Nonsensical and sometimes not-so-nonsensical rants about what may or may not be going through my head. Try to liberalize your canvas of interpretation when reading these posts - you will go far...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A memory trigger

A few days back, a car stopped next to mine at a traffic signal. The girl who was driving did not look a day over thirteen and her lack of control over the car indicated just how inexperienced a driver she was.  Her friends who accompanied her, some eight of them stashed in that car like sardines, gave the impression of being squealing, excitable six year olds, sticking their necks out of the windows while four others peeked through from the sun roof. I won’t digress by going into the details of what I think of such girls. I’ll save that for another day. The purpose of narrating this story right now is to draw attention to the song that was blaring on full volume from their car. It was a 90’s song by Aqua, popular among the girls at the time for its lyrics ‘I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.’

And the moment the song started my attention shifted from the hyperactive girls and I was transported back in time from a grimy Karachi street in Defence to 1997; to the winding, twisting roads of Quetta and the beautiful, coral coloured valleys and Juniper forests of Ziaret. In the summer of ’97, I took a trip with extended family to the western part of Pakistan and this song is one I closely associate with that trip. I still remember the music store I purchased Aqua’s cassette from and have vivid memories of driving for long distances with this song playing on my Walkman (yes, this is pre-Discman, mp3 and IPod) and rewinding the song and re-rewinding it because it was such a hot favourite.

Its interesting how sometimes certain sounds and smells instantly remind one of an event or occasion and nostalgia overcomes with such force that one loses track of one’s bearings and surroundings. The realization that a particular sight, sound or smell can have such an overwhelming impact on human memory dawned upon me when I read Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘Muliebrity’ many years ago. The poet describes a young Indian girl collecting cow dung on the roadside in Maninagar, Ahmedabad while simultaneously evoking a sense of smell with such intense description and dexterity that each smell is a mood to explore for the reader. She talks about ‘the smell of cow-dung and road-dust and wet canna lilies, the smell of monkey breath and freshly washed clothes and the dust from crows’ wings which smells different – and again the smell of cow-dung as the girl scoops.’  Some time later, when I read Elizabeth Brewster’s ‘Where I come from’ , I realized we tend to use negative smells to illustrate a place or situation we find unfavourable. For instance, in Brewter’s poem she conjures smells of ‘smog or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring’ and the ‘smell of work, glue factories maybe, chromium-plated offices; smell of subways crowded at rush hours’ when she talks of city life. But when she talks of her hometown she describes ‘hints of jungles or mountains; acres of pine woods; blueberry patches’ - all words with positive connotations.

Of all the senses I would say that smell is the sense that is best at bringing back memories. When you smell a certain scent it feels as though you slipped back in time and that you are actually at that scene again. Freshly-cut grass. Cakes just out of the oven. Buttery popcorn. Old, yellowed paper. Laundry fresh out of the dryer. Rain mixed with wet sand. These are some of my favorite smells in the world. And most of them, not coincidentally, automatically bring to mind specific memories or feelings.

Freshly-cut grass reminds me of playing hide-and-seek in my garden when I was little. The smell of butter on popcorn reminds me of the endless nights I have spent watching movies with my brother. The smell that whiffs through while flipping old paper reminds me of the used books I would exchange at a bookstore in Boatbasin where I would go with my father when I was a child. Our sense of smell is a powerful thing — and certain smells can often act as triggers to our memories. This works with some of my travel memories, too. There are certain scents that will forever be associated with specific destinations in my mind. The smell of pine cones always reminds me of a trip to Swat with my friends; the smell of a dust storm always takes me back to the highway where we experienced an angry dust and thunderstorm while driving to Orlando; the smell that comes right before and right after it rains, that fresh, clean smell that brings the earthworms out onto the pavement on a cool summer evening never ceases to remind me of New Jersey.

When I was much younger my grandparents used to live in Nazimabad; there was a park near their house where the residents would throw their trash and the designated kachre wala would burn it. I don’t know whether words can really describe the smell of burning garbage - It’s a strangely intoxicating mixture of wood, ash, burning rubber, dirt, and chemicals.  It’s the smell I most associate with my childhood, and one that immediately transports me there on the now rare occasions when my nostrils are assaulted with that scent. And to this day when I see anyone burning garbage or smell it, the malodorous scent attacks my synapses and I am carried back to the Saturday’s I would spend at my grandparent’s place.  

Truly, sometime a whiff or sound is all it takes for one to take an unexpected trip down memory lane.

1 comment:

  1. I have been meaning to write a peice based on the same thing: of how seemingly trivial aspects can evoke deep memories within. But your post has expressed everything I wanted to say or write far more beautifully than I could have imagined. It was like a trip dpwn memory lane itself :) I too live in Karachi and think boat basin is the BEST place to buy books (and eat baloch ice cream!)...nothing beats it!!
    Plus you made me miss o level lit a lot when you mentioned 'Muliebrity'....I had always thougt it really touching and impactful
    Lol...i guess I sound like i am rambling and I suppose this is pretty random but your post really touched me :)