I have been reading an interesting book - “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind. Set in pre revolution 18th century France, it deals with the life of a man who has an amazing sense of smell! The way the author introduces the concept of smell is very innovative. As the book begins, he relates the period  to the smells that prevailed in it. “In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage….” Set against this backdrop is the birth of the main character Jean Baptiste Granouille- a baby born in a fish shop under the table used for cutting the pieces. His mother dies soon after his birth - she drops off  still holding the knife stained with fish blood in her hands and is then arrested and killed for being an unwed mother! The child is brought up on charity.. A learned theologian somewhere later in the story feels distinctly uncomfortable with the way the baby exhibits its keen sense of smell. According to him the sense of smell is something primeval – relating only to animals and not to evolved creatures like us humans!  The story then takes its twists and turns. I have not completed the book yet you see. So this post is not exactly a book review.

But what this book has succeeded in doing is getting me intrigued about  the sense of smell.. While animals have a more keenly developed sense of  smell, in humans it helps sharpen other senses. Like one of my friends said – flavours in food are enhanced by the sense of smell. We enjoy food when we like the flavour. Smells also have mood elevating effects – aroma oils are a perfect example!!  

As another friend says, they help in building survival skills. Smells also help in attraction and repulsion.. The entire chemistry of pheramones are built around this. While pheramones generally conjure up images of insects, I have read somewhere that this is also applicable to humans. Almonds are apparently very attractive to women. Therefore many cosmetics use almond extracts to attract women. How many of us have seen perfume and cologne ads where the main message is of using the product to attract the opposite sex?

I think that though our sense of smell is  less developed when compared to  animals, in humans it is probably one of the first few senses to become active. Have you ever seen how a baby even while asleep can sense its mother and start feeding? Each of us has a distinct odour but few among the human world can discern that.. I mean we can say if we smell good or bad but very few can actually tell if a particular good or bad smell belongs to a particular person!

Smells have a very powerful recall effect. Smells also build associations. Every time I smell Mysore Sandal soap I think of my maternal grandmother. I associate Gokul Sandal powder with my mother. My husband says that the smell of Cuticura powder takes him back to crowded buses in Trivandrum. He insists that if we did an analysis of the sales of this brand of talc we would find that the maximum sales are in the state of Kerala!

Smells are also something that we associate with seasons. Remember the smell of wet earth when the rain first falls? The smell of jasmines is something that I associate with summer and the smell of baking cakes with winter ( read Christmas)

There are again disagreeable smells. But what is agreeable or disagreeable is very subjective! I find the smell of garlic very repulsive ( my Tam Brahm upbringing I guess) but my Malayalee husband cannot imagine any dish cooked without “Vella ulli” . But both of us love the smell of coffee that wafts in whenever we visit Saravana Bhavan.. Actually the entire street in the part of Mylapore on which “Leo coffee” is  situated has a very agreeable smell all the time! We love the smell of little babies- they have different smells at different times of the day. They smell a distinct smell when they wake up, have another distinct smell after a bath and a different one when they sleep! If you do not believe me try it…! The book I am reading says that babies heads smell like caramel! Now that is original. But I find that babies and mothers often smell the same – atleast during the first month! Puppies also have a lovely smell. I can smell them the moment I near the  place they are..! I can also smell elephants in a temple though according to a Tamil saying it should be the sense of hearing that should inform us about the arrival of an elephant ( “Yannai varum pinn, maniosai varum munn”)

I have nicknamed my daughter “Police Kutta” ( police dog). She can smell just about anything. For instance she knows if we have ordered pizza while she has been away though we may have disposed off the boxes. She can smell it even while she walks into the house hours afterwards! She also knows if me or her aunt have visited a beauty parlour and this is not through her visual sense I can assure you that ( I would like to believe that we are both naturally beautiful so there is no visual impact of such visits..ha! ha!)

My friend says that she knows when her Dubai returned neighbour is taking a walk outside! Yes, you guessed right – he wears a very strong cologne.. Many women can guess  if their husbands have been with another woman exactly because of this ( so next time I guess  unfaithful husbands may want to have a bath before they come back home)

So, there.! So much about the sense of smell. It is very subtle but builds on enhancing the other senses. I am not sure how the perfume industry develops its fragrances ( I will know when I finish that book I guess) but while naming them it might be nicer if they call them “rain drenched earth” “ summer scents from Chennai streets etc”.. Lots preferable to “Dune” or “Poison”. Nina Ricci, Chritian Dior, Elizabeth Arden.. are you listening?


  1. Very interesting article, Meera. I think our sense of smell is also the least appreciated or understood as it can get quite subjective, right?

    Personally, I too love the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. I also love the fragrance of freshly made ghee. Yes, all my favourite smells are associated with food. I recently took a walk in Mylapore and the what I came away with was the smell of fresh flowers.

  2. Actually I associate the smell of Gokul Sandal with appa. I remember in Ahmedabad, when they were visiting. The sunday evening plan was that we would head out around 5pm and have a pizza dinner. By 4pm, the distinct smell of Gokul sandal wafted into my room. And amma says: Your father is ready to leave!!

  3. Meera,

    Trust you to come out with an interesting write up on common things. Hope she joins Detective Force as then we can expect crime to come down with prompt arrest of culprits.

    Take care

  4. I always suspected that Meera's nose went way beyond analysis of data. Not anymore - after this 'nosey' post. What fascinates me is the association that smells have with other events in life. The smell of wet earth in the beginning of a monsoon brings back memories of my fascination with dragonflies in our garden. The smell of chappatis roasting still bring back memories of getting into uniform, getting the books ready and worrying about the unfinished homework!

    Thank you Meera for reiterating the importance of the olfactory sense which we usually take for granted.

    Keep that nose busy and keep writing !!

  5. M, a very very good write up on a subject that touches our lives every second we breathe.

    I sense the book was well written, however do not miss the film. It is wonderfully done.

    An odor that makes me comfortable even now, is when I lie next to my mom in her bed. It is special.

    You got it right about the smell of babies.

    Let me again say that the subject was well written by you.

  6. An interesting and fragrant post, Meera:)

  7. @ Deepa, Appa's trademark odour is that of Amrutanjan- the man uses it like lotion!!

    @ Yes CV, smells have strong associations.

    @ Anil, I can understand your love of the smell of your mother- I used to feel like that with my grand mother

    @ Thatandthisin mumbai, welcome to my blog. Yes Mylapore also has a strong association with flowers ( actually many temple areas do)

    @ Jack, joining the detective force is an interesting option. I will mention it to her

  8. Beautifully written Meera. We associate smell with certain memory, incidences and later in life these smella just courier us back to those moments.

    Aaj kahee se tere badan kee khusboo
    Hawa mein aise aayee ghirkar
    Teri yaad ka mausam phir se
    Jaise jawaan ho gayee....

  9. "summer scent from chennai streets"? Oh my God:P Very true about cuticura...The smell of fish fried in some distant house pulls me like a magnet:P

  10. I think POSH names attract more people , having the names as smell of earth or chennai something , Will not atract people

    and also how many will buy it with that name , but the same perfume is names Chanel all will buy :)


  11. The with breathing mostly, but it catches the whiff before the taste and sight, hence it deserves all the Ode given to it.

  12. Yes Bikram, exotic names attract clients very true!

    @ Cloud nine - each one of us has our favourite scent. Frying fish reminds me of my childhood spent playing in my Bengali friends'homes

    @ Simply mee, I am glad that you agree with me.


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