Inhaled Memories

Chai, Pakistan, Murree“Memories often return through the nose….”Peter Mayle

As soon as I stepped into the restaurant I smelled the pungent aroma of spices that make up a curry. In a breath I was back in Pakistan at a restaurant in Karachi. My family was with me as we sat around a table, too busy eating to talk. Hot chapatis served with thick chicken curry covered in ghee filled our plates. Small bowls of raita cooled our mouths. The memory was from years ago, but as I stepped into the restaurant it was as fresh as though it was yesterday.

I had just inhaled a memory.

Another breath and I inhaled another memory. This time I was at the chai shop across the street from my boarding school. Going to the chai shop was a privilege you earned when you entered high school. Though only steps from the front door, it was officially ‘off campus’ and outside of school property. As such it offered a space away. Hot chai served in chipped china cups warmed our bodies and filled our stomachs; parathas and spicy omelets were pungent, delicious additions to the boring and some might say hideous, boarding school diet.

Another memory inhaled.

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell. “Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

I stopped my reading and pulled out a pen and my always beside me small moleskin journal to write the quote. It was too good to forget, too true not to use.

We step into kitchens and smell the aroma of cinnamon and dough and suddenly we’re back home and tiny, waiting for that hot, fresh cinnamon roll. We walk into an unfamiliar house and in a moment feel completely comfortable, secure because the smells lure us to a past place and time of comfort.

And then there are those other inhaled memories – those that remind us of sickness, difficulty, poverty, even death.

Inhaled memories are not always pleasant.

But those that come to me as I enter Indian or Pakistani restaurants and stores are gifts taking me to places and foods I love. And so I embrace them and hold them tight, as though I am greeting an old and dear friend.

How about you? What memories have you inhaled? 

*The featured photo is a picture of our beloved chai shop, courtesy of Jason Philbrick. Jason has been featured in two complementary pieces: