An aroma of nostalgia
Grant Government Medical College, Mumbai
Dr. Tara was done for the day. The number of patients in her clinic normally kept her busy till 10 p.m. but today she was through by 7. She packed her belongings, locked her clinic and began walking towards her house. It was the end of the month of May and the heat in Mumbai was relentless. Suddenly, there was a strong wind and it began to thunder. Soon enough, the first drops of rain hit the ground, first one by one, and then as a downpour. She ran to the nearest bus stop for cover. As she waited for the rain to subside, she could feel the heat from the ground rise, as if releasing all its anguish of having borne the harsh heat of the summers. Just then, a familiar smell hit her nose. And right there, she was transported back in time.
She wasn’t forty-year-old Dr. Tara anymore, but was five- year-old Tara. That earthy smell after the first shower indicated, that school was about to begin after a two-month long vacation. The house would be filled with more textbooks and notebooks, sharpened pencils, new schoolbags, new uniforms and renewed enthusiasm of beginning the academic year. And the most important part- meeting Nisha again. They had become best friends since day one of school. The smell after the first shower was a reminder that she would be seeing her soon. Sitting on the same bench, eating their tiffintogether, occasionally visiting each other’s houses, and secretly envying each other’s dolls and that occasional catfight was an indispensable part of their bond that was unbreakable in school. From playing together to gossiping together, they grew up. Numerous pinkie-promises were made. They swore to maintain this bond for the rest of their lives.
But that was until they reached the crossroads. And then, life happened. Nisha moved to the U.S. for her studies. The broken bond moistened Dr. Tara’s eyes as she sat reminiscing their memories at the bus stop. But the final blow was their meeting two years ago. As they say, ‘out of sight, is out of mind.’ The once inseparable friends had absolutely nothing to say to each other. The meeting was sadly, but predictably, formal. And though unsaid, it was obvious to both of them, that this chapter, in their life had closed forever.
With her tears, the rain also eventually subsided and she reached home. Having reached early, she decided to go through the books of her undergraduate course. She reached out for her physiology book. From the book, she saw some notes written on loose pages, fall out. There was a question written, in her then neat and tidy handwriting that was asked by her teacher, “why does smell help us to correlate with certain memories?”
Intrigued by her previous experience, she continued reading. The answer said, “Smell has a stronger impact on our memories than most other stimuli. They can strongly trigger our memories almost as if we have been transported in time which is known as ‘odour-evoked autobiographical memories’ or Proust phenomenon. This is because smell gets routed through the olfactory bulb which is the smell analysing region of our brain. This region is closely connected to the hippocampus and amygdala that are parts of the limbic system which handles memory and emotion. However, visual, auditory and tactile information do not pass through these areas which is why they do not trigger emotions and memories as strongly as smell. These memories triggered, are usually those from the earlier stages, mostly the first decade of life. It’s not only positive associations that are brought back, but odours are known to induce trauma related flashbacks as well, and are thought to play a role in triggering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Haven’t we all experienced this? A smell that transports us back in time? The sweet aroma of a mango reminds us of the summer holidays. A perfume may remind us of a person very close to our heart. Our eyes are the windows to our body. Together with the ears, they store all that colour and music around us as a safe treasure, but it is the smell associated with it; the smell that we never bothered to consider as a part of our memories, that is the key to open this treasure.
My eyes saved the picture, my ears, the sound.
Together they saved memories so well.
But something that makes me relive those memories,
Is my unnoticed sense of smell.
Together, they make me a kid or a teenager again,
And have so many stories to tell.