Entering the Gare de Lyon station in Paris yesterday to catch a train to Florence, I was sure I was in the wrong place. This couldn’t be a railway station I thought after all where was the railway station smell? Forgive me for saying this gentle reader, but in Mumbai we know what a railway station smells like.
They may have painted the walls, swept the platforms, upgraded the railway carriages, even, god forbid, air conditioned the compartments, but whether its on the Harbour line or the Western, Bombay Central or Bandra station, the one thing we know that will never change is that fetid, acrid stench of the railway station.
Come to think of it, Mumbai is an aggregate of memorable bouquets. Asleep in the back of the car in early childhood while my parents drove us home to Juhu from south Mumbai at night, I used to identify the places we would be passing through their pungent smells alone.
I knew we would be passing Prabhadevi for instance, because at a particular junction (where the catering college now stands) stood a chemical factory that gave out the whiff of ‘gas balloons’. From Bandra creek, of course, wafted the reek of drying fish; and when we turned the ‘aeroplane park’ to enter Juhu Tara road, the marshland (on which the SNDT University and other residential townships now stand) emitted a redolence all of its own.
Other places had other smells too: in our school assembly hall, the noxious smell of sweaty socks and damp keds; in train compartments, the familiar odour of hair oil and stale jasmine, in markets like Santacruz and Dadar, the scent of wilting flowers and overripe fruit and vegetables and in housing society lifts, the reek of unwashed unabashed human sweat.
Chowpatty smelt of sea salt and bhelpuri, onions; Juhu beach of ponies and fish and Colaba of attar and other exotic Middle Eastern fragrances. What would Mumbai be without its smells? As distinct, invigorating, maddening and intoxicating as the city itself, Gare de Lyon might be one of the best stations in the world but for a Mumbaikar like me, if it didn’t have a smell of its own, well, it might as well not have existed at all!