I have a friend with no sense of smell. She was born that way, and while she is a fully functioning human being in every other sense (pun intended) she has never known the thrill of inhaling the aroma of piping hot food or fresh flowers. Of course, she has been spared some of life’s less delicate scents. Before reading this item in More Intelligent Life, I hadn’t realized that some people completely lose their sense of smell over time.
Guardian columnist Ian Jack is one such person who has lost his sense of smell, as he describes here: “I lost my sense of smell several years ago. I suppose it must have happened gradually, the subtle ones going first—the smell of an empty bath, say, followed a couple of days later by that of the pages in a new book; and then on and on, a new piece missing every day, until the olfactory landscape, so infinitely various, became nothing more than a few stinks that a wine writer might describe as big and bold.” Jack shares this personal tidbit as part of a regular series in the magazine, “The Big Question.”
He describes the first time he couldn’t smell the sea and goes on to explain how certain smells became distorted; a roasting leg of lamb got Jack “wondering how a barnyard had got into the kitchen.” He knew he would never smell again, however, after a 2005 visit to India: “No disinfectant, no joss sticks, no sandalwood at the tourist stall; then, once outside and looking for a cab, no cheap Indian cigarettes, no heat-dried urine, nothing. . . . When a person can’t smell India he knows his nose is really in trouble.”
These are some of the smells I remember most distinctively from my travels: the smell of sticky beer residue in an underground karaoke bar in Mumbai; the stench of death that hit me like a punch walking through an alleyway in Mombasa; cinnamon-sweet banana pancakes on an island in Malaysia; the torched-pine that burns through the night during the Kurama Fire Festival in Kyoto, Japan. Unlike my friend, at least Jack has memories of smells, though he describes those memories as “out-of-reach . . . like an old tune that no amount of humming can recall.”