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?