Did you know that the penetration of soap in India is as high as 88.6 per cent? There are five million retail outlets in India of which 3.75 million are in rural areas. With 75 per cent of India’s population in villages, about 50 per cent of soap is sold in these markets. So it is really hard to wrap one’s head around the next statistic: per capita consumption of soap in India is a mere 460 grams per annum (source: equitymaster.com). This mindboggling fact could be a few grams off here or there but it does give me 460 answers to my single question: Why do we Indians stink?
Before we start sniffing our armpits and proclaiming our innocence, let me ask you to perform a simple test. Walk into an elevator. Any elevator. In your office, your home or a mall. You will be able to smell your fellow occupants before you see them. The odour that will fill this enclosed space will not remind you of a bed of roses. You will not rush to Shopper’s Stop and demand a bottle of that scent. Instead, you will wrinkle your nose, hold your breath and wait for it to pass. You can repeat this test in any public space and the end result will be the same.
To be fair, our weather isn’t really conducive to good vibes. If you blend Delhi’s sweltering summers with temperatures hitting 45 degrees Celsius with Mumbai’s legendary humidity at 95 per cent during the monsoon, you end up with a fertile breeding ground for the disgusting. However, if there was a competition, my city would win hands down. Polyester+Public Transport = Pong Square. I remember when I first moved to Mumbai, I was convinced that every single person in the city was an alcoholic pervert. Sweat in Mumbai has a particularly rancid quality that mimics a heavy drinker’s morning breath. Couple that with the strange noise Mumbaikars make that involves pursing the lips and smacking them miraculously at the same time — and you are not wrong in thinking that you are living in a colony of Jack-the-Rippers-in-training.
Smell is described by Wikipedia as olfaction. The ability of humans and other animals to perceive odours. The internet version of Encyclopaedia Britannica describes odour as the percept resultant from the sense of smell. It got me thinking. We are a really talented nation. We can smell and make smells at the same time. The really interesting corollary of this is the nonchalance with which we spread the word.
A young friend of mine — let’s call her HS for simplicity — tweeted a desperate cry for help the other day. She cited her gym as the epicentre of all stenches most foul and vile. It seems other young women were being ruthlessly careless about their personal hygiene as they flitted from cross trainer to free weights. Confident in the adage that women glow, not sweat, they didn’t seem to care that their perspiration was causing palpitations. She was kinder to boys her age — and if she had a complaint, it was that they had a heavy hand with the deodorant — but I figured that was actually a compliment.
She reserved her scorn for older men where she raged that as they sweat their guts out — not literally, alas — they had no regard for scent or sensibility. While I am not in 100 per cent agreement with her — I have to say I liked her point. And its graver implications. That women get better with age. And men, they just deteriorate. It kind of follows the general pattern of development, doesn’t it?
The biggest tragedy about this particular problem is that no book of manners has a non-offensive way to tell someone they smell. It is actually one of the rudest, most personally damaging things you can tell someone. It also comes with the terrifying possibility of a nasty rejoinder of the Yo Momma kind: you smell and so does your mother. And if you have watched this peculiar American reality television game show, you know that it is perhaps the mildest of insults.
The only way to impose decorum when it comes to body odour is through self-awareness. Start by regularly doing the sniff test. Through the day. But discreetly. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself for all the wrong reasons, And remember this simple truth: Body odour isn’t a legacy that you want to leave behind. In this case, it is actually vital that it vanishes without a trace.