“He’s made me think perfume is fun and creative, and got me thinking about it as a form of expression. Since then I’ve also discovered CB I Hate Perfume’s A Room with a View (a Canadian blogger who read my book and thought it was the perfect heroine’s perfume), and I like that, too. It’s quite complex, and I don’t think I would have ‘got’ it before talking to Neel.”
True to her word, she put us in touch, and a few months later Neel and I Skyped to talk scent.
LR: What is your earliest scent memory?
NM: I grew up in a cultural and socioeconomic package where perfume was such an unimaginable luxury, and also at a time and in a country which had such trade barriers that we did not get western goods at all. This is India in the 1970s and 1980s. I left the year the country liberalised and the markets opened up. But my mother had a bottle of something called Intimate. It was a popular perfume in the subcontinent at the time. Every time I speak to a Pakistani woman or an Indian woman they say: “Oh yeah, my mother used to wear Intimate” or “I had a bottle of Intimate.”
Aside: According to Fragrantica.com: “Intimate by Revlon was launched in 1955 as a distinctly sexy floral-animalistic chypre fragrance. It opens with crystalline notes of aldehydes, bergamot, rose, coriander and gardenia, leading to the sensual heart of jasmine, iris root, sandalwood, cedar and patchouli and the wild base of castoreum, civet, musk, amber and oak moss.”
From what I can remember of its smell now, the only strand that sticks in my memory is the leather aspect. I absolutely love leathers. My favourite perfumes would all be leathers.
LR: I wasn’t necessarily thinking of perfumes, but of the smells one comes across in childhood which are retained in our memory with a host of associations, like the smell of food or, in my case, carnations. I used to hate their scent, but now adore it. Of course, I’m older than you and remember when flower shop blooms smelled!
NM: I have never known a carnation to smell. Carnations came to India quite late. I left in 1992, when I was 22 years old. Similarly, with rose, I had never known a rose NOT to be perfumed until I came to Britain. A rose in India is a rose that smells. I have never thought about this consciously before, but I think my nose is my strongest sense organ. I am attuned to smells. I must have been as a child as well. I love the smell of rose – absolutely love it. But I used to hate the smell of tuberose, because that was the standard flower used in funerals. When people died, the stretcher on which the body was laid out had sticks of tuberose around it. It was the smell of death for me. But I recently smelled Fracas and absolutely LOVED it! It really has the heart of tuberose in it, so I am a complete convert.
LR: I was only briefly in India, once, but my floral sense memory of the place is jasmine.
NM: I love the smell of jasmine, but I used to hate it and find it headache-inducing. It’s so different talking about smells in terms of the perfume aspect and in terms of the real nature aspect of it. No rose perfume actually smells like a rose. The perfume is much stronger. Jasmine is the only flower for which I think there’s a more or less one-to-one correspondence between the flower and the perfume or oil. All flowers smell lovely but somehow when they make the transition from living thing to bottle, things tend to go very badly wrong.
LR: And not to pile on the clichés, but what about spices or cooking smells, given that you’re Indian?
NM: I can smell things from 30, 40 years ago and they take me back. Cooking smells, of course, are very important. There’s a Dior cologne, Eau Noire, that has helichrysum in it. It has a strong smell of fenugreek and it’s stunning. It’s part of a range called Cologne Royale. Very minimalist bottles.
LR: I couldn’t give a shit about bottles, it’s the juice I’m after.
NM: I agree. I have zero interest in the bottles. I was reading Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. She was talking about Breath of God, from a company once known as B Never too Busy to Be Beautiful, which reinvented itself as Gorilla (sold by Lush). I think it’s sensational. It’s got a medicinal edge; it’s got incense; it’s got a fruitiness somewhere, which is held back; it’s smoky and it’s herby, There’s an element of clove as well. It’s like nothing I’ve smelled before.
She was saying that the bottles are cheap and their design is crap and the cap isn’t nice – and that this is EXACTLY how you want perfumes to be: all the brains and money have gone into the juice and zero on the bottle.
LR: Interviewing Luca and Tania was what reawakened my passion for fragrance.
NM: Quite apart from the knowledge and enthusiasm they bring to the subject, the prose style is extraordinary. I feel euphoria when I read those sentences. They’re witty and funny and terrific.
LR: Given that you had little experience of perfume growing up, how did you get into the world of smell?
NM: Something in the outside world happens, like it’s the right season for germination and there’s a particular bulb that’s hidden in your soil. Temperature and sunlight come together and make things grow. I always loved perfume but could never afford to buy it. At university one of my friends used to wear Coco and Thé Vert, made by Jean Claude Ellena for Bulgari. It was really beautiful. And Coco, too. Not the flankers which are disgusting but the original, which is spicy and resinous and rich. I used to constantly wear her perfume. At a party someone said to me: “Neel, you really must not wear Coco, it’s very much a woman’s perfume.” I think it would be very difficult for a man to pull off Coco actually but, as you know, Luca Turin advises counter-intuitively about these things – wonderfully, I think. There’s a jasmine perfume for women that he says is best on a man, “if he dares”. And one must step up to the challenge.
