Smell /
Radhika Jha.
New Delhi ; New York, USA : Viking, 1999.
290 p. : maps ; 23 cm.
More Details
New Delhi ; New York, USA : Viking, 1999.
general note
Maps on lining paper.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

    When the wind blew hard, as it did very often that spring, the smell of fresh baguette would fight its way into the Epicerie Madras to do battle with the prickly smell of pickles and masalas.

    It would enter the store confidently, making light of the heavy-breasted, sari-wrapped mannequins, Chinese prayer wheels, and Indian video cassettes that were on display in the large window sill facing the street. Before the shelves of cooked foods--banana chips fried in coconut oil, samosas, gulab jamuns, and papads--it would pause, some of its strength diminished by the pungent foreign odours.

    Another gust of cold April wind bursting through the open door would bring reinforcements, and the smell of baguette would venture farther into the store. It would pass over the vegetables undiminished, past the counter where my uncle sat reading his newspaper, past the magazine rack with its smell of ink and chemicals, and finally, turn the corner into the back room where I sat. There, hemmed in on all fronts by the heady perfume of cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, and coriander, and cut off from reinforcements by the L-shaped configuration of the room, it would make its last stand, until overwhelmed by the alien hosts.

    In those last moments of reckless courage it would invade my nostrils. I would hold my breath seeking to give it shelter till my traitorous lungs would betray me. With a whoosh of defeat, I would let my breath out and let the spices of my native land, the land I had never seen, reclaim me.

    My uncle Krishenbhai Patel owned the épicerie . He had bought it thirteen months ago from the widow of its former Sri Lankan Tamil owner, M Gunashekharan, who was stabbed to death in this very shop. Everyone in the community knew that it was the Tamil mafia who had killed him. `The man was a fool,' Aunty Latha told me, `he cheated on the protection money. Now what man would cheat on his protection, you tell me?'

    Aunty Latha was my uncle's Indian wife. Krishenbhai was my father's youngest brother, the baby of the family. He had stayed in Nairobi as long as he could, long after my grandfather died and my father inherited the store. But he had had to leave eventually. He left shortly after my father married my mother. I never found out why, but it was whispered amongst the servants that he had fallen in love with her. No one in the family ever spoke about it.

    It was to this third uncle then that I was sent when the riots began again and they came swarming over the compound walls into our home in Parklands. My father was already dead and his beloved department store had perished with him. The rest of us had been in Mombassa at the time, at my second uncle's home, where we always went for our vacations. My father had stayed behind to supervise the remodelling of the store. He was going to turn part of it into a gallery for young African artists and he wanted the work finished before the rains, well in time for the tourist season. He was confident that the riots would not last more than a day or two, like they always did. He told the workers he'd pay them double if they finished the work. And so most of them had stayed. Only, one day, when he arrived at the store, he found it deserted. He got nervous and called the house for the car. But the car, he was told, had been sent to the chemist's to fetch my grandmother's laxatives. By the time the driver, Chege, arrived at the store, it was in flames. They found the charred skeleton inside the store the next day after the fire had died down. Overnight, I learnt to hate Chege and with him, all black men. But I was isolated in my hatred. The rest of the family accepted it dumbly as fate. Even my mother, who should have known better, blamed Papa for getting killed. `He trusted them too much,' she said bitterly.

    We returned to Nairobi for the cremation. It felt silly to burn his bones a second time. When I said as much to my mother, she slapped me. It was the first time she had ever done that. `You are an unholy, ungrateful wretch.' She burst into tears. As I watched her and the stinging in my cheek subsided, a terrible curiosity filled me. What made the cremation so important when he was already dead and there was no body left to burn?

    `Maa,' I said hesitantly, `I'm sorry, don't cry.' She didn't reply. I began to pat her back gently, the way she did when the boys or I couldn't get to sleep. I felt terrible for having spoken without thinking. Finally her shoulders stopped shaking. She wiped her eyes with the corner of her white sari. I got up quietly and began to move towards the door.

