Mahmoud Darwish

Whose writing I adore. A niche brand of perfume called Carlos Huber makes a scent based on a boutonniere

Delhi’s fetid desire, Mumbai’s petrol fumes
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Can you smell the ‘garam masala’ and greed in Delhi? Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The best writing on scent comes from the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who writes, not about the “scent of a woman” or a man, but about cities. It is so evocative that I am compelled to quote it: “Cities are smells: Acre is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable.”
I disagree with Darwish even if I love his writing. Damascus is the scent of luscious roses, not jasmine. The best jasmine comes from Tamil Nadu in my view: there is Madurai jasmine, mogra, and Ambur mullai, each of which smell different and can be layered by stringing them together on wet hair. This is what Tamil women do on wedding days. But “cities are smells”, as Darwish says.
Delhi is the smell of garam masala, wealth and fetid desire. Bangalore is the smell of red earth and falling rain. Mumbai is the smell of speed (not the drug but the verb), sea, and petrol fumes. Pune is the smell of goda masala and tanpuras. Kolkata is the smell of fish, addas, and maverick sweat. Jaipur is the scent of wafting veils, pearls, chiffon, and kachori. Amritsar is the scent of langar, water, and service. Vadodara is the smell of banyan, baithaks, and artist’s oil paint. I will stop now. I cannot match Darwish. I don’t know Indian cities well enough. But I do know scents and given this party season, I have been thinking about them.
A man without a scent is not to be trusted. Not the scent that comes from a bottle but one that comes from the skin through pores and sweat; mingled with spices and cigar smoke; occasionally unpleasant but certainly unmistakable. A man’s scent is his signature; his calling card. Along with touch, the scent of a man is what stays with a woman: like a breeze long gone but not forgotten. Scents evoke a sigh, sometimes wistful. Sometimes, they evoke a quick inhalation of surprise and desire.
Not all men understand the potency of smell; not all men know how to play with it; make it their own. They don’t layer scents like the Arabs do; or make it sacred like the early Christians did by sprinkling blessed orange blossom water on virgin brides. Often, men reduce scent to spritzing cologne—what a waste.
Given that we are laden with tropical, fragrant flowers, Indian men don’t use the Boutonnière, or buttonhole flower, nearly enough. Imagine clasping a lilac, gardenia or a string of jasmine to your buttonhole. It will make your lady swoon. Selecting the flower is like selecting a tie: It depends on the mood or moment.
To a date, you would take a restrained orchid: beautiful to look at but without laying all its scented cards on the table. To an evening with a woman you hope to win over, you would go all out and wear a tuberose on your lapel, and hope that she will fall for its heavy, luscious charms. To an evening with your bride, you would wear a gardenia, often called “opera flower” because it goes so well with black-tie attire. Gardenias can make a bride bloom. When you go out with your wife, you wear a rose, with all its trite, romantic connotations that you—much like your wife—take for granted. To an evening with a forbidden lover, you would wear unscented lilies and hope that it will restrain your amour or desire.
The glory of a flower lies in its fragility, its ethereality; the fact that it is here today, gone tomorrow. Flowers on a buttonhole can add depth to the scent a man wears. Most male scents rely on bergamot, musk, oud or frankincense and citrus for their “notes” or layers. Adding a live flower to the mix will enhance and compound every layer.
A male friend told me about his (and perhaps others’) male fantasy. He wears a scent so potent that when he is walking on the street, a strange, but beautiful, woman comes and licks his neck. Iconic scents like Dior’s Fahrenheit, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, Obsession, Aramis, Escape, Fracas (recently recreated), and Chanel No.5 have the power to inspire such reactions.
The International Fragrance Association—an institution that maverick perfumers hate—tries to make fragrance, if not egalitarian, at least mass market, by forcing niche perfumers to test and change their scents based on allergic reactions. Like unpasteurized cheese, ultra-high heels and tight clothes, often the best scents don’t worry about the reactions on a person’s skin. They exist for themselves.
What is the scent of your woman? What is the scent of your man? Even if you cannot vocalize it, a funny thing will happen on the way to the boardroom. You will roll down your BMW car’s windows, smell something from far away and think of the woman that got away. A scent is a memory. Sometimes it reminds us of the people we love and sometimes, of the ones that got away.
Shoba Narayan wears a whole bouquet of scents: kewda, jasmine, rose, musk and citrus.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns