Off-centre Society

The smells of foreign

getty images/ istock

getty images/ istock  

Those were smells we used to call foreign smells. The suitcase wheeled in from the airport late at night held a treasure of these smells. From chocolates and shower gels. From ziplock bags of deodorants and face creams. From the smell of clothes washed and tumble-dried in washing machines.

While Hamam soap and Sunsilk shampoo were the usual smells in our homes, and the clothes dried on our terrace smelt of the sun, these new smells filled our heads with a new and exotic excitement. The cousins from America had arrived.

They slept till late, they spoke with a twang. They ate chips from colourful plastic bags. They brought cans of soup and other processed food and guarded this stash fiercely. The one-month visit was discussed at length before they arrived, menus carefully planned.

But the cousins always seemed to yearn for the stuff hidden in their suitcases. Their mothers looked like ours, except for the accent on some particular words. They giggled with your mother and aunts and made jokes about the old times in the kitchen. They ate with their hands like you. And when it was time to go back to the U.S., they always cried the most. The children never did. The children were the ones we had to contend with. They introduced the word ‘space’ to us. Knock before you enter, don’t run into your own room if they are there. They might need ‘space’.

The foreign smells lingered all month.

The cousins played with you. Though your idea of playing was hanging out on the terrace shooting the breeze or reading an Amar Chitra Katha or Tinkle, theirs involved video games and fancy magazines. And they always seemed to get bored quite easily. A feeling you didn’t know back then. They dressed differently from you. The girls had colour preferences: they dressed in mauve one year, there was a denim phase another year, miniskirts the next. The clothes you wore were normally fashion choices made by your mother. Your hair was in two braids or one, this was the extent of hair styling. But the cousins had more choices with everything. They brought their music in a Walkman and what you heard from their headphones probably shaped your musical sensibility for a while.

The cousins from America filled you with pride one day and a total sense of inadequacy the next. But you were always polite. You took the bars of chocolate, the Hubba Bubba, the ziplock bag of assorted candy that had your name scrawled on it with a marker, which you rationed and ate carefully so they lasted longer.

Enter Coca-Cola

The years passed and the city changed a little like you. The cousins came back as teenagers, you were older, bolder. Your fashion sense had evolved and Indo-western was your thing. They admired your long hair and Indigo kurtas paired with jeans. The Marina beach had more than peanuts and thenga-manga-pattani-sundal to offer. Dollops ice cream and Coca-Cola had made an entry. You drove them to Mahabalipuram now that you could drive. Now we could talk about boys. They had gone further bases than you but there was much to talk about and giggle. The foreign experiences now mixed with the foreign smells.

Then a time came during college when America started calling everyone everywhere. Everyone you knew was clambering to write the SATs and TOEFLs. Learning long and tough English words and colouring in choices. Young adults waited eagerly for the postman. Some families bade goodbye to a son or a daughter, some to a boyfriend, girlfriend or a best friend. Tearful goodbyes took place at airports where we looked on as they ventured out into the unfamiliar world of those very same foreign smells of our childhood.

The best friend or boyfriend would soon become a voice on the telephone, the words arriving a little delayed, too early in the day for romance, too hurried to say anything meaningful, no time for pauses. The relationships seldom survived the distance.

A letter may sometimes arrive many weeks later with all the words that couldn’t be spoken on the telephone. The languid summers usually lulled the pain. And life went on.

Love to hate

American mappilais (sons-in-law) made an entry after college. He was everything a girl was supposed to have dreamt of. We lost a few friends to those. The migration taking with it memory. They returned after a few years carrying a lot of prejudices. They shopped at dollar stores for their Indian relatives: in their defence, there were many relatives and big expectations. The same person who shared all your joys and pains came back a little changed, a touch of envy in their voice that you have house help to clean and cook. The nostalgia that made them love the city and hate it. Perhaps they needed to love it to keep coming back and to hate it and judge it so they could be happy where they lived.

Brand is here

Now we are swamped with malls. Every foreign brand has a store here. There are sales everywhere, a word I had only heard from the cousins before, always mentioned with a light in their eyes.

Today we are covered in brands from head to toe. Our children have access to every possible chocolate and candy from every part of the world. There’s a McDonald’s in every corner and a Starbucks serving an extra-large take-away cup of coffee, the kind they carry around on Wall Street I think.

Now, it’s our children who are bored easily and who want space. They struggle to speak in their mother tongues. They remind us of our cousins from America. We, on the other hand, have come full circle from loving the foreign smells to loving familiar smells. Hamam soap and filter coffee, jasmine and fresh coriander and rain on earth. We try to get the children to love them too. Patiently.

The cousins don’t come around so often any more. Work, children, school, commitments. Facebook keeps us connected. But when they do return, their suitcases are still filled with goodies for everyone. But the foreign smells have gone.

The writer is a cinematographer, the non-bearded variety, and is called ‘Cameraman Madam’ on the sets.

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 5:57:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-smells-of-foreign/article31060426.ece

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