Farewell to winter ♦
If the many gradations of fog can be named, the scents of winter deserve a proper cataloguing too. Compared to the heavy summer attars of jasmine and khas – or, if you prefer, of sweat spiked with coriander and slow-baked asphalt marinated in piss – the dry, ephemeral perfumes of winter are harder to pin down. All the more so because they’re often sniffed through snot-blocked olfactory passages.
The early winter festivals and initial round of auspicious wedding dates assail the senses first, with loud bangs and puffs of gunpowder. An instantly recognisable seasonal marker is the acrid, floating aroma of firecrackers, slightly mellowed by wafts of perfume from the blooming alstonia scholaris trees – what a friend once poetically called saptaparni and cordite.
As winter progresses and the nightly mist descends, black spumes unfurl against the white, pungent petrol exhaust spewing from the backsides of incontinent cars and buses. But the diesel fumes sputtering forth from generators all summer give way to the more chemical odour of trash and plastic being burned, mixing with the leafy smoke curling up from tightly rolled beedis, which glow between the tightly cupped hands of squatting men, swaddled in beige shawls. Trailed gently by must and hay, off-white horses trot past them, sporting faded red caparisons. Our own pea soupers taste more than smell – soft and almost liquid on the tongue. The stench of the Yamuna is tamped down and masked by the flourishing carpet of greenery spreading over its banks. Gardens around the city are fragrant with the light, flirty scents of chrysanthemums and sweet peas. Expensive synthetic colognes mix with gladioli in guldastas bound for parties, where the strangely spearminty smell of dark rum swirls out of glasses, mingling with wisps of clove-spiced smoke from lit gudang garams. Not to mention the seductively boozy bouquet of brandy-soaked plum puddings.
Of course, the best winter smells are the ones that seem to filter straight down to the stomach. Hot tea, frothing up from saucepans and releasing gingery steam. Cast iron, heated by coal – the base note for a whole subgenre of charred smells: desiccated kernels of corn; salty peanuts; floury, crumbly roasted naan khatai.
Then there’s the thick, sweetish smoke rising from knobbly piles of shakarkandi, its thin skin singed; its insides soft. And the buttery, sugary, sesame-tinged aroma of chikki and gajjak and laddoos made of gur. The gooey, ghee and cashew fragrance of halwa emanating from great pans of either the earthy moong daal stuff or the juicier, more vegetal gajar. And finally, the faintly milky, pistachio-and-saffron perfume of daulat ki chaat, which is less food, more transubstantiated winter cloud.
Signalling the beginning of the end, the wood-stacked fires of Lohri blaze before the houses in my neighbourhood, and large families gather around the flames. Red-cheeked, powder-caked babies in their pom-pom caps with tasselled ear flaps cuddle in their mothers’ arms. Fattened these past few months on kababs and paneer pakoras, the young men emanate undertones of cheese and grease, with top notes of deodorant and hair gel, while the girls give off traces of fresh methi, gulab jal and hot jalebis.
The old men throw popcorn into the fire, sitting spread-legged in plastic chairs, their bald heads cosy under turbans, hats and scarves. Grandmothers with tiny, scraped-together buns huddle under woollies, their feet toasty in thick socks with toes, easy to slip between their rubber chappal thongs. The bodies of the elderly, like well-varnished antique instruments, are suffused with heavy oils of mustard and almond. But the strong infusion of camphor has finally faded from their shawls.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2014