The Smell

11 min readMar 15, 2020


Minakshee clenched her purse tightly as she made her way through the crowded bus station. She pulled the aanchal of her black polka-dotted saree to cover her nose, trying to avoid the pungent stench as she crossed the line of urinals next to the ticketing counter. Her sister, Topoti, who lived in Delhi, sent this Saree in last Durga Puja. “This is the same print as the one Rekha wore in Khubsurat” she said. Minakshee could sense the exuberance in Topoti’s voice over the long-distance trunk call. Minakshee didn’t care much for the latest fashion trends; as long as she wore something presentable, she was fine, which precisely was one of the reasons her sister felt strongly responsible for salvaging her wardrobe.

The ticketing counter was jam-packed with people. Disorderly crowds thronged in front of each of the ticket windows like flies hovering over food. Wherever there was a gap, someone pushed in. It seemed like an impregnable fort that she had no ammunition to break in. This was the usual last-minute holiday rush; all the busses were crammed with passengers, everyone was trying to get home for the festival of Bihu that was just a couple of days away. Minakshee looked at her watch. It was almost 5.00 pm. She needed to get home as soon as possible. She almost gave up hope of reaching home on time for dinner.

Baidew, are you going to Jorhat?”

Minakshee turned back to find an oddly tall man standing behind her. His face seemed very familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. His clean-shaven face was marred by the marks left by chickenpox. His mouth was still red with the traces of betel nut he must have chewed sometime back.

Do you remember me? ” There was a child-like enthusiasm in his voice.

“ Nitai Saikia.” After a couple of seconds of an awkward pause, he introduced himself to save both of them from further embarrassment.

She recognized him now; his wife was one of her patients. She delivered their twins a couple of years back. He had a thick beard then. She remembered the critical condition the woman was brought in. She and her team had to struggle through the entire night to save the mother and the twins.

“Of course. How are the twins? ” She asked in genuine curiosity.

“They are all grown now. Going to second grade this year.” He smiled.“But not a day goes by that my wife lets us forget who we owe our happiness to. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t think we had a chance. Every evening when she lights the diya near the Holy basil, there is always a silent prayer for you. ”

Minakshee knew any other doctor would probably have done the same in those circumstances. Yet those words brought an enormous peace to her mind, the guilt that was slowly building up in her since that morning suddenly felt much lighter.

“Quite a crowd today! ” she said as a faded smile flipped through her lips.

“Don’t worry, there is a bus at 5.30 to Dibrugarh via Jorhat. I will arrange a ticket for you. But we must hurry though.

Minakshee remembered Nitai worked in the State Transport Services. She hesitated for a minute to take favors, but she needed to get home as soon as she could.

The west-bound soft winter sun gently kissed her face as she stepped out of the ticket counter hurriedly following Nitai. On the far side of the station, the busses were stationed one after another like a line of ants. The open area between the counters and the buses was swarmed with small vendors trying to sell all kinds of things. As she walked past the area, the aroma of fried onion pakoras with freshly made chai coming from the small Gumatee shop made her stomach grumble in hunger.

Baidew, buy some oranges, original Shillong oranges, very sweet and juicy. 100% quality guaranteed. The children will love them.” One of the vendors called out, noticing her glancing over the oranges at his stall. Her daughter, Myna loved oranges. Myna’s favorite red berries also were heaped next to the oranges. Minakshee thought for a moment to stop and buy some of those. That might work as a peace offering to the raging war that was awaiting her at home. She looked at Nitai. His quickened pace was almost transforming into a run.

“The bus seemed to have started. We need to hurry up”. He shouted. Minakshee reluctantly let go of the idea of oranges and red berries.

She was almost out of breath when she boarded the overcrowded bus. Nitai helped her find a seat by the window. As the bus started to move, she looked out through the window to see if she could find Nitai in the crowd to express her gratitude for one last time, but he was already gone. Instead, her eyes stumbled upon the men urinating against the boundary wall. The family planning advertisement Hum Do Humare Do was being generously soaked in the fountain of urine. Her face convoluted in disgust. She felt like screaming, “Use a toilet, it is just two steps away, the world is not a toilet”. But she knew there was no point. She sat back and closed her eyes, with the rhythmic movement of the bus, the exhaustion of the stressful day was finally catching up to her.

