On scent and sensory memory and life…

The slow, lazy spinning of a ceiling fan on a long, summer day is the oldest sensory memory my mind can generate.

The smell of milky orange in the form of soap is the oldest scent memory I can remember in my mind. Imported soap my mother used to buy from the supermarket in Lahore.

Another scent memory I can conjure up easily is vague but not entirely – an oceanic, water smell. The kind I would smell everytime I would fill up the bathtub and go underneath. My love for water was a short lived relationship which I have only recently rediscovered, being geographically closer to water.

I created this blog after moving to Paris as a sort of passion project. I have always loved to write, creative writing being my favourite subject in school. I always loved the sense of smell so I figured it was a good idea to start documenting my perfume journey in the city of lights. That was more than four years ago…

Now, in my 5th year of living in Paris as an expat/student/brown person/foreigner, I am at an important crossroad in my life as I look back in retrospect.

It would be very ignorant to not acknowledge how the entire world has changed since January 2020. A disease swept our entire planet, disrupted us and woke us up. Seperation and realisation is painful and humbling.

Despite not blogging reguarly, being caught up with demons from the past yet being hyper creative and not being able to find a balance, I never stopped collecting perfume. In fact, I went to great lengths to get a hold of these treasures accessible to me in Paris. In Lahore, on the contrary, perfume packages would either be confiscated by customs or the bottles would be broken by customs security to verify the ‘nature’ of the contents. Hence, I fully enjoyed this privilege, never taking it for granted.

As a naïve 19 year old who grew up in a very sheltered and abusive environment where money tried to make up for lack of security, love and nurture, coming to Paris was the ‘oceanic feeling’ I had been searching for years in my life.

I grew up as a kid who whole heartedly loved to pick up a pencil or a brush and draw or paint. I was also the kid who loved wearing my mother’s clothes and shoes, much to my mother’s chagrin existing in a post colonial Pakistani society where this was considered a ‘punishment from God’.

I never figured out if there was a moment in time where my focus changed from fine arts to fashion design. Somehow it did. For a long time, this passion was only practiced in places like under my bed, inside a blue plastic crayon box which carried my sister’s battered barbie doll (she had moved on from barbies and paper dolls to boys and Nokia music phones), scraps of fabrics my mom’s tailor had given me, needle and thread, old socks, ribbons, lace – basically anything I thought could be sewn up into something for my muse in a plastic body.

However, when I would crawl out from under that bed, I would throw around words like ‘architecture’ and ‘physics’ to make myself seem like a masculine ‘boy’ in a hetronormative society. Out of fear. Most from my father who would sign the cheque at the end of the day.

So from the love of painting and drawing, I went to being passionate about fashion. Just thinking of a period like the 1960s and the kind of clothes worn during it covered my entire body in goosebumps. This ‘new found’ passion had been brewing in the teapot for a long time.

But this dream didn’t exist in the 21st century. The ideas I was growing up with about fashion, in an environment where I was my own teacher, I was on the road to a destination called harsh awakening.

In 2016, I started fashion school in Paris. In 2019, I successfully finished fashion school.

I went in wearing the prettiest rose-colored glasses.
Coming out, those rose-colored glasses were on the floor, shattered and completely crushed.

Fashion school was racist, sanitised and uncompassionate.
It was not what I had seen in the Western Hollywood films growing up.

But what was one of the things which kept me happy during this entire time?

My love of perfume.

Perfume was where smells had no fixed symbols. It was subjective. It wasn’t tainted by any kind of discrimination. Perfume, in fact, made me appreciate the land where I come from. How the love of smell is so intrinsically connected with my South Asian heritage.

I remember one of the many elder women I have encountered going around the flea markets in Paris. As she inquired about where I am from, she said in a surprised manner, “I have never heard of a Pakistani collecting perfume, but then it is your people and the East where perfume comes from. The people in France really only started valuing it in the last 100 years.” Damn right!

I mentioned being at an important crossroad in my life.
I said so as I see myself having become more of the person I had wanted to be than the person I had been forced to become, now more than ever. It’s a humbling and calming realisation.

Having had to stop certain things which I had started earlier, I came to realise intentions are essential to anything I start in life. I collect and read about perfume because I am devoted to it. I make clothes and leather bags because I am passionate about it. I read and inform myself about racism because I am devoted to decolonising my brain.

However, if I started something which was never an interest, just a means to an end, I do not need to mourn it’s loss, natural or sudden.

I have been on a spiritual journey where I push myself to see me in the present moment instead of seeing myself through the person I was 10 years ago. Having someone who loves me and does the same, I couldn’t be grateful enough.

The beautiful thing about perfume is how it does both. It can take me to a memory I no longer am actively experiencing but I can revisit it. And it can bring me back to the present through a smell which I have just discovered or ‘attached‘ to a recent period.

Me after a good dose of ‘Sleeping’…

Tip: I try to ‘attach‘ scents to trips and times in my life. A certain perfume becomes the theme of that time and era. Somehow, it makes me be more appreciative and grateful…

Thank you for reading. Now go smell a perfume!

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