Saturday, August 10, 2013

Smell-bound Stories

Among our senses, smell is perhaps the most under-appreciated by me. 

Unless characteristic, like cardamom and cinnamon announcing that mom’s making biriyani, I seldom pay attention to the broad spectrum of scents and stenches which brighten the canvas of my life with their subtle presence. I rarely notice the next-door hibiscuses peering over the compound wall or fruity traces of shampoo in my freshly-washed hair.

But there’s one smell that never fails to hold me in place; to make me pause and inhale deeply. To make me smile.

Open the sturdy brown shelf in the hall upstairs, and you’ll get a whiff of that smell as well. It is a musty one, rising slowly, sluggishly from the crowd of paperbacks and hardbacks. A smell so thick, so heavy, that you can almost taste it. But I doubt whether it holds the same meaning for you as it does for me. Because, in that instant when I open the bookshelf, I also fling open the doors to many other worlds… and a lot of memories.

That rich musty smell transports me back in time, to when I was only five, a girl almost collapsing under the weight of her aunt’s gift: a brightly-coloured picture dictionary.  Its glossy pages smelled fresh and clean and new, inviting me to drown in them, in the waves of large red titles and little black letters. 

Fast forward: my first steady step into the world of fiction, my first Enid Blyton book. Like a patient mother, it watches proudly as I begin to speed up, to jog, to run, run with blazing speed. Not uttering a word even as I condemned it to the farthest corner of the shelf, forgotten in old age. 

Over the years, the mustiness has accumulated a hundred sounds, a thousand different stories. 

It echoes the crackle of new paper and the quiet rustle of old, well-thumbed ones. In it, I hear my disbelieving gasps at a particularly mind-blowing plot twist. I feel the dampness of my cheeks when a beloved character dies. I sense my growing wonder as I discover tidbits of knowledge from my quiz books.

And when the musty odour embraces my nostrils, I think of my best friends. Malavika. Amritha. Emilda. I think of how our mutual love for books forged and tempered the bond between us. I remember all the Social Science classes during which we read storybooks instead of being rocked to sleep by our textbook.

The smell reminds me of the time I was incoherent with rage, for my sister had torn the first page of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The smell of my bookshelf is also the smell of rebellion and freedom   the smell of my city on the day it welcomed me with arms wide open as I went to TBS, alone, to buy a long-coveted book. 

It is the smell of love and loss, the smell of The Fault in Our Stars. It smells like the celebration of words in The Book Thief. It is mythology reborn in the pages of Percy Jackson. It brims with the fear and adrenaline pulsing in Divergent. It is the hope burning in A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is the blood and gore in A Game of Thrones; the greys of human lives painted vividly across the pages of The Casual Vacancy.

For you, the musty smell maybe just one of the myriad nameless perfumes on earth... but for me, it is a fragrance sweeter than the best of all roses.

Written for Ambi Pur India's Smelly to Smiley Contest on Indiblogger, in which participants talk about the memories they associate with different smells/fragrances in their homes. 


  1. You are true bibliophile:) Good luck on the contest!

  2. Beautifully written and being a book lover, I so love to feel and smell of a book.

    Good luck!

    1. Books do smell great, don't they? Especially the old ones!

      Thank you, Saru! Good luck to you as well :)

  3. Superb post.. :)My first book was also Enid Blyton's.. You read Game of Thrones.. Finally someone who has read it.. :) Nice blog you have here.. :)
    All the best for the contest .. :)

    1. Thank you, Arpitha :) Enid Blyton seems to be the start of almost everyone's foray into reading! GoT is only a recent acquisition, by the way.

  4. The smell of books! Described perfectly. No wonder reading an ebook or listening to an audio book will never give you the same experience as reading a book the words of which you can smell and almost taste.

    1. *nods in agreement* I have nothing against people who use ebooks, but we traditionalists do have the powerful argument of aesthetics by our side.

      Thank you for reading :)

  5. Enid Blyton, was my first fiction too... and I still search for their series. How I loved all those characters. Smell of books are one thing I miss in these ebooks and the reason why I cling to our normal smelly nostalgic hardcopy books.
    Nice post. Something I could truly relate with!

    All the best for the contest :)

    And thanks for stopping by my space :) I m also guilty o
    for not finding you during ABC. But as it says, "Better late than never"...... ;)

    1. P.S. Are you from Kerala..... ???

      Coz I am... and it just brings a smile to find a fellow keralite anywhere in this world. ... esp in blogosphere :)

    2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Yes, I am from Kerala :)

  6. Wow Zainab!
    This post reminded me of my own Harry Potter days :) In my case it was actually opposite :P, as the smallest of the three sisters, i would sneak my siblings' books and savour them :D

    Real lovely post....All the best :)

    1. Ironically, my sister became a fan after the whole page-tearing incident. She just couldn't understand why I cried for a book. That, coupled with my relentless persuasion, finally got her into reading it :D

      Thank you :)

  7. Wow! A totally unique post! Glad to have come across a fellow book lover's blog :) All the best for the contest!

    Do breeze past my entry: