Indiaries, Part Three: The Spices Of Indian Life

24/07/2015 11:09 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
PUNIT PARANJPE via Getty Images
An Indian man leads his pet monkey on a leash along the seafront in Mumbai on January 21, 2015. India is part of a global trend that is advancing towards an increasing urbanisation, with more than half of the world's population living in towns and cities. AFP PHOTO / PUNIT PARANJPE (Photo credit should read PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)


India is the kind of place you just know smells. It smells of everything at all times. After a while, between the shock of the entirely new and the getting used to it, there will be a point where you will think you can actually see smells.


Sure anyone who's ever been on in a big city or on a farm is familiar with the stench of waste. But I'm talking about the waste of a 20-million metropolis where trash trucks are rarer than doves. So it's not only faecal matter and fruit peel rotting in the humid heat but also dead animals, for instance. As soon as you turn onto the highway leading from the airport into the city, you will smell it - as if no one cleaned up after Woodstock, ever. The good news is that this will only seem overwhelming until one day you come close to the limits of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world. Now I haven't been inside because I had no valid reason to and I find tourism for the sake of witnessing other people's hardship distasteful, but I can tell you that the wall of stench stretching into the sky around it is truly indescribable in the words I know.

Traveling to remote and exotic places, one tends to leave one's usual moral yardstick at home and things normally regarded with bewilderment or disapproval are written off as "one of those things" and even gruesome realities are considered exciting... take slum tourism, for instance. Tourists really are a heartless bunch. But in the months I have spent here, naive fascination with a place wildly different from what I was used to slowly gave way to reality, I began to see the blemishes in India's pretty face, and became burdened with the dire reality of the difficulties that life in India, still today, carries with itself.


There is always something burning somewhere within olfactory distance. Smoke being smoke you would think this is something like a nice campfire - well, sort of, except for these campfires being started not to sing songs around but to burn the trash that would otherwise rot in the sun, if it hasn't already. So it's stench times smoke which is an acquired taste, truly. But they might still sing songs around it because they'll sing songs around anything, so it's got that going for it.

beach litter india


When in Bombay, it is easy to forget that one is in a city bordered by an immense body of water, the Arabian Sea. There is no beach town feel to be had here. The water is so dirty it's hard to imagine there is salt in it. When you come right up to it, and I mean standing on the sand- saying beach would romanticise it unduly- you can make out the blue, salty smell one associates to sea in general, but it is well hidden under a heavy blanket of dead fish, things burning, dead fish burning, excrement, food stalls selling pungent foods and general pollution.


In a place where everything smells, obviously food has to smell. Thick sauces full of spices, meat roasting, batter frying, that sort of thing. This might make me sound uncultured now but I had no idea whatsoever that papayas smelled so strongly before I got to India. There is a host of other fruit and vegetable types that have a very pungent, particular scent to them, and it is important to know that not everything smells like it will taste. I probably won't ever enjoy papayas, but there is a type of mango that smells like a homeless shelter in August but is actually fantastic, and then there is the almost-too-good-to-be-true jackfruit which doesn't smell very appealing, when it's the arguably most delicious thing to ever come from a tree. Wikipedia describes its taste as a combination of apple, pineapple, mango and banana. It tastes like all of those fruit together - really. It's not a very sophisticated flavour, not something that develops over time and has nuances to it, like pears or mangoes do, for instance. It's pretty much this one very recognisable and unlikely flavour that actually tastes very artificial, as if Hubba Bubba was asked to create a fruit.

"I don't (only) mean spicy like, say, chilies are, I mean spicy as in nothing is bland."

Everything - I mean everything - is spicy here. I don't (only) mean spicy like, say, chilies are, I mean spicy as in nothing is bland. Everything has heaps of spices in it. Not just the food, but car fresheners smell like Christmas meets a day at your grandma's house. Soap doesn't have that soapy clean scent but smells like potpourri, smoothies and juices have spices in them that have nothing to do with anything - I got a blackberry smoothie once and it tasted like pepper and anise. To me, there is no palatable difference between chai and coffee; they both taste like everything with milk and loads of sugar. The one notable exception from this being dosas, thin pancake-like things with the consistency of paper, made by soaking ground rice and lentils in water to form a batter. But then the dosa is basically India's answer to nachos, and you use pieces of it to scoop up a variety of spicy condiments, so there.

While they do have Coca Cola and Pepsi here, the regional coke is called Thums Up (missing the b because body part names cannot be copyrighted in India) which funnily enough is a Coca Cola product closer in design to Pepsi than Coke, basically making it obsolete - the reason for its existence being that Pepsi would benefit more than Coke from it being pulled from the market. But then, I can see the appeal of Thums Up, when had in small doses - it sort of tastes as if it was distilled from those Coke bottle gummy candies that supposedly taste like Coke but don't.

Apropos drinking, something good to know is that in India people do not like to drink from a beverage someone already drank from. How this rule of hygiene coexists with the system where 200 people rinse their balls with the same bucket of water I have no idea.

People here haven't heard of unsalted butter - butter belongs in salt so much that butter doesn't even list salt as an ingredient on the container. When I asked where the unsalted butter was at a supermarket, the general manager had to be summoned. He then explained to me that instead of buying the butter and adding salt to it at home I could just get it already mixed in. This really happened.

Western food chains caught on here, sure - but McDonald's in India is nothing like McDonald's anywhere else - this only in part due to its most essential ingredient in the west, beef, being unavailable, but also because Indians don't really understand the pleasures of bland comfort food. So they have burgers like the McEgg, basically a boiled egg in a bun beaten to death with Indian spices, or the chicken/veg magic masala burger, the same thing with chicken or some odd vegetarian substitute.

So there's the brutal butchering of your taste buds and olfactory sense. Which, paired with the crazy visuals and the constant blitzkrieg on your hearing causes for an absolutely incredible sensory overload.

If I've learned one thing about India it's that you need to accept things. And by things I mean all of the things. Accepting things as they are opens up a world of wonders, a world so colourful, spiritual, and wildly different from what you are used to that you will wonder why you ever questioned anything in the first place. If only you learn to accept the seemingly countless inefficiencies, the fact that nothing will ever pan out like you thought it would, the sight of children too poor for clothing playing with left-behind construction materials next to a Jaguar dealership, or homeless people too poor to live in a slum sharing a bowl of white rice with a famished dog, learn to accept the delicious scent of jasmine mixing with the indescribably pungent stench of a dead cat frying in the sun, India can become so much more than you could ever hope to find.

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