    `Leela.' Her voice made me stop. `You have to guide the dead out of this world into the next. Otherwise they will haunt you.'

    `How?' I challenged her, unable to believe that my father who loved us all would harm us just because he was dead.

    `They will take away your memories,' she replied, `because you have not created a dignified final memory for them in your mind.'

    They cremated him with the full Hindu rites, with lots of ghee, flowers, rice, and a bed made of reeds. Five-year-old Sunil, the elder by ten minutes of my twin brothers, was made to light the pyre as he was now the head of the family. My mother had to hold his hand for him when he had to pour the ghee onto the wood, and repeat the words after the priest because Sunil could barely pronounce the strange syllables. Although girls were traditionally not allowed to go to the cremation grounds, she made me go with her and watch the pyre burn. I stood behind her and my brothers, watching the flames, dry-eyed. I can still remember the bitter smell of the smoke. When we returned to pick up the remains as ritual prescribed, my mother made me carry the urn with his ashes and bits of bone home.

    The second riot brought them into our home, tearing the upholstery in their search for cash. They didn't find much, so they took the TV and VCR and my father's collection of wildlife videos instead. After that, my mother decided to leave Kenya altogether. She wrote to her brother who was settled in England and he reluctantly invited her to stay. `It's a small house,' he wrote, `and we have only one spare room.' My mother became even more withdrawn than usual. At odd moments I would catch her looking at me. I could not read the expression on her face, but she made me feel uneasy.

    One day, I found her waiting for me outside the college gate. `Let's go for a drive,' she said in answer to my unspoken question. `I thought we could go to the Park. There are some things I want to discuss, and we could talk while I drive.' My heart lifted. The Nairobi National Park was only twenty minutes from the heart of the city. It had been one of my father's favourite places. He had loved taking us there when he had finished doing the accounts on a Sunday afternoon. My mother always drove while my father told us about the animals. She liked to drive. But my spirits plummeted to depths I had not known when I heard what she had to say. She had decided to take only my two little brothers with her to England. I was to go to Krishenbhai and his wife in Paris.

    `It is only till I find a job and get settled,' she said anxiously when she saw the anguish on my face.

    `Why can't I come with you?' I asked angrily. `It's so unfair. First Papa is taken away. I have to leave college and Nairobi and all my friends, and now I have to lose you and Sunil and Anil.' Bitter tears came flowing out of my eyes. `Don't you love me at all, Maa?'

    `Don't even think that, Leela,' my mother cried out, braking hard and pulling the car to the side of the road. A pair of bush bucks that had been hiding in the reeds crashed out in alarm and leaped away. `Do you think this is easy for me? Have you not seen how distraught I have been since Atul's letter arrived? But I can't stay on in Nairobi. It holds too many memories and too much fear. Besides, we will starve. The store was insured, but the insurance will cover only a fraction of the damage.' Her hands tightened on the wheel, and the little frown that I had come to know well since my father's death appeared between her eyes. `There were also debts. Business had been bad since the riots began. I can't even afford to repair the damage they did to our home. If we sell it, I will have something to start with in England.'

    `But why can't I come to England, too?' I asked, fighting to control my tears.

    My mother leaned across and gave me the corner of her sari to wipe my eyes. `Because my brother is not a wealthy man; we cannot burden him with the four of us,' she said tenderly.

    `Why does it have to be me? Why can't you send one of the boys to live with Aunt and Uncle?'

    `They are too small, and besides, your Aunty Latha wants you, Leela.'

    `But why me?'

    `She wants a girl. Aunty Latha can't have children because of her condition. She desperately wants a girl to pet and spoil. It would be selfish of me to refuse.'

    I knew at that moment that my mother had decided to give me up. `Why?' I asked dully.

    `Because Krishen is your father's baby brother. He is very much like your father too.'

    `No. I mean why can't she have her own children?'

