Vadivu sniffed the air, something was not right. And whatever was not right, was attracting her irresistibly. Something rose deep within her, almost like the rush she felt at nights with her husband. But this was different. She sniffed deeply again, inhaling fully and the scent left her before she could completely explore it. Dropping the basket she was carting she stepped back a few paces and looked around. Just another normal day. And no one had time to notice a low-caste woman who carried excreta away. In a back alley of all places. Untying her saree’s loose end to fan herself in the hopes of trapping the scent within its folds she inhaled again in quick short bursts this time. And it hit her. The most blissful divine scent. Definitely masculine, full bodied, rich dark and enticing beyond rapture.
Dhanammal wished the tonga would move faster. It was hot and she dare not uncover her face lest any man set sight upon her. Her mother-in-law sat next to her and her husband Thannilaipadi Narayanaswami, in front of them. She was new to Madras and the sights and sounds awed her and scared her at the same time. Narayanaswami worked for the East India Company. It was a prestigious position and he often reminded Dhanammal of his importance by unleashing English words at home. Sometimes in passion, sometimes in fury, sometimes in boredom. Many of his words were poorly pronounced, some bizarre to the point of offense but the illiterate Dhanammal had no way of knowing his folly.
The tonga stalled. Apparently there was some commotion in the road ahead. Narayanaswami got down to investigate. As they sweated it out in the blazing midday sun, Dhanammal smelt it. Her first reaction was to turn up her nose at what she perceived as an alien stench. Then a curious secondary sniff and the slow realization that she was smelling something new, something different. She turned to see if her mother noticed anything, but Periya Meenakshiamma was asleep, her drool coating the edge of her widow’s saree, her tonsured scalp sweating freely. Slowly she raised her head out of her veil. She turned around to the source and saw an Englishman’s mansion. And amidst the noise and stench of the city, amidst the perspiration of a hundred men, the distinct flavor wafted to her. “Like Radha to Krishna” she thought. Several well dressed men and women were seated around tables. Just as the tonga lurched, she saw a dirty ragged half caste woman sniff the air vigorously. Dhanammal felt sick to her stomach and retreated in the veil again, content to sniff the diluted scent that spinned her head.
The incident was a few months ago. Deepawali had come and gone and the winter chill was upon them. “Ice falls in England. Ice katti. brrr” Narayanaswami shivered one particularly cold day, refusing his cup of buttermilk that Dhanammal had churned for him. The couple had settled down in Madras in a tiny house near kotai. Dhanammal had busied herself in domestication while Periya Meenakshiammal acted supervisor tut-tutting her disapproval more often than not. Come margazhi and Dhanammal requested her husband to take her to see the magnificent Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore. Now and then Dhanammal would recall the day she smelt ‘that’ but she never whiffed it on any of the innumerable trips she made to Mylapore. At the temple market she kept herself unnaturally aware of her surroundings and yet she never whiffed that scent. It must have been magic, or the heat she thought to herself. Yes the heat.
Narayanaswami was deferential to his bosses at work and played the role of a subservient dull clerk to boot. He befriended no one from his office preferring to rush home and immerse himself in brahminical rituals of yore. Occasionally Dhanammal would sing to him what she had learnt in her childhood. A mixed bag of bhajans, prayers and the occasional keerthanai. She would often try to impress him with a Dikshitar krithi (to whom Narayanaswami was partial as he claimed descent from the composer) but failed miserably. Life went moved on in the slow sedate way that urbanity sometimes brings.
To be continued…