I was at the local store picking groceries. I was reaching out for a pack of biscuits on one of the higher shelves, and I hear a familiar piece of music playing from the speaker above. It was an old Hindi tune, “Ae malik tere bande hum…“. Zoop. I go back in time, way back in my life, to my school days – the years 1994/95 when I was part of a choir to sing this song. Vivid memories flooded me, about standing in the first row, the microphone a few inches away from me. I was wearing a red full-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of blue trousers. That pair of trousers was a favourite for a long time. It was an incredible feeling reminiscing about that song and all my friends who sang along with me. A funny incident preceded it when one of them was speaking with the microphone switched on – that was a blunder!
7th of May 2010, after a tense few minutes in the hospital, the doctor announced I was a father to a baby girl. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. When my daughter was first handed to me, I whispered the almighty’s name in her ears. She was restless, new to this world, and was trying to seek comfort in her new environs. I sang an old Hindi tune, I don’t remember why I chose that particular song – “Aa chal ke tujhe, main leke chalun, ek aise gagan ke tale…“. Since then, I’ve sung it every day of my life. I sing it even now. It takes me back to the hospital, to those magical moments – a feeling of love, gratitude, and thanks. My wife thinks I’ve gone overboard with this song. But decades into the future when I want to remind myself about how it felt to hold her for the first time, I can sing this song, and I’ll be back in that ward holding my bundle of joy.
I had figured this out around 20 years ago – I could pick a particular song, listen to it, and go back in time and relive the moment in its entirety. The time and place engulf me. It reminds me – of friends I spent hours together with, of losses, of life, gone by, of suffering, of happiness, and of course death.
I thought this was a phenomenon associated with sound till about 6 months ago.
It was early in the morning. I had finished my morning meditation and was brewing my coffee. It was going to be my first cup of black coffee in 3 months. The instant I poured hot water into the French Press, the rich aroma of roasted coffee snaked its way out of the French Press and hit my nostrils. In an instant, I was transported to this small cafe in Tokyo where we had our breakfast every day. There was nothing special about the place; it was a cafe in the Hamamatsuchō Station. An old gentleman owned and operated it. He had our order figured out 2/ 3 days into visiting them. On the fourth day, our order was ready by the time we reached the billing counter. They brewed some great coffee, and I would savour this against the backdrop of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Ennio Morricone.
I was immediately able to piece this together with what I used to experience when I was listening to songs.
Since then, I started paying careful attention to smells. They took me back to memorable events in my life. Incense reminded me of a temple I loved to visit. Earl Gray tea took me back to the airport; I used to sip this almost always before catching a flight. Sanitisers and disinfectants – that have become commonplace now – reminded me of troubling times when my mother was in the hospital.
I have been ruminating on why, unlike sight, our sense of smell and hearing ties us strongly to these specific points in time? When I look at old pictures, there is a sense of nostalgia associated with it. Still, it doesn’t tug at my emotions like listening to a song does; or, when I smell a cup of coffee. Another thing that struck me was this – despite being able to make such strong connections, we take both these senses for granted. We stress a lot on the power of sight in our everyday life – there’s a whole science about how to grab eyeballs. Has anyone come up with something for the ear and nose?
The strong connections that we associate with certain sounds and smells could be a consequence of our evolutionary history. Having evolved from animals, the sense of smell and hearing connect to ancient and primal parts of the brain. What we experience could be a consequence of this. It is a well known and established fact that most animals have heightened awareness of their senses of smell and sound to either hunt or avoid being hunted. But as humans, we can use this to experience a fuller life.
Whatever the reason is behind this, I’m grateful for the experiences I have gone through in life and that I have this trick up my sleeve to relive those experiences time and again.
This is my Time Machine, and I hope it becomes yours too.
Cover photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash