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I notice that people don't add descriptors of smell when you ask them how their day was. Not unless there was a sewage-related accident or they went on a really bad date. This may be because memory is primarily visual. I remember my aunt, who lived in the US, visiting our home in Kerala sometime in the late 90s. So much of my memory of her visit is visual - Hershey's chocolate wrappers, color-blocked RC cars, red Houston Rockets logo, and star-spangled USA tee shirt.
I also remember how she smelled when she walked into our living room. It was a shock to my system that only knew coastal Kerala smells until then - coconut oil, talcum powder that my mom used, fried coconut oil, first rain of the monsoon, coconut oil mixed with body odor when used as a moisturizer. Occasionally, this olfactory routine was interrupted by something new yet strangely familiar - my baby sister when she was born, yet another tropical fruit I'd never had, the attar that my childhood crush wore. None of this compared to how my aunt smelled on that day. Perhaps that's why I remember. Out of the world would be a lazy yet accurate descriptor because, subjectively, that smell was out of my world. I later realized, in anticlimactic fashion, that it was just deodorant and daily moisturizer use. Thus, even objectively, the smell was out of this world in that it was an artificial scent. An olfactory escaped reality. It smelled special yet attainable if you applied for a green card just in time.
Forget going to the moon; America might be the first country in the world to conquer the olfactory kingdom and replace all natural smells with something artificial. You'd take it for granted if you grew up here but ask any immigrant - there is a strict regiment to exorcising the smell of home and replacing it with the smell of freedom.
It goes something like this. 12 hours after setting foot in the United States, I found myself in a Walmart with my uncle. The first aisle he took me to had 14 different deodorants. "Pick one," he said, gesturing as if I were to pick my weapon of choice. My South Asian eyes naturally glazed over the top aisle and fell perfectly at the bottom middle aisle - Degree Deodorant No Aluminum. I stayed in my uncle's house for two weeks. He made sure to ask me every other day if I was using deodorant. Thus, I habituated to colonizing my body odor with deodorant. This became my reality, and so I seized to pay attention to it. Then I met my now ex-girlfriend, who had just moved from Ukraine. My first thought when she got into my car was, "She smells different..like a..person.. who did not use deodorant." Flesh and bone and all that. Didn’t smell like freedom.
These days, olfactory capitalism seems to have entered its late stage. Air fresheners in Uber smell like they are made to eradicate any living being in the atmosphere. Screenwriter Paul Schrader compared taxis to "steel coffins" when describing the premise of Taxi Driver. These air fresheners seem to complete that metaphor.
I don't know when this started happening but hair products now smell like something thick you’d find at Starbucks. I for one, do not want to smell like something a girl wearing an oversized sweatshirt would order at a drive-through. I've found there are two ways to escape this condition when shopping for a hair conditioner. First is the cheapest conditioner that smells like cough syrup. This is most likely because it actually is cough syrup, or is made by the same Chinese people who make your cough syrup. Second is the most expensive conditioner. Made by someone really neurotic about scents. They might have actually become a serial killer if they had not found this outlet. Every conditioner in the middle smells like it was made by someone whose mom didn't love them enough as a child.
A year ago, I realized there was no returning to the good old smells. A woman I was about to go on a date with requested that I don't wear any scents or deodorant. The smells gave her headaches. I panicked and almost canceled the date. There was no way anyone was smelling the real me. Even I had not smelled the real me in a fat minute. I felt like I was one step away from becoming a true American, one who kneels, looks away into the distance, and says "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning1."
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