C Y Gopinath: Armpits or charmpits?
Why do Thais smell so pleasant at end of day, while Indians generate waves of body odour in their wake?
I'm generally a metro rail guy. Give me a choice between driving in the latest hybrid Toyota and hanging on to the handles in the metro train, and I assure you I'd choose the latter option. In Bangkok, where I live, I am served very well by the so-called skytrain of the Bangkok Mass Transit System, or BTS as it is abbreviated. These days, we are beginning to see glimpses of the future in the form of nightmare crowds and queues at the stations around close of business times. But being Thais, they stay calm, don't shove each other around, and avoid behaving like a herd of stampeding wildebeest.
So when the metro transit was introduced in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, I was a proud and happy man. The Kolkata one, I was told, was kept spotlessly clean in a city where hills of garbage line the roads. The Delhi metro, likewise, was supposed to be exceptional, bringing out the best selves of Delhi-ites. Mumbai, I rested assured, would be no less. But in my very first ride in both Delhi's and Mumbai's metros, I came to a ghastly realisation. If your trip is around evening and everyone around you in hanging on to a handle, their arms are raised. As a result, your nose will be at the level of about six armpits — and the lethal emanations therefrom. There was nothing I could do to escape or save my soul. Getting into an Indian metro around 5 pm is taking a ride in a gas chamber, stupefied by bodily odours.
Naturally, I got to wondering why the 5 pm experience in Thailand was so different from the Indian one — no body odours, no harmattans of halitosis, in fact, nothing more objectionable than a strong hit of Poison or Opium. Let me just ask the question on your mind: are we a nation of smelly people? Do Indians smell worse than others?
A Reddit sub-discussion on 'What do people from other countries smell like?' a year ago carries this rather depressing observation: "Indians smell unusually bad [combination of body odour and their spices] but you don't notice this so much when you're actually in India since all the livestock, air pollution, compost, etc. means the whole country smells bad." Ouch.
But my recent deep dives into the science of odours tell me the following —
1. Why people smell the way they do is yet poorly understood. Diet is neither the only, nor the most important, factor.
2. Babies don't smell baby-like because they drink milk. More likely, their apocrine glands — the one's in the armpits and the genitals, which can get pretty funky pretty quickly — will not develop till teenage.
3. Sweat really is mostly odourless, with just a light and interesting smell, especially sweat from the eccrine glands all over the body, which just keep the body cool.
4. But sweat from the apocrine glands contains fat and protein wastes excreted through the skin. Microbes living in these parts of the body gorge on these and release their own noxious wastes. And that is your body odour.
5. If you eat fat soluble food like garlic, I guarantee they'll show up in your sweat. In a Thailand BTS, the smell of krathiam (Thai word for garlic) is about the only giveaway that you're near a Thai — they love the stuff. Washing well and often and drying thoroughly especially where the apocrine glands are, is the best antidote to body odour, no matter which your country. So are deodorants, an exploding market in India. Sales that stood at Rs 1,130 crore in 2011 are now touching Rs 3,130 crore. Maybe Indians are becoming more odour-aware — or maybe not. Maybe they're more perfume-aware, because they're more money-aware.
Unfortunately, Indian cuisine includes exactly those few foods that tend to emerge in sweat — onions, garlic, kasuri methi, peppers, strong spices, and curries, which contain all the above in quantity. Add to this the human survival skill of tuning out persistent smells and sounds, and you'd understand why Indians might wonder what all the fuss is about, since everything smells fine to them.
But the lady in the Thai massage parlour, who daily pummels and pounds customers from India, Pakistan, and the entire Far East, tells me, when I twist her arm, that "lukkha India" (Indian customers) smell the worst. Comparing the Thai to the Indian, I'd say that the average Thai is fastidiously hygiene and odour conscious. They hate bad breath and armpit odour. I wish I could say the same for us lot — but we litter up our cities, and stink up the world wherever we go with out bodily by-products. And when we raise our arms, the world knows what we had for lunch.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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