Story of Smells

Credit: Pure Chess PS4 teaser trailerOnce upon a time there was a planet that was ruled by three gods with a monkey for a secretary. The place was vast, with plenty of rolling hills and valleys, fields and rivers, trees and plants and animals. A lot like our earth. Our earth, in fact, but ten thousand years ago.

The three gods who ruled the land worked as farmers. You’re probably thinking, gods don’t work, they just solve people’s problems (if they feel like and if you’ve made a nice food offering). But that’s nowadays. Ten thousand years ago, after the gods of old had fought and wiped out evil, the ones left on earth became farmers.

They planted vast tracts of land with good sound crop like potatoes, rice, cabbage and beans. They grew tough and hardy plants and trees which would survive the violent prehistoric storms.

These farmer-gods had no use for fruit like leechi or flowers like sweet pea which are merely tasty or smell pretty. They planted only things that when you ate, built muscular and physical strength. This is because the gods were the mighty warrior gods of old. Their names were Zeus, Osiris and Kali, and in their young days they had fought many other mighty warriors from our earth and the skies, in order to gain control over this fertile and beautiful land.

Of the three ruling gods, Zeus was Greek. He always wore white and was the god of light and skies. Osiris was the god who had conquered death and carried a scary and impressive scepter, a carved staff which has magical powers. Kali was a fearsome female goddess with a chain of human skulls around her neck and a red tongue that lolled out all the time she was awake. Actually these three gods had ruled the earth so long together that they had become quite alike in the way they looked and behaved. They were all inflexible, didn’t have a sense of fun, and were wrinkled like old people, although still powerful and not balding a bit. Only Osiris had a trace of baldness which he secretly worried about.

I mentioned a monkey in the opening line of this story. The monkey that served them like a sort of secretary, had never seen a war. He was young (about a hundred years old but that’s young as compared to a god’s age) and an intellectual. You know what that is? An ‘intellectual’ likes to read about and understand things. A bit like you.

The monkey’s name was Manny. He was taller and less hairy than any monkey you must have seen. And he wore magnifying glasses fixed into spectacle frames, because he liked to see the words on a page in giant size. If he did not, then his masters who liked to give orders, would interrupt his thoughts all the time and Manny would never be able to get his reading done.

The only thing that he liked as much as he liked reading, was farming. Manny liked to grow things, although these days he was bored with planting potatoes and rice and wheat, having done the same planting every crop cycle for about eighty five years.

One afternoon when the gods were busy at their siesta and the monkeys who worked for them were also dozing in the trees and haystacks, Manny came upon a strange word: ‘redolence’. The sentence read this way – ‘The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen.’ This whole sentence was unusual; in fact this whole book was unusual, because the only books that were available explained the art of war and how to grow food, make useful pots and weave clothes and baskets. Yes, boring. The gods approved of these topics, because things like love and flowers, fine clothes, jewellery, and painting had given rise, they felt, to greed and jealousy. These had led to the wars on Earth.

This line about a king and his beloved was in a book called ‘Love Story’, which a frog had discovered at the bottom of a disused well. He had found it and humbly submitted it to Manny, not knowing how to read himself. Half the pages of the book were green with rot, but still Manny read what he could, so much did he love reading.

There were not many words that the monkey did not understand, he was in fact making a list of words and their meanings. He thought long and hard about ‘redolence’ and its possible meanings. He decided to ask Zeus.

Zeus was the mildest of the three gods who were his masters. Despite that, Zeus was not the kind of guy you’d go to for a simple chat or even to ask the meaning of something. He lived in the sky, floating along in a permanent cloud castle. He was writing a book of memoirs, that is an account of his life so far. It was already a huge book and was going to get even more staggering by the time Zeus finished. Manny, however, could not wait to get his hands on it. He wanted to know all the juicy bits about Zeus’ life that had been kept hidden so far. He was sure that Zeus would write it all down, seeing as he told nobody about it and everybody needs to tell their secrets to somebody.

“Zeus, Mighty God of the Heavens, forgive me for interrupting, but what is the meaning of redolence?” Manny asked, his voice shaking. Zeus had an awful temper. Zeus frowned and clouds gathered above the earth. His eyebrows bristled, and the clouds immediately became black and heavy. A cold wind rose. Manny trembled so much he thought his tail would fall off.

“It means ‘smell’,” Zeus replied in Greek. “Get my other toga ironed and get me a new nib for my pen.” Manny scurried off, glad that his tail (and the planet) would live to see another day.

Zeus read a page of what he had recently written in his book. He smiled. The sun zipped out from behind the clouds and the sky turned bright blue.

