As the road curved over Mahim Causeway, leaving the vegetal growth of the airport slums behind, I wound down the window and felt the heat move immediately from a supporting role to centre stage, bringing in a gust of wind with the consistency of old lamb gravy. Another, fresher smell overlaid the greasy aroma of drains. Yes, it had rained recently, the driver told me: rain, although not the rains, which explained why the temperature hadn't dropped.

I had not forgotten the violence of India's monsoon reversal, nor the scent of soil releasing different chemicals as it turned from dry land into wet. My father, a man whose passion for facts was exceeded only by my mother's for fiction, once analyzed the smell of rain. Its formula, he said, depends upon where it falls--on dry or wet ground. "First there is petrichor, the dry smell of unbaked clay, from the Greek for `stone-essence.' Later, that muddy, fertile flavour of geosmin." Earth smell: found in the flesh of bottom-feeders like carp and catfish.

Purpose of visit? Transformation from stone into earth.

The driver told me that in the north, near Lucknow, there was a small industry specializing in the smell of Indian rain. They put clay disks outdoors in the premonsoon months of May and June to absorb the water vapour in the air, then steam-distilled the smell from the disks, bottled it, and sold it under the name matti ka attar. "Is meaning `perfume of the earth,'" he said.

Perfume of the earth. I rolled the words around in my mouth, only half listening as my guide ran through a list of this country's other, less volatile attractions. "You are knowing Bombay, madam? You must be knowing then that this is land stolen from the sea."


[From Leslie Forbes' mystery novel "Bombay Ice" (1998)]