We all have our quirks when it comes to travelling. And I almost always am armed with a good book. Sometimes, I reach the airport two hours early just so I can window shop while waiting for the boarding call and of course, get myself a book. A perfect airport read, at least for me, should not just hold your attention but only as much as you don’t miss the final boarding call. I tend to get quite paranoid about these things, complete with a tendency to constantly check for the attendance of my boarding pass, phone, wallet… the works.
The last time I was on a flight, I had with me a bagful of books I had bought from the pavements sellers at Flora Fountain in Mumbai. I was reading Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind then that I had picked up from a rundown bookshop in Hiranandani Gardens. I certainly remembered the film that left quite an impression on me *wink wink*, but on a serious note, the essence of the theme did not trickle in till I read the book. It’s always been like this, hasn’t it?
The day I started the book, I was at a friend’s place waiting for the party to start. Alone, while others had gone shopping for booze, I surprised myself by reading the first chapter out loud. I hadn’t read a book out loud since I must’ve been in middle school, propped up on the kitchen counter next to mum. And the words just rumbled on, from line to line. It got difficult to stop. I was hooked in less than a second, hooked on to the story of a man in eighteenth-century France, who even though was extremely gifted, was quite monstrous too.
As I read, flashes of the movie came back to me, especially at the birthing scene in the beginning. The book lays bare the underbelly of Paris, the sulphurous stench of the city, the sweat of the people, ‘the smell of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease’. In a way it prepares us for the gift of the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who was born of a fishmonger at her booth, left to die among a swarm of flies, fish heads and offal.
Jean-Baptiste is a remarkable person, yet horrifying. Remarkable because he has an innate sense of smell that allows him to break down even the simplest of scents, while he can trace the faintest of them too. He understands no reason, no love, no sense of reality save the direction his nose is guided in and a person who has no scent of his own, no olfactory identity of his own. From being an orphan who is rejected since his birth, he plods on to hone his heightened sense of smell and becomes a perfumer. And his passion to create the perfect scent, the perfect perfume that embodies love, thrusts him onto a journey where he dehumanises people, strips them of their life to capture their invisible identity.
Often, stories do not dwell on the sense of smell. Yes, you could count the smell of freshly baked breads or of the meadows, but this book deconstructs almost every element of a scent. Every item has a sensory code which only Jean-Baptiste is able to dissect and file it away in his head. He saw the world through his nose, and lived by it. The book talks of not just perfumes, but of waxes, pomades, brilliantines, creams, soaps, resins, powders and so much more. Sometimes we don’t even realise the everyday odours that we are used to.
Jean-Baptiste gets attracted to young girls in the book not because of their visual beauty but their alluring scents that enraptures him, to the extent that he must kill to preserve the scent in the only way he learns from his masters. The story often turns fantastical as it recounts the events of the protagonist living underground for years, sleeping amidst the mud as he’s turned off by the impure smells of people. We may still not realise the unconscious power of a scent, till the later scenes in which Jean-Baptiste is about to be tried for his murders, but instead, he unleashes his most powerful concoction on the crowd and turns everyone into a simpering idiot, reducing them to the basest desires of carnal pleasure.
Few of us may not realize how important a scent is to tie us to others. Sometimes certain scents bring back memories, of places visited, favourite flowers, freshly pressed clothes or scented candles and shampoos, while even babies know the scent of their mothers- that assures them of safety and love. In the vast collection of old printed photographs that I have, there is one in which my brother, a toddler, is wrapped up in my mum’s saree. Hilarious at first, my mother recounted how when she would leave for school, my brother would bury himself in her clothes, to feel close to her, to feel her warmth, to be comforted by her scent. Such is the power of a scent and we’re almost oblivious to it.
And as always, I shall leave you with a quote that left me pondering for quite some time.
“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for this.”
This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.