next product launch was a deo, the tag line being ‘Discover Earthiness’.

Inahita closed her eyes. The last image that flashed across her eyes was of Benu Da holding up a mango to her nose…………

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