Manny went back to his favorite tree, an old oak, and pondered this. “The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen”. Can a particular smell make you remember somebody? The monkey tried to remember his mother. She had gone to the regions of the netherworld about ten years earlier. Died, I mean. Much as he tried, he could not really remember her sweet hairy face. She had been the nicest lady monkey, but he could not remember her clearly. His memory was stuck like a hung computer. It made him sad and frustrated. As night fell, in his desperation he hit upon an idea.

At new moon when the sky was dark, Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, walked the face of the earth. Osiris’ soldiers stand guard at the river that you have to cross to enter the netherworld. So he’s in charge of who goes in and out. At new moon Osiris came above ground and hunted large animals if he had a mind for meat, or he caught up on the gossip of the world with Zeus and Kali, whoever was awake. Tonight neither was, so Osiris was sitting by himself in a grove of banyan trees.

“Great Osiris, O Great Osiris, psst!” Manny whispered from behind a tree. He had been spying on the lean, dark god for three hours now, and his cramped legs gave him the courage to speak.

“Who dares interrupt a God’s game?” Osiris hissed. The head of his sceptre turned into that of a huge serpent. The birds in the grove bundled up their sleeping babies and crept away to other groves. Osiris had been playing chess by himself, playing both sides in turn. He’d been playing the same game for two thousand nights now, and neither side had won, so he was understandably cranky.

“I will put iron weights on your ankles, you who disturb me and prolong my game!”

Manny plucked up every last bit of courage and stumbled forward. “Osiris sir, if I might, the black king goes there, and the white pawn here. Black side checkmates white and in the next move, finito, khattam, auf wiedersehen, game!”

“Eye of Ra! Why didn’t I think of it?” Osiris scratched his balding head. A school of spiders ran out of his hair and down his neck. “I can finally start a new game. What do you wish to ask of me, monkey?”

“The impossible sir, and yet I know only you can grant it.”

“Yes, I can indeed grant things that old Zeus and Kali cannot,” Osiris sniffed. The netherworld is a lonely place and the gods that guard it are not your friendly neighbourhood types.

“I want to see my mother,” Manny said boldly.

“She is on the other side of the dark river, so no. And don’t ask again. I have no time for idiotic requests,” Osiris said coldly.

“I want to smell her, then,” the monkey said quickly.

Osiris frowned irritably, and a tree in the grove that he sat in, wilted and slipped to the ground.

“I helped you finish the game,” Manny fearfully reminded him.

“That is true. I am not an ungrateful god, so I will summon your mother’s smell from the underworld. Just for a second. Enjoy. (aside) Monkeys. Quite crazy. Possibly dangerous. Must ask Zeus to write down the description so other gods can be more careful.”

Then he waved his skinny black arms slowly in the direction of the ground. His fingers wiggled and a fragrance wafted up into the air above the ground. Manny took a deep breath and WHAM! a picture of his loving mother slapped him between the eyes. Clear as day even on a dark moonless night. She did indeed have the best smile in the world. Besides she had been doing something interesting that Monkey had all but forgotten since she had passed over. It was the smell that made him remember.

Mother Monkey, Mira, had been cultivating something amazing before she died. Something small, black, round. Something that had a sharp smell that poked your nose like a stick, if you sniffed it too closely. It made you sneeze, it made your eyes water. It did not build muscular strength. It just made food really interesting. Pepper!

Manny thought long and hard in the days that followed. His mother had frozen and stored the seeds in the Arctic Circle. The seeds of all ‘useless’ plants had been stowed away there by Diana the moon god and Dionysus the wine god before they left Earth. Zeus and his ilk thought these plants too useless to even bother to destroy their seeds. Now Manny was determined to revive pepper. It would recall his mother’s face whenever he wanted to see it. And would make the potatoes taste decent. He could not do it without the support of atleast one god. But who?

“Lya lya lya lyah!” Manny heard a voice go. The squirrels and other small animals huddled closer to each other in their beds. It was Kali singing, very early in the morning. So early it was still dark. That was her favorite hour.

“Ma!” Manny pleaded after he had lain at her feet and groveled at her huge black toes during which time she polished her gleaming silver knives and continued to sing with her tongue out.

“I want to plant pepper. Please. It is for your greater glory.”

“My glory needs no greatifying,” Kali said, rolling her eyes at Manny’s stupidity.

“Your grammar sure needs help,” Manny said… to his own horror, aloud.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” Kali boomed. She brandished her favourite knife and furiously lolled her tongue.

“Pepper!” Manny yelled desperately as the sharp blade nudged his throat. “It will recall you to everybody who smells it, every time they use it in their cooking, each time it touches their tongue! Easy recall. You are Kali, mother of the world, and pepper is… is Kali Mirch, your own special Black Chilli. It’ll greatify your power. Betterfy you over Zeus and Osiris!”

