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To India and Back: Bathrooms and Fire

April 19, 07

Gurgaon City ViewWhen thinking about every place I’ve ever been, I can immediately think of the one or two distinctive smells that help define that place in my mind. Further, these smells can (and usually do) change as the the definition of the place enlarges or contracts. For instance, the distinctive smells of my sock drawer can be different than the distinctive smells of my apartment, which can be different than the distinctive smells of Seattle, which can in turn be different than the different smells of Washington, and so on.

I, for one, am glad that I do not associate the smells of my sock drawer with the great state of Washington.

Many places have different distinctive smells to different people. Some may think of San Francisco as a melding of the smell of the ocean and fresh fish, while others may associate it with sourdough bread and that distinctive odor of Chinatown. If a smell is particularly powerful or special to a place, many people associate it with that place - like San Francisco and sourdough bread. The bread and its distinct smell are so pervasive throughout the city that if you’re one of those people that are bothered by the eau de sourdough, you’re totally screwed.

I have been told by a number of people - and experienced first hand - that the Indian culture places a great deal of importance on smell. For instance, just about every restaurant I’ve been in to has incense, flowers, potpourri, or some combination there of placed at the restaurant’s entrance and at each table. This has the effect of making the entrance to an Indian restaurant a far more enjoyable experience when compared to an American restaurant. I can’t help but feel as if the restaurant values my visit, rather than seeing me as just another source of income.

But this obsession with smell has the occasional tendency to go beyond a subtle smell of flowers or incense and get really out of hand. Sometimes, the smell is overwhelming and takes you aback. I would compare it to walking into the fragrance section at Macy’s, and multiplying all of the competing smells by ten.

I’m sure part of my sensitivity is partly due to the fact that I’m rarely surrounded by these types of smells - incense isn’t exactly commonplace in the US, and the flowers they use here can only be described as the most fragrant flowers on the face of the earth. But I’m beginning to think that, maybe, the people around here are bombarded so often by these powerful fragrances that they’re numb to them.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen much of India. My travels thus far include little more than the Delhi airport, the city of Agra, a collection touristy places around Delhi, the apartment I’m staying at in Gurgaon, a smattering of restaurants, a few shopping districts, and the office I’m working at. Claiming that I’ve seen a lot of India would be akin to spending a few days in Chicago and professing to know everything there is to know about the US.

But I have a feeling that, no matter where I go on the remainder of my trip, I’ve already found the two smells that I will forever associate with every part of India:

  1. Whatever you call that bathroom sanitizer scent.
  2. Something similar to a campfire from 20 feet away.

Why the atrocious bathroom smell?

Perhaps because they take such pains to make everywhere else smell so powerfully, Indians seem to have come to the collective decision that bathrooms should have one single, unified smell that unites them all in one vivid, overpowering funk. Every urinal has at least two urinal cakes in it and a minimum of two heaping handfuls of little white balls the are about three quarters of an inch in diameter. Additionally, no less than three of these little white balls occupy every sink.

I believe the root of the smell resides within these little balls - they are Satan in his odorous form.

The effect is one of complete and utter devastation upon one’s nostrils. It sometimes burns to breath in the bathroom, and the smell sticks with you for a good thirty minutes afterwards. And this smell isn’t exclusive to one restaurant or shop: every single bathroom I’ve been in has this same overpowering stench. I’ve removed all of the white balls from the bathroom of the apartment I’m staying in, and yet I’m still paralyzed every time I enter. There is no preparation one can take, no means by which to guard oneself against the effect of this olfactory menace.

If I leave my clothes in the bathroom while showering, they will not lose the smell (the smells half life is longer than uranium’s). If I leave the bathroom door open for even five minutes, the smell will invade the rest of the apartment for hours. This stench, this overpowering fragrance of nuclear proportions, is the bane of my Indian existence.

All of this bathroom stuff is getting old. Didn’t you say something about fire?

People here seem to burn just about everything. These fires are used in a variety of wasy: get rid of garbage, cook on the side of the road, create light for conversations, or to create a spectacle. When this smoke combines with the pollution emitting from the millions of cars, mopeds, scooters, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, and buses, the end result is a place that smells like fire - always.

For the first week I was here in India, the smell was quite troubling. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, my mind believing that the building I’m in was on fire. Gradually, I became able to ignore the smell - which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

My respiratory system also reacted quite violently at first. I routinely lost my voice by the end of the day, had a sore throat all of the time, and was constantly coughing stuff up. Slowly, my body has become more accepting the poisonous air, and the mal effects have begun to gradually subside.

The smoke, pollution, and dust are so thick that they result in the sky losing its usual blue color and being white for days on end. This is not the effect of clouds - a quick look at the weather radar shows that the sky is cloudless. Out of the 14 days I’ve been here, the sky has had a blueish tint only three days.

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