Everyone remembers a special smell–the smell of freshly mown grass, or the aroma of a hot dog grilling in the backyard. Sushmita Pathak’s special smell is the scent of mangoes. Here’s a story about how it became more than just a smell for her.
When I was a kid, my brother and I spent our summer breaks at our grandma’s place in Hyderabad, in the southern part of India. We lived with our parents in Mumbai. And every April, the day our exams ended, we took an overnight train to Hyderabad. Our grandpa would come to pick us up at the station in his old white van that smelled like engine grease and his medicine cabinet. At the house, grandma would greet us with a big smile and a pot of cool water to wash our tired feet. As I hugged her, I could smell the earthy scent of her cotton sari mixed with the smell of mangoes. Because, of course, she’d been juicing mangoes for us all day. The scent was heady – tangy, sweet and tropical.
In India, mangoes are a big part of summer. They’re a tradition – like turkey and Thanksgiving. My grandma had a huge mango tree at the back of the house, and its brown branches and glossy forest green leaves hung over the terrace. Plucking mangoes was like a game. One of us would climb up, pluck the mango and throw it down to the person standing below, ready to catch. Sometimes, we would just poke the mangoes with a long bamboo stick and try to catch them as their stems gave way. The higher up the fruit, the more challenging it was, and we’d bet on who’d be able to get one down. By the end, we’d have bamboo splinters in our palms and twigs in our hair. Our hands would smell like fresh green mangoes for the rest of the day.
We did this every year until I turned 18 and moved to Dubai for college. I started thinking about my career. I wanted to be a journalist, and I had new expectations from myself. So that summer, instead of running barefoot on my grandma’s dusty terrace, I was running to meet with editors, my black ankle strap heels clicking against the spotless marble floor of Dubai’s metro stations. Success became my new definition of happiness. I thought I’d be happy if I could write for a living. I thought I’d be happy if I saw my name in a byline. I thought I’d be happy if I could just get into Journalism School. But when that happened, it wasn’t like I’d imagined. Plus, I had to work really hard. Being happy began to feel like too much effort.
Then one day, I was shopping at one of Dubai’s largest supermarkets. There were kiwis from New Zealand, dragon fruit from Thailand and, mangoes from India. The mangoes were bright yellow with a hint of red, almost like a blush. I picked up one and brought it to my nose. As I smelled it, the shiny supermarket floor seemed to vanish and I was transported back to my grandma’s house, shouting with joy as a mango fell from the tree. Standing in the middle of the rows of fruit, I was smiling from ear to ear. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so happy. A few weeks later, I dragged my brother to come swimming with me at the small community pool near our apartment. We challenged each other to see who could sit on the swimming pool floor and hold their breath underwater longer. Just like we used to when we were kids.
Now, I live in New York City and I still associate happiness with success. But I also try to look for it in the small things, and every time I see a mango at the grocery store, I stop and smell it.
That’s Sushmita Pathak. She also finds joy in dancing to Bollywood beats and eating hummus and chips for dinner.