“Hmm. Oo lya lyah,” the god was calmed by Manny’s idea. It addressed a certain need that Manny was not aware of. You see Kali is a warrior god who commands a fearsome army. Her troops had been hanging around in Africa for a thousand years now, living like nomads, and they were restless, spoiling for a fight. Pepper might be the answer, thought Kali. She too was sick of peace. The days and nights stretched endlessly before her. Peace. Ho hum humdrum. She would use pepper to bait Osiris and Zeus into a war situation.

Kali gave him her blessings and Manny began skillfully to plant pepper. Soon other monkeys were also cultivating small patches. One breezy day, Zeus in his cloud castle sniffed the air. Interesting smell, he thought. Sharp. And when he trained his thoughts to the smell, Zeus realised that treason was afoot. The food laws had been broken, and Kali was behind it.

He called an emergency meeting with Osiris that night. Manny was there to serve them food and beverages. He had made bean and potato sandwiches with a thick layer of mustard paste. They were served with hot coffee. The gods were hooked. They hadn’t had mustard and coffee in centuries and oh how these things teased their noses and played with their palates. These tastes made them recall other gods they had feasted with, laughed with, fought with, and loved.

‘Redolence’ had them so hard by the nose, they could not escape it. Still the gods could not ignore their own laws or even change them immediately, so they staged a few wars over spices and smells. A hundred years of mock fighting passed. Then, over gulps of ginger tea and mouthfuls of peppery pakodas, Zeus, Kali and Osiris drew up new food laws and a fresh peace accord. “To tastier times,” they toasted.

According to the new laws, Manny and the monkeys could plant whatever would grow on Earth. The food with the best smells you had to offer to the gods first to taste and enjoy. After that you’d be free to plant on, sniff on, feast on!

Those are the laws that Manny passed on to our generation. If you want to confirm them, go to a library and look up a big book called Manny-smriti. The story is all there, all true. Just made more interesting with a smattering of spice. Pepper, if you want to be specific, Manny’s favourite.

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The Actor

The morning before the family wedding, I was at my post monitoring our outstation guests at the hotel. I knocked on various doors to ask after their comfort.

‘Did you get hot water to bathe, this morning?’

‘Amrita mami, will you need a car to ferry you to breakfast at the house? Your knee seems pretty painful…’

An unknocked-upon door in the hotel corridor opened at some point in my vigil, and a man wearing spectacles came out. He stared at me as I passed him. He seemed to recognize me.

Much later in the day Papa asked me to check on the occupant of room number 108. Turned out he was Omprakash jijaji, a cousin sister’s husband, who’d come alone for the wedding. The hotel receptionist said he’d gone out that morning and hadn’t come back as yet.

Omprakash jijaji loafed around the ghats and temples of the holy city for two more hours before he allowed himself to be spotted at the paan shop outside our house. His ‘errant behaviour’(disappearing all morning and indeed, paying for his own food at the hotel!) was, I was told, his way of formally protesting the lack of personal attention. Traditionally the sons-in-law of north Indian households are entertained with conversation, company, compliments and most important, constant feeding! But somehow, Omprakash did not receive enough of the above from his wife’s family and so had made himself noticeably scarce.

At any rate, once found, he was brought home and ensconced in the living room with a cup of tea and plates of wedding sweets and namkeens. Then he was pressed upon to accept an envelope containing cash reimbursement of his hotel food bills.

‘Why didn’t you join the rest of the family group?’ Mummy was asking him. ‘You must behave like the other sons-in-law of the family. Be comfortable. Fit right in! Look at Krishnakant over there…’

Krishnakant is a fifty-two-year-old man from Bhubaneshwar, middle-class and shy, with a great affection for local politics although he never would stand for election himself. He is indeed one of the best fits that the family has as sons-in-law go. He came a week in advance of the wedding and helped out more than anybody. Now he sat on the neighbouring couch, dark, moustached and looking expressionlessly, almost nobly, at the wall as Omprakash jijaji turned his curious, bespectacled eyes on him.

This was the sight that met me when I entered the living room that where the two sons-in-law were seated. ‘Will someone go sit with Omprakash?’ Papa had come tiredly into the bedroom where I was sitting to make the request. Omprakash jijaji, in the living room drinking his tea, was to be chatted with lest he feel slighted and take off again.

‘Namaste jijaji!’ I announced cheerfully at Omprakash. The hair flattened across his scalp, I noticed, was oiled and henna red. I didn’t greet Krishnakant jijaji, who had faded into the furniture as usual. Now as I plonked myself on the sofa next to the needing-to-be-pampered guest, I was treated to a happy look from the fat man. He’d just pocketed the envelope he’d been pressed to.

