The five senses evoking my memories
In elementary school, I learned the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. I would be lying if I said I actively sit down and think about how these senses make up my personal reality. In fact, I took these senses for granted for a long time. I wake up to the sound of my alarm clock every day, knowing that I will open my eyes to see my messy bedroom. I take note to clean it up and it inevitably gets lost under papers on my desk. I grab my phone and feel the slippery glass screen covered in my fingerprints because I never remember to clean it. My second alarm painfully sounds the ringtone I’ve learned to hate as I quickly enter my password. I reluctantly get out of bed and put a hazelnut K-Cup in the Keurig, and the aroma of brewed coffee fills the kitchen. After adding the cream, I take a sip and pursed my lips. I always end up making it too sweet.
I spend my day knowing that my reality is presented to me through these senses, even though I am not actively thinking about it. But lately my five senses are acting differently. They now serve as a reminder of times past in my life – times that I long for.
I scroll aimlessly through TikTok when I see the time. It’s 8 p.m. and I haven’t done almost any of my homework that is due in the next two days. I’m gonna get up early and start tomorrow, I tell myself. I slip my feet into my pink indoor shoes which are tucked under my bed and walk over to the closet to pick out my outfit for tomorrow. My eyes scan the jackets, sweaters, and long sleeves until I see it – the striped, short-sleeved button-down shirt I “borrowed” from my father.
I know I should see this shirt and think about my dad, but I don’t. My mind goes back to 2018, when Thatha, my grandfather, received a plain light blue button down shirt from a family member. He looked at her and let out a small sigh. While the other family members were talking, he turned to me and told me with a small smile that he had a closet full of shirts that look exactly like the one just given him. I laughed and he said he could show me the short sleeve button down shirt he wore to my parents’ wedding almost 25 years ago. According to him, he looked like the one he just received. Before I could ask her to show me, my aunt asked Thatha a question, and the conversation about the short-sleeved shirt turned into a discussion of what the plan would be for tomorrow. The moment has eluded us.
Now I look at my borrowed striped short-sleeved button-down shirt and think of him. Did he have one like the one I have too? I grab it from my closet, deciding that I’ll wear it tomorrow.
My friends and I piled into the back of a Toyota Camry and made our way to the Salvation Army just down the street. The drive is short and filled with potholes, laughter and soft music played under our loud voices. Once there, we walk impatiently. None of us are looking for a specific piece of clothing, but it’s our favorite pastime in our suburban hometown.
As soon as we walk in, the sound of banging plastic hangers fills the room. My friends and I go our separate ways and contribute to this noise when we look through the clothes. I walk over to the women’s section and feel the clothes, pushing away the ones that don’t interest me. I put on fluffy corduroy pants, a smooth satin dress, fluffy cotton shorts and a rough sequined skirt. My hands freeze for a second, then rush to find the skirt I pushed back so stupidly. Once I find it, I gently run my fingers over the fabric. The seams on the edge of the skirt are slit, indicating its age. The threads coming out of the stitches are so soft they slip off my fingers. Pink glitter is rough and rough to the touch. The heavy cotton of the skirt is exposed in the areas where the sequins have fallen.
It doesn’t make sense, but I expect to pull out a lehenga. There is no reason for a jeweled lehenga to be sold at a thrift store in my predominantly white hometown, but my fingers assume while my brain catches up with me. I briefly think about how my aunt laughed at me for being too picky when we were shopping for lehengas for my brother’s Munji, a religious thread ceremony. I wonder next time I get the chance to wear a lehenga. I would have been at my cousin’s wedding if it hadn’t been for school and COVID-19, I tell myself. I chase the idea out of my head, trying to convince myself that a itchy sequin shirt shouldn’t make me miss the itchy lehengas and the way my aunt laughed at me because of my peculiar taste. I spend the rest of my time wandering the thrift store waiting for my friends to finish, unable to forget the skirt and my family that I haven’t seen in years.
I get out of my car in the Meijer parking lot on Ann Arbor-Saline Road. My fingers go numb in the freezing weather as I pull my phone out of my jacket pocket. 11:30 p.m., it reads. I only have a few things to pick up, but I quickly walk inside knowing they might close a little before midnight.