NM: I also think men’s perfumes smell amazing on women. I would love a woman who wore Eau Sauvage as her standard perfume. I wore Mitsouko to lunch yesterday. I know that Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, wore Shalimar. There is a very strong tradition of wearing attars in that part of the world. The word means essence, or scent, and they are VERY, VERY strong. It is very much in keeping with that part of the world that men should wear an oriental fragrance or floral essences. If you were to say that David Cameron wears Chanel No 5, we’d all be shocked, but it does not shock me that Bhutto’s father wore Shalimar. It makes all kinds of sense.
Funnily enough, Samantha was kvetching about Shalimar and said: “It’s the smell of hysteria for me,” because her grandmother and mother wear it. It reminds her of long car journeys with two strong women quarreling in the background, and the little girl in the back seat.
LR: There are plenty of intellectually acceptable perfumes that I can’t bear to be around.
NM: I have a problem with several perfumes, such as Opium and Giorgio, those larger-than-life bulldozer, anti-missile tank perfumes. I have a problem with Poison and with Amarige. They’re killers, like hazmats or something. I also have a problem with L’Eau D’Issey. It was overused by a certain generation – not even a generation, about ten/12 years ago it was everywhere. I don’t like that smell of calone, that marine smell bothers me a lot.
Samantha told me she wore Chanel No 5 and I said it’s the worst perfume in the world! I hate it. HATE it. It is like Grandmother writ large. I find it too powdery. It doesn’t SAY anything to me. It has become frozen in its own reputation. People can’t really get to it critically, or think about it. No 5 is a woman of a certain age. Like 80 or something.
There are loads of Chanel perfumes that I like and find very moving. I think Cuir de Ruisse is extraordinary. I like Cristalle a lot. It’s a younger woman’s perfume as well but I think it can be worn across all ages. I like Chanel No 19 very much.
LR: How big is your perfume collection? And do you buy bottles or samples?
NM: My collection is about 75 or 80 bottles. I don’t buy it like a true connoisseur, to have as a specimen, to smell. I just buy perfume to wear. I buy bottles. I often go off perfume. There are recent things I have discovered that I like a lot. I didn’t used to like Dior Homme and now I love it. There is a perfume by Penhaligon’s called Sartorial that I love. I think it’s a reinvention of Chypre. It’s supposed to be the reconstruction of the smell of a tailor’s workshop on Savile Row. From a tailor’s workshop I remember in a back alley in Calcutta, it smelled nothing like Sartorial, but I can see what he was trying to do. There’s a new fabric smell, a steam iron note. It’s a Bertrand Duchaufour perfume and he is a genius, he makes some of my favourite perfumes.
LR: What are your desert island perfumes?
NM: I love this question. Duchaufour’s Timbuktu …
LR: [Interrupts him by squealing] I love that too!
NM: I love it so much that I don’t wear it – no occasion is special enough to wear it. I don’t know why, one day I will take the bottle out and it will have gone off. So you know what? I’m going to wear it tonight. I am going out with my cover designer for a drink and I’m going to wear Timbuktu.
LR: I am just the opposite, if I am in a bad mood I’ll automatically feel better if I spray on Timbuktu.
I love leathers, so I like an Estee Lauder leather called Azure. And as I said, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie – the most gorgeous perfume ever. I love a leather made by this weird French outfit, Etat Libre d’Orange, called Rien. I like Encre Noire by Lalique. Inside this old-fashioned bottle is one of the most beautiful vetivers ever made. I have an old Diorella. Not vintage, but just before the formula changed, around 2007 or 2008. I love that. I love Breath of God. I love Mitsouko but think I wear it too much. I love Baldessarini by Hugo Boss. Ignore the flankers, but the original is very good. And Insensé, which Givenchy discontinued, I love. Also, from Rochas, Globe. They’re all in the same genre. And Calandre from Paco Rabanne.
LR: Does this love of perfume spill over into your work?
NM: No. I keep it separate. It’s a private passion. They have asked me to write about perfume as publicity for my novel, but they’re such different worlds and I don’t want to confuse them. Of course if I were to describe a smell in a book I would be very careful about describing it, but I am also conscious that because I am attuned to smells there is a danger that I could go overboard, so I try to keep that in check. These are very separate departments in my life. There is no conversation between the two, and I would like to leave it at that.
But I wear scent every single day, even when I am alone at home. It is a very private pleasure. One wears it for one’s self. I am never bored or down when I am wearing perfume. It’s a little aura around you.
Neel Mukherjee was born in Calcutta and now lives in London. His first novel, Past Continuous, was joint winner of the Vodafone-Crossword Award, India’s premier literary award for writing in English, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for best fiction, and was shortlisted for the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His second novel, The Lives of Others, published in May 2014, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award, and longlisted for the Encore Award for outstanding second novels.