Just about everything reminds me of something, but a fragrance has more memory power than almost anything I know.
I was walking past a house in Vasant Vihar one morning last week - just for a recent example. The doors were all open and the place was obviously being cleaned. The smell of the floor disinfectant hit me as I walked past and suddenly I was walking into the Earl H Hussey Nursing Home to visit Aunt Clara, who has been dead for over 40 years. The nursing home is also gone - torn down to make way for a low-income housing development - but the experience of going there after Sunday Mass with my family, at the age of 10, came back in a flood with just one whiff of floor cleaner.
Other scents are more mysterious, leaving you with a feeling that cannot be put into words: dread, sometimes, or longing, or, like last night, a feeling of peace and good luck and the sense that I am living a charmed life, held in on all sides by a benevolent and sweet power.
I was on my late night walk and the street lights were all off. For the first time since taking up this nocturnal habit, I felt just a twinge of unease. It's chilly now at night and if I go out too late I am the only one on the street. I was walking at speed, striding right along, and trying to look brave when suddenly I was completely enveloped in the most bewitching floral fragrance. It wasn't the wonderful Rath ki Rani (Queen of the Night), an Indian bush which is totally nondescript during the day and overpoweringly sweet smelling at night - I know that one anywhere. This was different.
Because it was so dark, I couldn't locate it. I stopped still for a moment, lost in the rich yet delicate scent and trying to put a name to what I was feeling. It was such a strange sense of well-being, an awareness, sharp and sure, of safety. I walked on a few steps and the fragrance disappeared.
The feeling, however, stayed.
The next morning, still full of the milk of human kindness, I went out to locate the tree. That's it in the picture above. And beneath it, like a carpet of sheer grace and lovingkindness, these:
The Parijat tree! How could I have forgotten? In Delhi we used to stay with a woman who had one in her garden - every morning she would get up and collect the little flowers and bring them into the house where they gave pleasure for a few hours before wilting. We liked it so much we planted one in the first house we rented in Dehradun and it grew fast and strong and gave us flowers by the second year.
Parijat means Divine Tree, and if the sense of peace and protection it gave me is anything to go by, it is well named. Out in the dark, in a world full of danger and sorrow and injustice, God still thinks to send us a message of sweetness and delight, a reminder that all is well, a taste of the heaven that awaits us. Praise Him.