There is a particular “smell”, oh alright, stink, one encounters when one disembarks from a plane in Bombay. You can not help it. It is both pungent and disgusting at the same time. In a bit, your nose adjusts to the stink and by the time you’ve collected your baggage you have another “smell” to tease the senses. The Bombay taxi driver has to spend many an hour in his cab. He often chooses to decorate it with upholstery tied to the base of his seat, loud music and various hangings inside the car not to mention the decorations outside mentioning the route “from colba to borvli” proudly painted on the rear window. What this cabbie does not pay attention to is the fact that with the number of people he ferries around in his cab during a day, it might be a service to the city to wash the upholstery at least once a month!

In the inferno that is Bombay during May and June, the only way to get any kind of ventilation is to put down the window. This leaves you open to a variety of smelly experiences and not all of them pleasant. The city boasts of pollution control mechanisms in place….but obviously the buses and trucks have yet to adhere to these guidelines. You roll down your window for breeze and you get a lovely whiff of exhaust fumes, just the right amount to coat your face in the first layer of dirt and grime for the day. And as you pass by Mahim creek, you mistakenly inhale what you hope is a bit of the sea atmosphere. Instead your nose gets reacquainted with the difference between sewage, the other brown stuff floating in the water and just a hint of the sea.

Anyone driving down P. D’Mello road would be treated to an olfactory treat at various points in the day — The early morning stink of inevitable deification along the roadside on once-beautiful old stone structures that the Archaeological Society of India forgot; The smell of diluted soap in a bucket shared by all members of the family; the roadside cutting chai, an amazing mix of spice in tea at just the right amount to help you kick start your hour! In the afternoon, it is the smell of sun-dried clothes all along the battered dividers while more clothes are being scrubbed within an inch of their lives by the women in the slums on the road. And finally in the evening it is the smell of the wood fires being started up to cook the inevitable meal of dal and rice.

The view from my window (December 2004)

A lady once took me to her home in the slums of Andheri for a meal. It was a plain meal of dal, rice and chicken curry. The room was small with 7 people living in it. The door was always open and an open drain ran immediately outside which served as convenient dustbin for the women and playmate for the semi-naked children who alternatively played with the (ahem) “water” or chased the local chickens through the drain. Hygiene in this place was obviously a luxury. And yet in the middle of it all, a wood fire burned filling the house with the smell of food. It was the best dal and rice and chicken I have ever tasted to date.

The best smell of all, is the smell reserved for the months of June to September when the rain attempts to wash the city clean of the smoke, grime and heat. The smell of the first rain is a promise; with each drop (for the time being at least), a little bit of the heat is absorbed. It is an unwritten rule in Bombay that you drop whatever you are doing for a dance in the first rains. And if you miss the first rains, you have a chance to redeem your bombaynessby going to Marine Drive during the monsoon season and getting drenched in the rain and capturing one or more inevitable waves that break over the tetra pods onto the opposite side of the road! Of course this could mean the distinct possibility of you smelling of whatever someone else threw into the sea not so long ago in another beach along Bombay’s coast.

A non-Bombay person visiting me once screwed up her nose in disgust — how can you live in this city, its filthy! To the uninitiated, this smell of Bombay can have you gasping for breath. It consists of the heat, humidity, pollution, grime and collective perspiration, hope and despair of the population of the city that is Bombay! To the rest of us this “smell” of Bombay, ALL of it, is the smell of home!

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