I recently found out that odor invoked memories are the strongest ones. As a person who goes through a few seconds of being-transported-to-a-different-time-and-place every day because of a sudden whiff, I have found this to be comforting. Since the memories triggered are from very early childhood days and are of not so special occasions, they had often left me asking questions and I had almost begun wondering if I was making things up in my head! And then I came across an article (and eventually, a dozen more) that reassured me of my sanity.
When memories get triggered by smells in a land that is thousands of miles away and where the way of life has little resemblance to the one left behind decades ago, it seems surreal. For me, those have brought back memories that remind me of my roots, of the simplicity that has been lost and also of the treasures that I have, unknowingly gathered, growing up.
When I was small, may be around five or six, our family home (or as we say in India, ‘ancestral house’), where we spent our autumn holidays (Durga Puja, to be specific) with the extended family, had two courtyards (known as ‘oothon’ in Bengali) that led to the door at the back of house. Every morning and evening, our cook would come and get the coal/wood burning stove (known as ‘unoon’) ready for the large family meals. That smell of the burning wood/coal mixed with the cooler air of early evening, ( I never could wake up early enough to smell it during morning!) was somehow very comforting for me. I loved that strange smell. Early evening was the time when the family would be out on the big balcony, sipping on the evening tea, sharing a laugh or two; the older cousins would be busy in their own world while the younger ones would have their own secret sharing going on! Oh, and making plans for the evening’s ‘pandal hopping’ would also be in full swing and that meant getting to wear new clothes! It was surely my favorite time of the day.
It has been a long time since the ‘unoon’ has made way for the gas stove, taking the concoction of the burning coal/wood and the sweet autumn breeze away with it. So, imagine my astonishment when one day a couple of years ago, in the parking lot of our grocery store in a land and time that has no place for ‘unoons’, I am made aware of memories long forgotten, by this puff of air that smelled of my childhood days in a small town in eastern India. Swept away by a sudden wave of memories, I remember being deeply conflicted that first time, since it triggered emotions I had not felt in a long time and reminded me of people who were no longer there, who were/are an intricate part of that smell and the time it represented. It reminded me of relationships that, sadly, have not stood the test of time and now lack warmth, yet are carrying on. It was also blissful as I recalled the gone-by days of running up to the terrace (‘chaad’) to look at the hills in the distance, of smelling the ‘shiuli’ flower right when we got down from the autorickshaw that we took from the train station to the house, of getting candies from our grandmother, of looking out of the autorickshaw as it turned at the bend of the road to see a bunch of smiling faces waving goodbye as we left to return to Kolkata (then Calcutta).
I remember feeling oddly happy initially, and then ecstatic to have found a slice of my childhood in this almost fanciful manner. That smell has come back many more times since then and every time it has evoked (and continues to do so) emotions that I can only assume I must have felt as a child. They have all been happy ones and have led to many trips down the memory lane. That sudden reunion with my childhood in the parking lot of our grocery store was both intense and tender. Intrigued, I keep wondering if and when will I chance upon another such whiff of air from my childhood, and be surprised with forgotten tales.