I walk over to the bales of browned spinach. All the coupons were selected earlier today. This is the price to pay for shopping at night on weekdays. As I dig through the bales of spinach, I hear a man laughing behind me. His laughter is so loud that it echoes in the almost empty grocery store. The tone is low and full, but it seems slightly forced – as if someone has told him to laugh on command. I drop the spinach and turn my head in the direction of the sound. A middle-aged white man in jeans and a jacket walks towards the cash register. He tells another man about his day and they both smile through their masks. I slowly turn my head and grab the spinach I dropped.
I try not to be disappointed with the person who laughed. I just expected the man behind the laughter to be my dad. There’s no reason my dad should be in my college town grocery store at night, I tell myself. Still, I thought I would turn around to see my dad in his work clothes on a work call. I thought the laughter I had heard was his “work laugh,” the type of energetic laugh that filled my childhood home in the early mornings during the summers. Her real laugh is silent, but her work laugh explodes. I wonder if he has a call home, if he has worked too hard.
The elevator opens to the fourth floor of Bursley Residence Hall. My shoes click as I walk down the empty hallway. I dive deep into my backpack in search of my accommodation card. Once I find it, I swipe my card and open the door. As soon as it opens, the scent of jaji (jasmine) floods the hallway. I stay in the hallway stunned. The smell is subtle but familiar. It’s sweet and floral, but not overwhelming. Once I finally get into the dorm, I expect to see flowers; but instead my roommate tells me she bought a new candle – it smells exactly like jaji.
The smell brings me back to Gandhi Bazaar. Amma holds my hand as we walk through the crowded streets of Bangalore, her hometown. She walks with determination to a grandstand at the corner of an intersection. I follow her, trying not to get lost in the sea of people. She slows down and looks at me, smiling in anticipation of my excitement. We are in front of a booth filled with flower petals woven on thread. The flowers hang from the top of the stand and rest on the table. Women seated on the floor carefully weave the flower petals on the thread. The aroma of jaji is so strong that it momentarily attenuates the smell of pollution from cars. Amma lets me choose jaji for her and me. She slides it carefully through my hair, which still smells of jaji a few days after I pulled it out.
But for now, I put my backpack near my desk strewn with notebooks and pens. I sleep and dream of the next time I can go to India and put jaji in my hair.
After finishing our meal at an Indian restaurant in my hometown of Rochester Hills, my parents and I place an order for Madras coffee. I drink my water to try and get rid of the lingering spicy flavor in my mouth when the three cups of coffee arrive at our table. In the United States, Indian food and coffee generally tastes different from what we consume in India. I can never put my finger on what it is, but something is wrong. Still, I hold the small metal cup that’s warm to the touch and take a sip. My tongue burns in the process.
The hot coffee comes down slowly and leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. The milk froth on top of the coffee tastes creamy but is not overwhelming. It’s sweet but not sweet. From my first sip, I don’t just taste the coffee, I also get a taste of familiarity. For the first time ever, coffee in America tastes exactly the same as the coffee my family would brew for me when I visit India. I take another sip and think back to when my siblings and I used to joke that our family is the only family that offered you coffee before you even brush your teeth. Thatha and Ajji would brew coffee for us in the morning when we were jet-lagged. We sat in silence while we waited for the coffee to take effect. When Amma woke up she would ask her parents why they would give her 12 year old daughter coffee, but I would take a few sips anyway, refusing to let our coffee mornings be washed away.
These moments of nostalgia for the five senses crept into me when I least expected them and brought back memories closest to me. I took the senses for granted because I used to expect things to be what they seem and nothing more – coffee as just a hot drink or a sequined skirt. like a niche thrift store. It was in these unsuspecting moments that my preconceived idea of the senses grew into something entirely bigger – reminders of my past. I didn’t realize the power of the five senses until their conclusions came first, and my logic came second. Once we recognize the duality between simplicity and the power of the senses, we open up to a new appreciation for the things we once marked as routine.
MiC columnist Meghan Dodaballapur can be contacted at [email protected]