The white man’s stench?
Angie Lowe: Anyway, I don’t believe a dog can smell Indians. I mean, as different from anyone else. You and me, for instance.
Hondo Lane: Well they can. As a matter of fact, Indians can smell white people.
Angie Lowe: I don’t believe it.
Hondo Lane: Well it’s true. I’m part Indian and I can smell you when I’m downwind of you.
Angie Lowe: That’s impossible.
Hondo Lane: No, it isn’t impossible, Mrs. Lowe. You baked today. I can smell fresh bread on you. Sometime today, you cooked with salt pork. Smell that on you, too. You smell all over like soap: you took a bath. And, on top of that, you smell all over like a woman. I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe, and I’m only part Indian.
– Quote from John Wayne’s Hondo (1953) – albeit regarding American Indians.
Before we left Kolkata – where Campbell, Dave (our new Irish friend who epitomises all the Irish cliches and hates onions) and I spent many a whole day lying in our AC room escaping the heat and talking nonsense, philosophy, and more nonsense – Campbell had told me that: “Indians can smell us white people and that they don’t particularly enjoy our smell.” I instantly brushed this aside and categorized it as nonsense. I mean, how could no one enjoy my delicate concoction of Nivea deodorant, body odor and Victor & Rolf ‘Antidote’.
Well, it seems that there may be more truth to this notion than I’d first given it credit for.
Campbell, myself, and our newly adopted, onion despising Irish friend departed our Kolkata crack den chic motel for the airport at noon. The sun was high and hurtling rays of 35 degree Celsius heat upon us as we melted into the pleather bench seats of the beat up Hindustan Motors Ambassador taxi. Our departure was performed against a backdrop of five plus useless hotel staff all pushing for a “tib” (translates to “tip”), some frenzied packing, and a troupe of cleaners and launders wanting to come in and sweep our room before we’d even had the opportunity to check-out. The pandemonium around me encouraged me to neglect any of my clean clothes and to put on the same tee-shirt and shorts that I’d worn the previous day. (I’m making it sound like I wear clean clothes every day in India – the reality of this is not as hygienic as one would hopefully expect from me).
I think it may be worth noting that the previous day had also been stiflingly hot and I had to triple layer my pits with deodorant throughout the day. It’s safe to say that by my own diminishing standards I was not offering any pleasant Tom Selleck-esque aromas. However Campbell had had a clothes washing nightmare the day before and the tee-shirt (ironically a Rancid band tee-shirt) he’d opted to wear smelled terrible – in fact, had it not looked like a tee-shirt you would have been right in thinking it was an old urinal cake. Perhaps in comparison I was smelling like Tom Selleck might.
Our flight touched down in Bangalore’s modern new airport just before dusk dropped the curtains on the day. The temperature was bliss compared to that of Kolkata and my sweat glands were grateful for a well deserved rest. We’d opted for the cheap airport bus into town, my first bus experience since having been in India. The narrow aisles of the Indian buses are difficult to negotiate with the amount of people they forcefully cram on. This was not helped in having a 17kg pack strapped to my back , a small day bag draped over my chest and a third shoulder bag slung over my right shoulder. The bus screamed around corners and braked suddenly giving my arms a 30 minute strain reminiscent of the arm burn felt while water skiing. The heat of the crowded bus started to rouse my sweat glands as my arms struggled to keep myself and additional weight steady on the mad bus ride. Twenty minutes into the trip I was ushered to squeeze a little further down the bus aisle. Two feet of shuffling was all the crowding would allow for. As my eyes raised from peering down at my feet they made eye contact with an old Indian woman sitting in the seat adjacent to me. Dressed elegantly in a regal red sari with a proud and heavy piece of stomach protruding out from within the sari’s bounds, she gave the snobby air that she did not belong to the demography that made up the other passengers of this bus. Her eyes grimaced at me with revolt and she took a sharp breath in through her nose making it obvious she was disgusted with my man musk.
My thoughts instantly morphed into a self-conscious and defensive barricade.”I don’t actually smell that bad, do I? Or was Campbell right? Do Indian people actually get disgusted with our scent?” I’m sure my deodorant promises 24 hour protection. And how dare she become revolted with my scent. Has she not smelled the rest of India? People piss in the streets here. Or maybe she can smell someone else or Campbell and is laying the blame on me?… Either way, this damn bus better stop soon so I can find a shower.”
After showering with a particular emphasis on arm pit cleaning I went through my standard hygiene routine that includes deodorant (both pits and twice for extra reliability) and two sprays of cologne around my upper chest/neck line. Looking into the mirror as if I was looking for visual evidence of my scent the lady from the bus popped back into my head and I refused to believe that I had repulsed her nose. Instead I’ve now re-categorised Campbell’s statement regarding Indian’s in general not enjoying the white man’s scent from nonsense to fact.
I smell good… No, I smell great.