An overpowering smell of Xhewali or Night Jasmine flowers tantalized her nostrils. She noticed the man sitting next to her was no longer there, and now a woman took his place. She wore lilac Mekhala Chadar,a traditional Assamese attire with golden thread work and a pair of crescent-shaped earrings with matching necklace. Her hair was tightly tied into a tidy bun. A big red bindi in the middle of her forehead, along with deep red vermillion, enhanced the glow of her round face. Probably a newlywed, Miankshee thought as she smiled at her co-passenger. She loved the smell of Night Jasmine, it reminded her of her father’s ancestral house in Jhanji, a small village near Jorhat. She grew up in the big city of Guwahati, but she eagerly looked forward to the trips they made to the village. So many memories, for a moment, she wished if she could turn back time to back to those simpler days when her biggest worry was probably being late for school;when her parents were her heroes who knew all the answers, knew all the right decisions to make. Now all of a sudden, she was all grown up and responsible for another human being. How often she could now relate to what her mother used to say “When you have children you would know”.

The busy noise of the bus station was long reduced to small unintelligible mumbling inside the bus. Somewhere in the front row, a baby cried, she could hear the hushed tone of the father humming the tune of a familiar song in a desperate effort to calm him down. Somewhere at the back, a group of people bursted out laughing at the funny story the Marwari gentleman was sharing about his misadventures with the local language when he first came to Assam.

The bus was moving ahead in speed through the newly built national highway. The winter sun had passed the baton to darkness a long time ago. The lights from the nearby villages seemed like fireflies from her window. By the time she reached home, Myna would be asleep, she thought. Minakshee could only imagine how upset Myna must have been the whole day. Myna’s school shoes had almost worn out, and she had been asking for a pair of new shoes for quite some time now. Minakshee promised to take her shopping that day. The burden of unkept promises weighs heavily on Minakshee. Myna called all these empty promises — crocodile promises, probably in the same line with crocodile tears. With every broken promise, Minakshee felt she was growing a bit more distant from her eight-year-old. Myna was growing up so fast, much faster than Minakshee wanted. That morning she saw their telephone receiver being unplugged. She wasn’t sure if she should laugh or be angry with her daughter. For Myna the phone was the biggest enemy . Every time the phone rang, she knew her mother had to go for some emergency irrespective of what time it was. Minakshee started to think of ways to make amends to that day’s broken promise.

The family sitting in front of her was having their evening snack. She could smell the aroma of Samosa’s dipped in tamarind chutney. Her stomach again complained about the unfair treatment it had been meted out with since morning. In a hurry, she just had a cup of tea and a half of a biscuit when she got the call about a patient emergency in Blelekimukh, a small village couple of hours away from Jorhat. There were hardly any good medical facilities in those rural areas. But she was committed to going whenever she was called. It was a very delicate case, the woman was 7 months pregnant and malnourished. It was a complicated delivery. She had to decide to go for a C-section. The surgery went fine, even though the baby was premature, he was doing healthy. But when they were almost done with the stitches, suddenly, the patient went into shock. For a moment, Minakshee blanked out. A lot of things were playing in her mind. The face of the eager and excited family waiting outside to welcome the newborn, the sparkling eyes of the young boy waiting outside for his mother to return, and then all of a sudden, her uncle’s mocking voice played in her mind “What will you do becoming a doctor? Ridiculous. You won’t do any good by snatching a livelihood and opportunity away from a man”. On that cold winter day, she was profusely sweating. She took a deep breath. Everyone in the operation theatre was looking at her waiting for directions. Her mind was racing but she was steady, she needed to keep her calm. For the next three hrs, she put all her energy and effort to ensure the patient recovered. The smiles on the faces of those people waiting eagerly outside the operation theatre were priceless. She thought she would tell Myna what her broken promise was worth that day — Life of Jyotimala and her newborn son.

The bus slowed down to stop near a small bus stand by the road. Some passengers waiting there boarded the bus. Minakshee noticed that the woman sitting next to her was no longer there. Maybe she got down when she wasn’t paying attention, she thought. A heavily built man now occupied the empty seat next to her. Suddenly she became aware of a strong rancid smell of sweat dribbled socks overpowering her senses.

