AN INDIAN RAILWAY PLATFORM IS THE BEST

Indian Railway station.jpg

The Big Question: Ian Jack finds the smell of one place evokes the whole country

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

I lost my sense of smell several years ago. I suppose it must have happened gradually, the subtle ones going first—the smell of an empty bath, say, followed a couple of days later by that of the pages in a new book; and then on and on, a new piece missing every day, until the olfactory landscape, so infinitely various, became nothing more than a few stinks that a wine writer might describe as big and bold. And even those were distorted and not as I felt they should be. When we passed a field of sileage on a country road, my family would pantomime a stench by holding their noses and grimacing, but what I smelt might have been roast lamb. And vice versa, regrettably: when lamb was in the oven and people were saying "Mmmm" like the Bisto Kids as its aroma drifted into the living room, I was wondering how a barnyard had got into the kitchen.

I remember noticing that something was wrong at the pier where we take the ferry to our summer holiday at an island in the Forth Clyde. To reach the pier takes at least six hours by train or car, so we step out of our enclosures ready to be braced and refreshed. "Ah, the sea, the sea," my wife said one year, sniffing the air, and I realised that the fragrance of salt and seaweed was now just an out-of-reach memory for me, like an old tune that no amount of humming can recall. 

Worse, or at least more dramatic, was India. I hadn’t been to India for several years and then one day in December 2005 I stepped off the London plane at Bangalore and moved down corridors and halls that were completely odour-free. No disinfectant, no joss sticks, no sandalwood at the tourist stall; then, once outside and looking for a cab, no cheap Indian cigarettes, no heat-dried urine, nothing. 

I think of myself as lucky to have known smells, once. My historical favourites would include our babies, freshly bathed, an opened orange and Indian railway junctions 30-odd years ago, when I stepped down to the platform from an overnight train and drank tea from one of those little clay cups during the ten-minute stop that allowed the steam locomotives to be changed. Coal smoke, engine oil, sweet milky tea, cooking fires made from dried cowpats: if only I could smell that combination again. When a person can’t smell India he knows his nose is really in trouble.

What do you think is the best smell? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Ann Wroe on Wild roses, Edward Carr on Baking bread, Philip Pullman on Bacon, Rose Tremain on New-mown hay and Robin Robertson on Rain.

Ian Jack is a columnist on the Guardian and author of "The Country Formerly known as Great Britain" A book of his articles about India is due this year.

Photograph Steve McCurry (Magnum)