I Wonder If Queen Elizabeth Remembers Smelling MG Road
I was two years old but I remember the exact spot on which I stood on MG Road when Elizabeth, the q of e, went past, standing in the back of a black convertible.
There's not much we remember from our second year of existence, but there was something about that day in early 1961 that remains indelible. (There’s a video of her visit at the bottom of this piece. I am the 2-year old kid on the sidewalk right outside the Empire Theatre junction - the one she turns and blows a flirtatious kiss to.)
My mother told me that I was so enamoured of the queen that I would embarrass her by calling every woman in a dress (or, "frock"), "Queen Elizabeth".
They say that smells trigger memories. In this case, my memory of Elizabeth was triggered by the smell of cheese.
Mucking about with my parents on South Parade, which has always been Bangalore’s main drag, I would smell bread and cheese. There were several restaurants and shops that sold sandwiches on MG Road and that was the prevailing smell in the air. It was a nice smell.
I used to like sandwiches made with a hard cheese manufactured by a company called Polson’s and the cheese had this distinctive smell. It was slightly aged, somewhat hardened and had a cracked crusty surface.
I mentioned this some years ago to the writer Bachi Karkaria, and she told me that she remembered that ‘Polson’s smell’ too; but for her, it brought back memories of old Bombay. And here I thought old and new Bombay both smell like rancid cheese. Or like wet dog.
I am not sure Elizabeth particularly wants these descriptions associated with her—or for any memory of her to be triggered by aging cheese—but I wonder if she took in a whiff of Polson’s as her motorcade drove by on MG Road… and if she had then asked her aide to buy her some dry cheese sandwiches and got her mouth all puckered up.
Anyway, I was walking by the cheese counter at the supermarket in the 1 MG Road mall and I inhaled a brace of what smelled like Polson’s. And inside of that tiny second, memories of Elizabeth and old Bangalore had come flooding back.
It was the sixties, the sky was grey—beautifully bleak—and it was cool and there were lovely ladies in frocks who would stroke my cheeks in a sexy way and make me nonplussed. But though they would seductively spritz themselves with Shalimar and Jolie Madame Balmain perfume, I could only smell Polson’s cheese.
And then, I wondered if the queen got all misty eyed about Bangalore when she called customer service because her XBox 360 had stopped working and got one of the Bangalore call centre fellows on the line: “Hello Elizabeth, my name is Narayana Murthy. You can call me Nigel.” She then ordered cheese sandwiches from the palace kitchens.
I wonder what smells people currently associate with Bangalore. In other words, what do we smell these days in the city?
Things are so much more synthetic these days, (than in the time when the milkman showed up at our doorstep with a cow), that I am trying to figure out what would be the new Bangalorean remembrance of things past?
Could the kitchens of Au Bon Pain or KFC inspire the same olfactory gooseflesh as the ovens of Albert Bakery or Imperial Hotel? Does the Bangalorean NRI in Silicon Valley wipe a nostalgic tear when he smells a packet of Maggi Noodles at the supermarket because he remembers going to Foodworld with his mummy?
Does the dude who grew up in the shadow of the Pottery Road abattoir remember his aunt and sisters fondly every time he smells rotting meat?
Does the Eau of Ulsoor Lake inspire wistfulness every time a Cantonment resident encounters a body of stagnant water?
I'm finding it hard to figure out if Bangalore has a distinctive smell anymore. It has always been the most mutable of Indian cities (means it changes easily and often) but the last 10 years have really altered the smellscape of the city.
New York smells of vanilla from the thousands of pushcarts that sell bagels, pretzels and nuts. Paris smells of love (I cannot reason why) and Singapore smells of cooked rice, like Delhi, which smells of Basmati. Chennai used to smell of the Cooum River, which means you cannot smell anything else because you black out after one whiff.
I stood there lost in 1 MG Road mall, not because I could not find my way around the supermarket shelves but because I have forgotten what Bangalore smells like.
But I did not care. I had smelled Polson’s cheese and it had brought back all the olfactory reference that I needed.
I asked the smart Fromager, or it is "cheese sommelier", or is it “dude at the counter” what cheese it was that I was smelling, and how much it cost.
The guy mentioned a price. I did not feel like spending so much money on a memory so I settled for some Amul gouda, by which I remembered nothing.
VIDEO: Queen Elizabeth's visit to Bangalore