Over the years, Minakshee had dealt with a fair share of bad smells. She remembered the first day of Anatomy class and the smell of the small classroom cramped with 20 students staring at their first dead body. The room smelled as if it was the smell of icy cold death. Looking at the corpse lying on the stretcher, she realized for the first time in her life, she had seen a naked man. As the demonstrator very clinically explained what to expect in the class, in a room full of men, she wasn’t sure if she was nervous or blushing. The totality of death had just hit her. But when the demostrator started to peel the skin of the palm of the body to explain the nerves, muscles, she felt a sense of calm and excitement within her. She felt at home, she was where she belonged. There was no one to question her capability because of her gender. The taunts of her relatives lecturing her on womanly duties couldn’t touch her there. She was going to be a doctor the same way all the other students in her class.

It was a long time ago, Minakshee thought. A lot had changed since then. She knew it would be much better for the next generation of women who wanted to dream big. It would be different for Myna’s generation, she assured herself.

The man took off his shoes to get more comfortable. The strong, pungent smell triggered her nausea. He was buried in a newspaper, utterly unaware of the discomfort he was causing. Minakshee searched her bag for cardamoms she usually carried to help her motion sickness. She missed the sweet smell of jasmine her previous co-passenger brought in. Unable to bear it any longer, she opened the window to let some fresh air in. The man must have realized her uneasiness. After some time he stood up and went to an empty seat at the back. She took a sigh of relief.

The bus finally entered the familiar roads of her hometown. The busy noises of the bus station welcomed them as the bus slowly made its way through the curved pathway leading to the station.

“Jorhat Jorhat, we will only stop 10 mins. If you have luggage in the luggage compartment, let the handyman know. He will help you”.The conductor announced.

Minakshee got up to join the line of people near the door to get down. Someone shouted from the back, “Get down get quickly can’t take this smell anymore”. She looked back to find the man with bad-smelling socks behind her. He seemed a bit uncomfortable. She felt bad for him to be embarrassed like that.

She hurriedly walked to the rickshaw stand to catch a ride home. None of the rickshaw wallahs agreed to go. Minakshee was disappointed. It was already 8 pm. She decided to wait for some time to see if she could find any other rickshaw.

Oh, Ma. That woman smelled so bad. I don’t know what that smell was. It smelled like a hospital. I couldn’t sit next to her.” Minakshee overheard someone talking in a hushed tone.

“I know, I sat next to her for some time. I couldn’t bear it either. I changed my seat ”. A man said.

“Did you notice her saree had a big bloodstain? I felt like vomiting.” Another voice said.

Minakshee looked back to find a small group of people standing at a distance, whispering among themselves. She recognized the man and the woman who sat next to her. She froze for a moment. Suddenly she realized they were probably talking about her. She looked at her saree to notice a bloodstain near her feet. The patient was bleeding profusely, she didn’t realize the blood splashed to her saree over her scrubs. Suddenly she felt as if she was standing naked in a huge crowd. She was never so embarrassed in her life. She tried to cover the bloodstain in her Saree with her coat.

The whole way home, those words kept circling in her mind. She knew she probably smelled of Ether which used in surgical Anaesthesia.It has a very pungent smell that is very hard to get rid of. She had gotten so used to the smell that it no longer bothered her. She didn’t realize she was smelling of Ether, while all this time she thought that man’s socks were smelling bad. Maybe the person complaining about a bad smell while getting down from the bus was referring to her. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry about it.

It was almost 8.30 pm when she reached home. Myna was already asleep. The soft light from the bedside lamp shone on her forehead. There was a faint trace of a smile in her innocent peaceful face.

Minakshee tucked in the blanket that had slipped below her legs.

“Sweet dreams my darling. Sleep well.” Gently placing a kiss on her daughter’s forehead she said in a hushed tone.

“Ma, can you sit here for sometime next to me.” Myna opened her eyes as she drew a deep breath.

“I will be back in a jiffy majoni. I just came straight out of the hospital. I smell of Anaesthesia. I need to shower .”

“This is my most favorite smell in this whole world mama. Let me smell it some more .”

She took another deep breath as if she was trying to breathe in all the smell. Minakshee gave her daughter an incredulous look.

“Whenever I get this smell I know you are home. This smell gives me so much comfort makes me feel so safe.”

Mynah crawled out of her bed to tightly hug her mother. A droplet of tear moistened Minakshee’s eyes washing away all the shame and guilt.