Book Review | An obtrusive storyteller’s fascinating project

The Asian Age.  | Shashi Warrier

A series of Indian scents takes the reader on a journey far and wide

The Perfume Project By Divrina Dhingra. (Image: DC)

Scents are intimate, more so than sounds and sights and touches, less so than tastes. Unimaginably tiny bits of whatever you smell float their way into your nostrils, find receptors that match their molecular structure, and light up parts of your brain. Smells and emotions are rooted in the same part of the brain, the limbic system or “reptile brain”, so the relationship between them is intense. Everyone has their own unique memory banks — libraries, in this book — that are catalogued by smell — your memories of a hometown, of birthday parties, of friends, parents, partners, all differ from someone else’s memories of the very same places, events, and people. So the notion of what smells good and what doesn’t is intensely personal.

However, some smells stand out. Some are seen by most to be pleasant, like roses and rain-wet earth, while others, such as sewage and antiseptics, are not. They can combine and relate to memories — thus, you could have a relatively unpleasant smell sparking off a pleasant memory. This book comes from the author’s search for her own roots, a search for the relationship between smells and home, and thence to the fragrances of her homeland and their history.

The Introduction provides a canned and personal view of patches of the world’s history of perfumes. It mentions, as do the chapters that follow, Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, and, of course, Indians, ranging from historical figures such as the Mughals to mythical figures such as the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, all mixed into a personal narrative. Also becoming clear here is why perfumes were, and still are, prized possessions.

A series of Indian scents takes the reader on a journey far and wide. The first is rose, or rose oil, taking us to Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, famous for its attar and a centre for the manufacture of rose-oil. Comparable to the town of Grasse in France, another centre of delicate scents; it hasn’t adapted to change as well as its counterpart.

Then comes jasmine, a name that covers about two thousand related species of flowers that bear different but related fragrances. We visit, among other places, an industrial and commercial enterprise in Madurai, in Tamil Nadu, where the fragrance of these unassuming flowers is turned into something that can be bottled and transported.

Sandalwood, native to the deciduous forests of the Deccan in the south, but used all over the subcontinent, follows, taking us on to Bangalore — Bengaluru now — and the Institute of Wood Sciences and Technology, where we learn, among other things, that the sandalwood of Mysore (or Mysuru) is special by any standard.

Fourth in the progression is saffron, traditionally from Kashmir, a pinch of which can light up a whole meal. It seems to find a place here only because it’s expensive and hard to get, because it’s more spice than fragrance, living on the borderline between the two. And saffron, of course, leads to the fields of Pampore, past security barriers, sandbags, and hard-eyed soldiers.

From the north of the country we travel east, to the forests of Assam, or Ahom, where bands of men with licence to harvest it search for aloeswood, the precious source of oud. In Mumbai, in a generations-old perfumery, we learn that, to save time, the wood is distilled in camps near the forests, with women overseeing the distillation while the men come and go.

On to the last now, vetiver. It’s ubiquitous, like rose and jasmine, but, unlike those two, isn’t flower-based. Back to Uttar Pradesh, to a village called Hasayan, where a perfumery extracts and ages the essence of vetiver from its roots.

For all its travel, the book fails to answer this question — why do some smells from plant sources smell good? Diane Ackerman, in her 1999 book, A Natural History of the Senses, speculates that the animal-based scents that attracted some ancient civilisations — musk, ambergris, and the like — worked through pheromones, linked with emotions. Is there a similar basis for the scents whose history is detailed here?

Finally, the narration is laced too heavily with autobiography — the author’s privileged upbringing, her university education in the US, her successful mother, a robbery in a supermarket she was visiting, and so on. Less on herself and more on those lovely fragrances would have made this a much better read.

The Perfume Project
By Divrina Dhingra
Published by Westland
pp. 166; Rs 599

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