The House of Memories

The shop smells like my fourth grade classroom.

I skip the aisle containing the usual brand of face wash, and head straight towards the strawberry colored tube promising fresh and clean skin. I don’t completely know why I’m doing this, but I do have some idea.

Being alone has somehow modified my taste.

I now prefer the familiar.

I like putting my palms to my nose after applying henna, its peculiar smell transporting me back to family gatherings, a world of busy mothers and laughing dads. Also, since when did I start liking Indian sweets? I had eaten a whole box of Rasgullas yesterday. The same huge white Rasgullas dripping in liquid sugar I used to so detest. I was always asking around if someone had chocolate instead, the faces of the aunties bobbing up and down with disapproval at every opinion I voiced.


I walk back home with the bag hanging off me, anticipate the red lines around my fingers, and change hands. I alternate between hands the whole way. The air doesn’t smell like anything particular today. I reach my door, fumble through my bag to find the keys, and open it. Setting the bag down at the entrance, I flop down on the sofa. Sigh. I want to go home.

After some time staring at the wall in front of me, I grab the new face wash and go to the sink. As I apply the sickly sweet, sticky “strawberry” substance on my cheeks, a familiar scent hits my nose and I am transported back into the small bathroom of my teenage years; applying it over the red bumps on my face, lost in a daydream, unaware of the subconscious circular motions of my palms around my cheeks. Thoughts running rampant, predicting the worst outcome in every social interaction, repeating and repenting my own actions. Unaware of the Sisyphian effort it would take to reach even halfway to where I dreamed I would be. I didn’t know then I would soon be applying some other brand, one that would smell more like medicine than soap, and that my newly proclaimed optimism—I believed then that I could choose my own character traits—would refuse to let me stop believing my skin could go back to how it used to be. How it used to be before my classmates started asking, “What happened?” As if anything really had, except a storm of hormones manifesting as painful, red blotches.

This trip down pity lane evokes a memory of Ruma Aunty, running around the house with a sari the shade of a deep greenish-peacock-blue, strands of grey hair stuck to her forehead. Her twinkling laughter echoed through the halls. It was Ruma Aunty, who ultimately suggested that I chew flavored gum while studying, so that I’d remember easily when I ate the same gum again. I told her we weren’t allowed to chew gum in school. She’d laughed and ruffled my hair, her hand smelling faintly of sandalwood.

I remember college. Studying ailments of the human body in a brightly lit hall in the library, the air conditioner set to such a low temperature that the cold actually kept me awake. I had learned during these hours how the olfactory bulb sits close to the amygdala, the house of smell adjacent to the house of memories.


Years later, when I bump into an old friend, a maroon scarf wrapped around her neck, her jet black hair glowing orange where the dying sunlight touched it, she has something to tell me. The first sentence she utters after our embrace: “You smell the same.”