Smells. Sounds. Colours. The time of day. Where you were at the time. Who you were with. What you were wearing. What you were eating at the time.
The metadata of memories.
[Fine, I’ll admit that not everyone thinks of what s/he was eating at the time. My memories are laced with the tastes and smells of the food of my youth. Grant me my foibles.]
Yesterday was a classic fireworks day. Some celebrated Divali or Deepavali. Some prepared for Guy Fawkes Night early. Some just called it Bonfire night, any excuse. And many didn’t need an excuse. Fireworks were the order of the day.
It took me back years. To a time I must have been 10 or 11. October or November 1968. Standing on the pavement in front of Anil Shah’s house near Lake Road. Lighting a firework with a sparkler. It was one of those that looked like an orange or a large tomato, but dark chocolate brown in colour. You had to pierce the top with the sparkler, hold it until you saw the fizz of the fuse catching. And then you had to run.
All of which I did. But my squib was the proverbial one. Damp. Fizz. Fizz. And then nothing.
So. I did what every self-respecting brought-up-on-William-Brown kid would do, what every self-respecting parent said you shouldn’t do.
I went back to the squib. And poked around in frustration. A curse on all damp squibs.
And then whoosh. A wonderful fountain of light and heat. Four feet high.
With my hand in the way. Oops. Hurts like hell. Try not to cry, there are people watching. Look at the size of that blister. That’s going to hurt. A lot.
This was Calcutta. So there were lots of people around. And Anil and his sister Aandhi made sure I was looked after. The hand was slathered in oil. Dried. And then Burnol-ed to distraction.
That’s what actually happened. But when I recalled all this yesterday, forty-seven years later, it wasn’t quite what I remembered.
I remembered the whoosh and the Burnol.
Memory says it was an oily, creamy unguent with its own distinctive smell, mustard-yellow meets orange in colour. But memory was a long time ago, I could be wrong.
What that memory did was to unleash a whole slew of other memories, of the “medical” smells of my youth. And it made me think, that was me in Calcutta in the 1960s, what’s the equivalent today? What are the youth-medical smells of today, and how do they differ by culture and geography?
Every time I cut or grazed myself “lightly”, it was mercurochrome time. Red, astringent, peculiarly clean. I was even given it in swabs to hold in my mouth when the damage was in or around there.
If the damage was somewhat greater, if it wasn’t a simple doctor’s clinic job, then mercurochrome was replaced by something altogether more serious. Tincture of iodine. Dark angry orangey-brown stuff. It even smelt angry.
When you saw a fellow pupil with tincture-of-iodine markings on his forehead, with what looked like residue of cottonwool in strips, you knew he’d been in the wars. Iodine and stitches. Horse and carriage.
In other related news, this morning I was preparing potatoes for roasting. And that made me think of starch and of starched shirts to school. Shirts crisp enough to cut you if you weren’t careful.
Starched crisp and white. Crisp, yes. Sometimes. White, no. Never.
The white was something not quite white. It was a blue we got used to calling starch blue. I think the starch brand in Calcutta in those days was called “robin”, so the colour was “robin blue”. I’d never seen a robin then, so they could have called it anything they liked. As long as it was a white that was actually blue, and it had the smell that only freshly-laundered clothes can exude.
The smells of youth. I guess many of the smells of my youth continue to exist today, I just don’t experience them. Even with three grown children, these were not the smells of their youth.
Which leaves my with my final smell of youth.
An airconditioned room. One in which fine cigars had been smoked. One in which serious “foreign liquors” had been consumed.
One in which my father had spent time.
Today those smells are rare. Places where the air is conditioned are not places where cigars are smoked.
And they’re not places where my father has been.
For some years, I would walk into such places and remember him. Now, when I remember him, that memory calls forth all the others. The smells, the sounds, the people present, the colours and shapes, the environment.
The metadata of memory.