A trip that has stayed in my mind is one that I made many years ago to Kannauj, the attar capital of India. Chaotic, dusty and crowded , the UP town is otherwise unprepossessing until you enter the older parts through a regal doorway, and the scent of perfume wafts through. Then you get entranced as there are rows of stores that beckon you in as their show windows are full of intriguing glass goblets, beakers and camel skin bottles. The perfumiers had many an intoxicating tale on the art of manufacturing the oil based botanical scents. They also had many tales of hardships to share, of how the flowers, especially rose, were getting too expensive, and labour difficult to get, and how the whole industry was struggling.

This is why when I saw Divrina Dhingra’s book, The Perfume Project, I had to get it, as it has a full chapter on the town. The exquisite cover, beautifully designed by Saurabh Garge, was another pull. With rose petals strewn around, the gorgeous pastel hued cover creates an illusion of nostalgia and scented memories.

It is a fairly small book — just 166 pages — on good paper with a leafy imprint on every page making it a pleasure to turn the pages. The introduction also hooks you, when the author, a journalist, from her perch in Manhattan, is suddenly assailed by the memories of scents of India. The olfactory references be it the pinewood scent of Shimla or the cloying notes of the flowers of the Saptaparni tree in Delhi and the scent of the first rain, all hit a chord as the author explains why she embarked on a project to explore the perfume traditions of India. The idea of smell and home sparked the idea of looking at fragrances.

Ancient traditions

There follows a fairly informative note on fragrances, and the ancient tradition in India of using sandalwood or turmeric on one’s bodies as referenced in many of our classical treatises.

After the introduction, the book is divided into six chapters — Rose, Jasmine, Sandalwood, Saffron, Oud, and Vetiver. Each of the scents takes the writer on a journey — rose to Kannauj, jasmine to Grasse in France and Madurai, sandalwood to Mysore, saffron to Kashmir, oud to Mumbai and Assam, and vetiver or khus to Hasayan, a town in UP.

The book is vastly informative. But the travelogues themselves leave you feeling a tad disappointed. Perhaps because I have been to many of these places, including Madurai and Mysore. If you have not been to Kannauj you will love the chapter. But having been there, I feel the treatment is a tad superficial and while the processes are nicely explained, the people stories are missing, and the challenges are fluffed over. Also, one gets the feeling the writer has not stayed long enough in the town to absorb the feel and flavour.

To me Kannauj today is as much about potatoes as perfumes, lined as it is with cold storage units and the streets yield a delightful dish of baby potatoes cooked in their jackets on a bed of sand and charcoal. It’s also the town where Akhilesh Yadav made his poll debut from and the town folk are full of gossipy political stories. The erstwhile UP minister was full of ideas for a perfume park, a perfume museum and also wanted to bridge the gap between a Chanel and a Ruh Gulab.

The book is very well conceived, organised and structured beautifully, and packaged excellently. The writing is polished and there are lots of interesting information and nuggets, gleaned from Dhingra’s own trips, and studies (she even enrolled into a perfume course at Grasse). But, what it lacks is a certain earthiness, the struggles of the labourers, the cheating and the adulteration that goes on, the customer stories (who are the consumers), and depth and flavour of the places. Life after all does not smell of roses all the time.

Title: The Perfume Project: Journeys Through Indian Fragrance

Author:  Divrina Dhingra

Publisher: Westland Books

Price: ₹599