Published in TheNewsBlog February 7, 2012. http://blogs.thenews.com.pk/blogs/2012/02/07/sights-and-sounds-may-disappear-but-smell-shall-linger/
“When I miss her, I go to her closet to sense my daughter’s fragrance.” Arfa Karim‘s Mom said on her 17th birthday.
The words from the teary eyed mother gave me goose bumps.
She was certainly not talking about the perfumes that Arfa adorned, but the odour that she inherently possessed by virtue of her HLA (genetic) type. This was the smell Arfa’s mom associated her with ever since she held her in her arms soon after her birth (even though the mother may not be aware of it, consciously.)
This reminded me of a research paper I read years ago which said the first bond that a mother and child have after birth is through the sense of smell. Babies from the time of birth learn to identify their mother through a strong sense of smell. It is said that within 24 hours, a mother is able to identify her baby’s odour too. A research claims that within 50 hours, infants were able to differentiate between the smell of their mother’s nipple from that of another lactating woman. Studies have shown that when a mother’s nipple from one breast was washed off, 22 out of 30 babies chose to suckle the unwashed side, because of the familiar odour.
Little toddlers, unaware of relationships, differentiate their siblings from friends subconsciously through odours.
It is common knowledge that animals identify and claim their territory through the sense of smell. Dogs smell their masters, and cannot be deceived even by a look alike.
Each one us is endowed with a unique fragrance or scientifically an ‘odour’ type. Our smells are coded by the genes of a group of molecules called the HLA Complex. Our odour type determines the various social cues we receive in the society in the form of attractiveness, favourable or unfavourable social reactions, and even sexual arousal. Furthermore the role of pheromones, the odour producing hormones in animals and humans as a medium for sexual attraction is also well known.
In an interesting study a group of women were asked to smell men’s T-shirts and choose the odour they liked. Majority of them chose the odour type which was different from theirs, hence from a different genetic pool. Perhaps this is nature’s way to create more variation.
In another similar study, women were asked to smell men’s T-shirts and were asked to rate them according to pleasantness. The men who had infectious diseases, (most probably sexually transmitted disease’) were in more than half of the cases labelled ‘putrid’. That’s another one of nature’s ways to minimise the transmission of infections.
My kids often mention:
‘Oh this smell reminds me of Karachi’, or of Delhi or even of ‘that’ person. Though never a subject of research perhaps every place along with its unique sights and sounds, has its own distinct set of smells too. The smells could be related to its fauna or even the food habits there. My mother often remarks; ‘The soil at every place smells different while the water in every place tastes different.’
A Vietnamese friend who recently visited her native place remarked, Hanoi has its unique smell, and it’s even funny how their embassy here smelt the same. Perhaps it’s the fish sauce!
We do spend a handsome amount on buying scents. And many rich and famous spend a fortune in creating a ‘signature’ smell of their own.
Ironically the sense of smell – though a subtle and powerful sense of perception – is subconsciously the least significant in our lives. We may feel empathy for those who are deprived of a sense of sight or sound, but often either ignore or even mock those with loss of smell. Not many of us even know that some people are born with their sense of smell missing. This condition is known as Anosmia. How incomplete their lives must be. We all have experienced small periods of Anosmia or Hyposmia when our noses get blocked during the common cold. We all know how tasteless even the most delicious of foods seem, with a blocked nose. This simply reinforces the hidden fact that before actually tasting, it is the smell which judges the true taste of food.
Hence, our sense of smell and the odours of others, animate or inanimate creates a great bond and sense of belonging.
One can very well imagine how much Arfa’s Mom must be feeling the presence of Arfa in everything that is associated with her. Though Arfa’s sight and sound may have left, her smell shall linger in the place and possessions she has left behind.