    My mother looked embarrassed and stared down at her hands. `We don't know,' she replied at last. `There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her medically, nor with Krishenbhai.'

    I didn't quite understand what this `condition' was, but the servants giggled whenever they spoke about it. I wanted to ask my mother, but from the way she avoided my eyes I knew she would not tell me the truth.

    In the days that followed, as we made preparations to leave, this continued to bother me. Who was this person with whom I was going to live? Why was everyone so evasive when I asked them about her? As I was getting ready to leave for the airport, I tried one last time.

    `What is Aunty Latha's "condition," Maa?' She did not reply. I tried to catch her eye in the mirror, but she kept them focused on a point roughly six inches above my head.

    `Tell me, Maa, please,' I pleaded. `No one tells me anything anymore.' The hand that was combing my long hair stilled for a second, then continued.

    `You are a very, very lucky girl,' my mother said, changing the subject deftly. `You will live in the most beautiful city in the world. You will be spoilt and petted by your aunt and uncle who will love you as their own daughter. You will grow more beautiful with every passing year, and one day the world will be at your feet.'

    Her eyes met mine in the mirror and we both suddenly broke into a smile.

    The smiles felt strange on our faces, and as we watched our reflections in the mirror, they faded. We looked away guiltily and didn't speak again till it was time to say goodbye.

    But it is that image which comes to mind whenever I think of her now--my beautiful, loving, defenseless, but ultimately treacherous mother.

Excerpted from Smell by RADHIKA JHA. Copyright © 1999 by Radhika Jha. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-06-01:
Jha's first novel is the redolent tale of Leela Patel, a young Gujarati woman displaced in Paris after her father's death hastens the dispersal of her family among relatives. Though her family is from India, Leela had grown up in Nairobi. This early diasporic experience intensifies her refugee status, a standing that is heightened when she must navigate the City of Lights alone. Leela's keen sense of smell directs her arduous odyssey as she escapes alienation. Some of today's most extraordinary South Asian writers right now are women. Consider Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton, 1999) or Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, LJ 4/15/97). Smell does not have the final punch of Lahiri's or Roy's works, which won a Pulitzer and a Booker, respectively, but it does demonstrate enormous potential in its lyrical, even rapturous reverence for a less celebrated sensation. It will enchant those open to exploring Leela's sensual postcolonial psyche. Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-05-07:
Leela Patel, the young heroine of Jha's arresting first novel, endures a stifling sense of dislocation caused by a series of emotional blows. Born to a Gujarati Indian family living in Kenya, Leela first loses her father during a Nairobi riot, then suffers separation from her home, her mother and her twin brothers when she is sent to live with exploitative relatives in Paris. Soon homeless, she uses her body to find male help and protection, and a string of often brutal liaisons leaves her bruised. Leela is no conventional waif, however. In an intriguing twist, Jha makes her preternaturally sensitive to smells of all kinds food; bodies, both human and animal; the Metro. As Leela learns the language and landscape of her adopted city, and later infiltrates different social milieus, she never achieves a sense of safety. Moreover, when she feels most worthless and degraded, she imagines that her own body smells foul: "a dark, feral smell, too strong to be civilized." This metaphorical conceit is intriguing at first, but although Leela (now Lily) morphs into a restaurant consultant and a media public relations star, her continuing inability to take charge of her life becomes nearly as frustrating for the reader as it does for the forlorn young woman. Over the course of the novel, Jha presents an acutely observed picture of upwardly mobile French society and its subworld of ?migr?s, artists and demimonde. Moreover, she succeeds in producing an exotic and provocative account of people who experience the contemporary world as a mass of sensual stimuli. Agent, Laura Susjin. (June) Forecast: An enticing cover will draw readers to this book, and those interested in the work of emerging Indian writers will find it merits reading. Rights sold in the U.K., France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Sweden. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Los Angeles Times, July 2001
Boston Globe, August 2001
Chicago Tribune, August 2001
Washington Post, August 2001
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