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The air that we breathe is axiomatic for something taken for granted. But smells are potent and important, affecting us more than we realise. Scholars such as Constance Classen, Roy Porter and Jim Drobnick illuminate the often overlooked power of smell. This column explores how Nadeem Aslam and Monica Ali, two Muslim-identified writers, pour odours into their novels.
First, let’s consider the most well-known odoriferous fiction. In his novel Perfume, German author Patrick Süskind conjures up the stinky 18th century in France. Süskind suggests that writers have been too preoccupied by sight. As such, this novel is full of “sensate impressions” relating to aromas. One of the text’s intriguing points is that aesthetics are insufficient to explain sex appeal. Often people fail to notice that smell can be one’s crowning beauty and that the chemicals involved in sexual attraction cannot be so easily ascribed to looks.
That smell is crucial to Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, about Pakistani Muslims in northern England, is established early on. As a boy, the younger son of married protagonists Shamas and Kaukub tried to attract carp to his fishing line by using flowers as bait. This youth found that only lilac would do, for “perfume was the key” to attracting the finny prey. And in a way, perfume and flowers are the key to this poetic novel, saturated as it is with heady fragrances.
Beautiful scents waft over even the most difficult subjects. For example, Shamas’s young family used to lay down geraniums so that a warning scent would be released if racist trespassers entered the house. Aslam describes the racism of 1970s Britain with a terrible beauty, wherein the enchanting and the annihilating co-exist. The geraniums unite the syrupy scent of rosehips with sharp citrus base notes, just as this lovely image of flowers is undercut by racism’s ugly realities. Aslam might be accused of ‘deodorising’ ugly prejudice through this delicate leitmotif, for the smells more commonly associated with 1970s racism are fetid or faecal: of the spit gobbed in migrants’ faces or the excrement lobbed through their letterboxes.
The migrants Aslam depicts transform their area olfactorily. One recurring image, of incense drifting above the snowy land or across centrally heated interiors, evokes the creation of hybrid new smellscapes. In many traditions and faiths, incense plays a vital role in religious and social practice. Muslims do not burn agarbattis in mosques as Hindus do at their temples. However, graves and shrines are fair game and, when saints die, rumours abound about an odour of sanctity rising from their bodies.
Despite incense’s sweet sillage, many Pakistanis living in Britain have internalised ideas about their bad odour. For instance, every time Kaukub sees her elder son’s white girlfriend, she worries about her “stale” breath or poorly brushed teeth. Aware of stereotypes around South Asians’ smell of spices, Kaukub feels paranoid about her own bodily hygiene. She ensures no coats are near her cooking, having been influenced by some white people’s hateful assumption that Asians are ‘“smelly” and “stinky.” Perhaps more than any other sense, smell acts as a sign of otherness and as justification for discriminatory or cruel treatment.
Aromas of jasmine and rose hang over Aslam’s novel. Puritanical Kaukub always wears a jasmine cologne, perhaps because, as Shelina Janmohamed reminds us, “Muslims are advised always to smell good.” And the fact that Kaukub tends a rose garden is significant, since in Sufi verse this stands for the cultivation of one’s soul in preparation for meeting God. Aslam has stated of this novel’s portrayal of Pakistani migrants translating Britain into South Asian images: “I wanted the reader to feel … frustration. I wanted England to shout … ‘Look at me!’” In my reading, England might also yell ‘Smell me!’, for the scents in this novel are of dal, marigolds, mothballs and hair oil rather than fish and chips, rising damp or stale ale.
In Ali’s Brick Lane, a campaign by the extremist group Bengal Tigers is bound up with smell diction. Protagonist Nazneen’s husband is troubled when he comes across their propaganda leaflet eulogising a devout fighter who was shot dead in Chechnya. When the Russians returned his body three months after his death, it allegedly “smell[ed] of musk.”
Brick Lane had a rapturous critical reception and was praised for its compassion and well-rounded characters. An exception is the greedy moneylender Mrs Islam, who is oflactorily othered. Her glacial mint smell stiflingly intermingles with the cough mixture and Ralgex Heat Spray she always carries. This lends her “an aura of the sickbed”, bespeaking the usurer’s assiduous self-care and hypochondria. Nazneen is overpowered by the stench of the handbag into which the woman has ordered her to put a loan repayment. Her “essence of ill health” plays into stereotypes about Islam and Muslims as having a ‘sick’ worldview.
In contrast with Mrs Islam’s medicinal fragrance comes a cool and refreshing scent of citrus fruit. Nazneen first encounters this “smell … of limes” in a daydream she has of dancing on ice, inspired by ice skating she watched on television when she arrived in Britain. Later, after Nazneen has begun working as a pieceworker and has met Karim, a dishy young middleman, she sniffs his shirt and finds it smells of limes like the ice of her daydreams. Thus Karim, who stutters over his Bengali words, holds out the cool promise of Britain and neoliberal self-realisation.
Nazneen’s fantasy of becoming an ice skater is an unsubtle celebration of the capitalist and sexual freedom that Ali believes exists for the woman migrant in Britain. At the book’s end, Nazneen’s best friend Razia takes her on a surprise first trip to the ice skating rink. Blindfolded, Nazneen relies on the odour of lime-scented polish to help her discover where they are. Stepping on to the rink, Razia voices the novel’s tritely optimistic last line: “This is England … You can do whatever you like.”
I hope to have ‘made scents’ of these two Muslim-identified British novels from the early 2000s. The sense of smell is not to be sniffed at.