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Nightly scents and the city

Olfactory expeditions along the streets can be a fascinating experience

The dreaded summer is in full swing and all that anyone can think of are long cold drinks and holidays in the hills. Walking in the sweltering heat, even at night, is no longer pleasant. But having started on half-hourly walks every night, as a reluctant concession to creeping age and the threat of diabetes in the genes, I persevere.

The dimly lit streets offer few visual distractions. What keeps me entertained on these nocturnal sojourns are, surprisingly, the varied scents of the night. What scents?, you might ask. Unless it’s the ubiquitous stench of ammonia which no amount of ‘Swachh Bharat’ has managed to banish? That too, sadly. But there is more.

Armed with pepper spray and an ancient phone that no self-respecting thief would dream of snatching, I set out at about eight every night. As soon as I step out I take a deep breath of the night air, heady here with the fragrance of Chinese honeysuckle. The intrepid vine has climbed a rain tree near our garden gate. The poor tree has been shorn of most of its foliage, leaving it bare and forlorn.

As a result, the honeysuckle has been getting plenty of sunlight this year, and is in glorious bloom. And we, though deprived of the cool shade of the rain tree in the day, have been blessed with scented nights instead. C'est la vie.

As I continue down the street the not unpleasant smell of burning leaves, from the small fires built by the watchmen to keep mosquitoes at bay, takes over and becomes all-pervasive.

As I head to the corner of the road, past a large apartment building, even the faintest of breezes sets off unseen wind chimes tinkling. The music soothes me and I stroll on happily.

Food aromas

Turn the corner and suddenly the air is redolent with the aroma of roasting chicken and barbecued lamb, pepper, garlic and half a dozen other spices. The culprit, a little Arabian restaurant, enjoys good business on most nights.

Couples, all dressed up for a night out, often whizz past on motorcycles, exuding happy anticipation along with scents of cologne and cosmetics. There is also an interesting variety of street dogs assembled here. They apparently dine off the aroma, as I've never seen anyone actually feed the poor things. Some of the parked cars have drivers waiting patiently inside. As I pass by, curls of cigarette smoke sometimes drift out, along with snatches of music. One night, the unmistakable scent of baby talcum powder drifting out of one such car, took me back to those days when my children were babies.

And I was seized with a nostalgic yearning for the uncomplicated joys of young motherhood. Shrill angry wails soon brought me back to earth and I hurried on, deciding that teenage angst and university woes were a fair trade-off for nappy rash and colic. One must learn to count one’s blessings.

The strong scent of jasmine from the strings sold by a little old lady, soon takes my mind off the temptations of shawarma and dajaj. I walk on, past dark silent gardens, breathing in the faint fragrance of frangipani and coral jasmine that waft out.

Just before I reach the end of the road and turn back towards home, only on those nights when the breeze is right, an elusive fragrance teases my senses. It took me several days to pinpoint the source — pink and white blooms apparently growing on a woody vine coiled around a fair-sized tree. Intrigued, I drove by the next morning for a closer look and found a tree bearing fleshy, interestingly shaped pink and cream flowers on long woody inflorescences.

A little research showed it was the cannonball tree, so named for the shape of the fruits. Called nagalingam in Tamil, the tree is often planted near Shiva temples.

Unidentifiable ones

What makes these olfactory expeditions truly fascinating are the occasional unidentifiable scents. Faint, tantalising and mysterious, they keep my interest piqued, and have me going back for more. These walks have taught me a few things, about botany and about life: that even the mundane can be fascinating, if only one takes the time to stop and smell the flowers. In this case, literally.

jabso007@yahoo.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 4:07:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/nightly-scents-and-the-city/article18446806.ece

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