Smells can bring back memories. That whiff of lilac talc that reminds you of your mother, the fresh new plasticky smell of Mr.Clean crayons of childhood, the damp smell of books that take me back to the dingy library of my college… They might not be all around you, but when they flit across your nose, they activate the nostalgia slumbering in your mind.

After having spent a year in Mumbai, I am now able to relate to it as Bombay; and not as how I called it earlier in this sentence. A few trips to and fro between the capitals of Maharashtra and, well, the country, have made me realise that I can now differentiate between the city of my birth, Delhi, and the city where I presently live, Mumbai. And to be able to differentiate with the help of the faculty of my nose, has been, what I consider to be, the defining factor that has brought me closer to this city that I moved to; rather than the city of my birth.

It was in one of my last trips back from Delhi, that I experienced this moment of epiphany. Stepping out of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, and shutting the door of the black and yellow Fiat Padmini taxi for the ride to my PG made me realise, through the distinctive smell of this unassuming little Padmini, which is so ubiquitous to Mumbai but becoming extinct in other cities, that this is what drives Mumbai other than its local trains. South Mumbai, or the ‘town’ as it is called, is solely dependent upon this forgotten glory of the past, as the cheaper version of public transport – the autorickshaws, do not ply there.

Premier Padmini, the ubiquitous taxi car in Mumbai © Greg O’Beirne / WikiCommons

As my ride towards the town began from the Western Express Highway, I became aware of the first smells that made me realise I could now recognise Mumbai as the place that I now ‘know’. As my taxi inched into the thickening traffic, I sunk back into my seat, shutting my eyes to what I thought was now familiar enough for my eyes, and I had nothing new to discover. That was the moment I also realised that when you put on hold one of your bodily senses, the rest begin to function better. This was the day when my ever curious eyes decided to take rest (perhaps out of exhaustion) and give a chance to my highly underestimated nose.

One of the first smells that wafted into my excited nose was the smell of raw fish. Repulsive at first, leading to the formation of a slight crease at my eyebrows above my shut eyelids, it soon gave way to a pleasant vision of the delicacies of bombil and jheenga fry. What came next made me envision Marathi housewives cooking in their kitchens, and dabbawalas transporting their ‘tiffins’ across the roads. Mumbai surely invites you with its food smells hovering even in the thickest of traffics.

At the next long wait, somewhere near Bandra perhaps, my nose was awakened to fragrances of cheap perfumes mixed with expensive ones, along with sweat, of pedestrians jostling amongst each other. Carving their own paths, yet not intruding upon another’s is a lesson to be learned from the busy Mumbaikar – admirable for her dexterity in balancing work and home. In the city where the hand that holds an iPhone walks shoulder to shoulder with the hand that holds a begging bowl, the warm smell of humanity and human integrity is what my nose made me aware of. In the very claustrophobia that the eye repulses, the nose was able to identify the innate human bond therein.

Entering Haji Ali, the unmistakable trail of the sea could be sensed. The peculiar whiff of salt mixed in water, churns up memories of the Marine Drive, Worli Sea face, Breach Candy…all at once. Yet, I am also now able to recognise it as indigenous to Mumbai, different from the smells of the seas of other places. The coast of Mumbai does not smell pristine as that of Kerala, exotic as that of Andaman, laid-back as that of Chennai, or inviting as that of Goa. The aroma of Mumbai’s waterfront is redolent of its people, its culture and its food. The filth of the city that washes down to accumulate at its waters, the unending crowds that throng the shore like an unbreakable mass of termite-hill, the reek of ill-maintained public urinals, the pungency of the cheap local buttered pop-corn…all amalgamate at the great equaliser – the great Mumbai waterfront. Symbolic of the very accommodating and welcoming nature of its people and the city itself, the sea of Mumbai is the great enchantress that devours every pain of yours that you go up to her with, ensuring that you submerge all your worries in her waters and return with the serenity and peace of mind you had unknowingly come to seek.

As my taxi makes way back into the land away from the sea-side, I am transported to another era. my nose drinks in the sights and sounds of the Royalty of the days gone by. I can still sense the musty odours of the Elphionstone Building, the Mumbai Police Headquarters, and of course the Victoria Terminus. A walk down the Fort area (happened after some days of my arrival) had acquainted me with the Gothic smells of these old structures that make you marvel at their sheer beauty and antiquity. Their smells will take you back in time, and fill you with awe at the rich history they encompass and are living proof of. The dank odours inside the Asiatic library fills you with a sense of surrender towards the decrepit structure that it is, so that you give yourself up to its historicity, making yourself one with its past and time immemorial. At this point, I am again revisited by the aromas of delicacies – vada pav and pav bhaji – a taste gradually acquired, and now deeply cherished. My nose is intermittently tingled by the freshness wafting out of bakeries, both new and niche, and of the dated Parsi ones. It opens me up to the entire section of the Parsis, who form an imperative component of the history and formation of this city. Here again, my nose has introduced me to an essential facet of the history of the place I am living in, whose history has its own smell.

Pav Bhaji being fried and readied on a road side shop in Colaba © Harsh Agrawal / WikiCommons

I now realise I am nearing home, as my nose contrarily crinkles as well as expands to take in the posh scents of Colaba and its high-end markets. The contradiction is the result of the place itself; for what place could so well manage to encompass both a rich history as well as the most modern fashion as personified by the Taj Palace Hotel itself.

In this brief journey of mine, the city has grown to take its hold over me and bewitch me with its sights and sounds, that I now realise I can also relive through its smells. The smell of human grit, the indomitable spirit of the all-encompassing Mumbaiker, the untarnished history and the live and living culture of this city grows to take roots into you.It stays in you to become a part of you, to make you free and invite you to merge into them and become one with them. It is what makes you understand why Mumbai will always remain Bombay for those who have absorbed the smells of this land and merged their smells to identify with the common smell of home and humanity.