In search of something to read this fine Sunday afternoon, I picked up a book I bought for five dollars the other weekend, a hopefully-not-too dry Anthropology collection from forty-five years ago. Opening it up to a random page, I found that familiar, but increasingly rare fragrance: the scent of old book.
I don’t know how to describe the smell, it’s just — old book. My lack of descriptive power tells you all you need to know about why I don’t make my living as a creative writer. What can I say? It smells good. It’s a little bit chemical, a little bit dusty. It smells like old paper, old good paper. Old letters smell like that, too. Old newspaper clippings, I think, don’t.
It smells like my grandmother, too, like the smell of her clothes folded neatly and tucked into her dresser way back when I was little, and she still lived with us. It’s the smell of the drawer of her bedside table, filled with her rosary and novena booklets, prayer cards and usually a romance novel.
Some of my mother’s clothes had that smell, clothes she had in the Philippines. Little peach dresses and beautiful, translucent camisa blouses, or baro, with their elaborate embroidery. I used to try the camisas on, hoping for a chance to wear them some day. I don’t think I ever did.
The top blouse is made of jusi (silk now, but originally banana fiber); the bottom one is made of piña (fiber from pineapple leaves).
I remember being with a friend a few years ago, as she unpacked a box of goodies sent over by relatives in Punjab. The box was filled with the 2-meter-or-so long bright colorful stoles called dupattas, along with boxes of bangles and packets of bindis, parandis for our hair. I lifted out a multicolored tie-dyed dupatta and waved it open.
“Smells like India,” another friend commented. I had been thinking it smelled like the Philippines. It was that smell.
I used to think of it as the smell as mothballs, I guess because of my grandmother. But it can’t be that, because why would books smell of mothballs? It isn’t India, it isn’t the Philippines. Or I should say, it isn’t only India, and not just the Philippines. It’s the smell of Somewhere Else.
And it’s also the scent of memories.
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