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Flavours of Absence

In Spring of 2021, I took a short holiday to visit Delhi. I have been based in India over the last few years but have never had the opportunity to explore its various cities and histories. The last week of March offered a narrow window during which the Delhi air felt cleaner than usual, the skies were a clear blue and blooms appeared to burst on every tree. Delhi, to my tourist-eyes, seemed ridiculously charming! (The first week of April is when the humanitarian crisis rapidly escalated. Appeals for hospital beds, medicines, oxygen cylinders appeared all over social media, that was quickly overtaken by shocking coverage of crematoriums that could not cope with the rising number of the dead).

During this brief apparent calm, I managed to visit recently restored monuments and mausoleums as well as squeeze in lunch and tea appointments with friends from the art and publishing worlds. One such visit, a leisurely afternoon spent with artist Himani Gupta in her studio, left a deep impression on me. I was hopped up on allergy medication from the night before so I arrived in a daze with a blocked nose unable to smell anything. However, a glass of pomegranate juice followed by a hot lunch revived my spirit enough to take pleasure in an easy meandering conversation on her art and childhood memories of gardens and trees! As she showed me her garden outside her studio, I was struck by ripe mulberries smashed against the concrete ground, having fallen from an old tree heaving with more fruit.

Shahtoot/Mulberries being my favourite are available in Pune for a very short period when it's in season, just like jamun fruit, they're gone if I forget to look for them! While I was unable to smell anything, I picked them up, ate a few, smashed some letting blood-like rivulets run down my hand as I tried to imagine or remember what they smelled like. I got home and got to work - I could not have the fruit, but I would have its bright fizzy fragrance.

The formulation, that I can best describe as "Mulberries smashed against concrete fermenting in the sun" has opening notes of ylang ylang, petitgrain, champaca, jasmine, neroli, which gives way to a dense mélange of civet, treemoss, and cashmeran musk intertwined with fruity overripe fragrance of blackcurrent, mulberry, tobacco and honey. This limited edition perfume - now aged nearly 12 months - is among the best of my compositions (available on request).

My mulberry perfume led to a conversation with London based Graphic Designer, Jaya Modi, with whom I had sporadically discussed design ideas around food, memory, identity and creative expression. Jaya's practice uses design research as a tool to explore the fundamental relationships between humans and eating practices and/or tools by understanding the interactions between progressing evolution, aesthetics and technology. I then invited her to explore her own scent memories and associations which she reproduced in the form of poetry and illustrations.


Flavours of Absence

August rolls in with a stubborn longing

Between the ticking seconds I feel an ache of absence

Beaded sweat, and the incessant clicking of the ceiling fan

I realise it’s been years since I felt the Delhi monsoons wash my face

Fat drops leaving glistening trails across the contours of smiles

The relief of downpour as the thunder speaks

I see green but I smell soil. Of salt, of ash, of smashed mulberries

I see grey but I smell water. Of sugar, of crushed roses, of tulsi leaves

I miss tea time with my grandfather

Hot milky tea frothing over ribbons pulled endlessly

The long slurp of the cha he pulled from the saucer

The satisfied “aaah” he let out after

With chai Nana liked hot buttered toast.

Then a dollop of rich marmalade

Orange rinds suspended in a golden luster; aureate, as if one had trapped the Sun

Majestic, as its shiny syrup glacially spread; soaking and dripping down the edges

A spiced compote of overwhelming memories

Heavenly saccharine-citrus, with just a hint of sadness

Like the deliquesce innards of an overripe fruit

I feel left in longing, in wait, in memory.


Jaya Modi has a postgraduate degree from the University of Arts London. She has worked with a variety of design spaces, publications and platforms across departments of curation, visual branding and community development. Previously a Design Consultant at Tiipoi, Jaya is now a Creative Assistant at media company Five Fifty Five. In her spare time she writes and illustrates for The Preserve Journal and Hole & Corner, as well as other publications. Instagram: @jayamodidesign


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