‘I know you,’ he said with a superior smile. ‘I recognized you in the hotel corridor. Though you didn’t recognize me, I recognized you.’

I apologized. I asked after the health and doings of his family. I asked what line of work he was in presently. He said that he ran a small investment broking service in Ranchi.

Then, with nothing left to ask or tell, I opened a magazine I happened to be carrying, and showed him an article about a member of the family who was featured there. Anurag often graces the pages of film glossies. This is something the immediate family, who live and work in Mumbai, are pretty used to. We barely bother to read about our famous brother anymore. But Omprakash jijaji took up the magazine with interest and began to hold forth on each of the films this director-son of the family has made.

‘Vulgar’.

‘Quite boring’.

‘Where does he get such strange ideas from? Perhaps walking down the street he might see someone smoking and that gives him an idea…’

I nodded through his monologue, his insistence on personally interpreting each film. All the while he was leafing through the magazine he’d placed on the table in front of him. While he spoke, guests arrived and left the living room. They each joined in the conversation or started new trains of thought. But these were left chugging in the corners as Omprakash jijaji discussed every film, in chronological order, his way. Krishnakant was silent. Whether he was listening I could not tell. My mind must have gotten onto one of the other trains just about then, because all I remember is the print on the cushion cover across from me. Then suddenly a voice broke in.

‘Yes, I would think that it must be hard to get actors to act.’

Omprakash and I turned to look at Krishnakant. ‘I have acted, myself, you know…’ Krishnakant jijaji from his corner was leaning forward a little. He was self-conscious and spoke almost in an undertone.

‘How’s that?’ Omprakash asked drily. ‘You’re not from Mumbai, are you?’

But Krishnakant has acted, a fact I had quite forgotten. Five years ago, the director son, assisting Mani Ratnam on the film Yuva, met up with Krishnakant jijaji in Kolkata. The scene that was being shot needed a politician’s henchman to offer some advice to his boss. Now Krishnakant, having come on the sets that day, was affectionately cajoled into playing that role.

‘Yes that’s true!’ I said, nodding to a skeptical Omprakash. ‘He has acted.’

‘My heart was beating so hard! I was so nervous at first…’ Krishnakant said.

‘Yes,’ Omprakash jijaji put in, now a little hesitant. ‘I’d have been nervous too. If I’d had the chance…’

‘When all the lights came on, I felt so hot I started to sweat. It’s uncomfortable being under the lights.’

‘But when the director said ‘action!’ I said my line: Dada!’ his voice went rough and deep. ‘Michael ko aaj ki tareekh mein chu nahin sakte. Bawaal ho jayega!’

Somehow the bustling household had stilled to listen. Loquacious Omprakash sat as if stunned. Krishnakant’s knuckles rapped on the table and jerked outward. ‘Akhbaar ke pehle panne ki khabar hai woh!’

Krishnakant’s acting lines were no pussycat’s purr, and he said them like a lion: ‘Brother, nobody can touch Michael in this day and age. Such an action would cause a calamity! The man is front-page news!’ Words of weight, and the actor, even five years down, had not forgotten a single inflection.

In the film, Krishnakant, a dark shadow, stands by a wall opposite the chair on which the star character actor, a towel about his head, sits inhaling steam. Krishnakant leans forward very slightly, respectfully, since he is about to offer his boss some advice. Then, he speaks.

‘I am ready,’ Krishnakant said to us in the living room that day, his voice lowered now, the words slow, ‘to act again, anytime. Now I know I can act.’

‘If only I could have such a chance,’ Omprakash muttered. He fell silent.

I was quiet, too, silenced by the story that had snuck up on me. Krishnakant’s life had been ordinary, punctuated by failure rather than success. He hadn’t prospered in his career as a small-time machine parts contractor in slow-moving, underdeveloped Orissa. Over the years we had learnt to “hmm” and “haan” convincingly at the family’s explanations for his work troubles. And he had become increasingly quiet in the company of his wife’s family, even us English-educated upstarts from Mumbai.

I had forgotten in all this, that Krishnakant had indeed acted in a multi-starrer. His face and voice were imprinted on magical celluloid. A million people must have heard his deep-throated advice to let Michael go, his proclamation of the ‘bawaal’ that would arise if Michael was attacked. In darkened cinema halls across the country, for some moments the audience had given his unremarkable visage their complete attention.

The after light of his moment in the sun was held now in his hooded eyes, in the dim corner of the living room where we sat. His story, that had leaped into a brief, keen brilliance five years ago, has for him stayed as starkly lit… Somewhat like an enchanting film playing in a dark cinema hall: just one show in an entire lifetime, but a show like no other.

(First appeared in Penguin First Proof long ago)