The Smell of Human Spirit

You’re on the train. The bus. The tube. Whatever: you’re in a public space and suddenly someone comes and sits/stands next to you. They smell of cooking – last night’s dinner – which is particularly potent. Which of the following do you do?

  1. Grimace at their poor hygiene
  2. Crinkle your nose in disgust: bad odours are bad manners
  3. Move away from the person
  4. Grin and bear it with a stiff upper lip
  5. Tweet/text about the terrible ordeal

If you picked any of the options, you would have been wrong. The closest “correct” answer would have been option 4. But why are these options wrong?

I, along with many people, used to harshly judge people on smells – especially on public transport. Too strong a perfume, I’d think that they didn’t have a bath that morning and if they smelt of food, I’d wonder what their dinner must have tasted like. The next time someone smells of last night’s cooking, I would urge you to not be so quick to judge, because what I’m about to write is something that has opened my eyes to being more compassionate to those around me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to review “The Immigrant Diaries” for a publication that I write for. Initially I had my doubts and didn’t know what to expect – after all whenever I see South Asians on TV, it’s always a cringe worthy moment. It has been a long time since I wrote a blog post inspired by an event or a person that has made me fully re-evaluate myself as a second-generation British Asian woman. I’d heard stories from a panel of women who looked just like me, had similar experiences to me, a similar desire to succeed and were so confident. I can’t begin to express how comforting it is to see and know this. It made me emotional and even thinking about it, I feel blessed that I even heard of the event. It was the story of Shyama Perera that made me look back at the immigrant experience from empathetic point of view and not the one that our schools and our society preaches to us.

My family came to the UK, after losing everything in the  riots in Nairobi, with the hope of having a better life. I often ask my dad and grandma what it was like for them when they first set foot in London with the trauma of loss and the riots fresh in their minds. My grandma shudders at my question: “It was so cold! We came here and it had been the coldest winter on record.”

My dad thoughtfully says: “It was harder than life in Kenya; we had nothing and had to somehow make ends meet. We were all cramped like sardines in one tiny house for years.”

And that’s the point I want to highlight in neon pink to you. The immigrant story is one of hard work, sacrifice, immense tolerance, trauma, blinding discrimination, grit and eventual bittersweet success. I have memories of my father being heckled and spat at because he was a “Paki” a”coon” and that “he should go back to where he came from.” There is no glitz, glamour or any glorification in the struggles that our parents, grandparents and relatives went through to carve out a better and more secure life for us.

Part of that struggle is poverty and economic hardship. Even immigrants arriving in the UK today, despite what UKIP say, have it hard with rising costs of living affecting everyone. Shyama’s words, to this day, ring in my head: “Many immigrants live, sleep, eat, cook, wash and study in one room that may share with numerous other people in similar situations to them.”  When I think of that conversation I had with my dad and grandma, one thing struck me: their experience is not too different from what current immigrants experience. It’s mind boggling how one comment can completely change the way that you have viewed things, people and the way that you perceive others – we all like to think that we’re compassionate, kind and caring but when it comes down it, are we really all of those things?

So the next time you judge that person smelling of curry or last night’s meal, think of how the circumstances that they are enduring just to be on that train or bus to get to work.  It isn’t the smell of poor hygiene, carelessness and lack of awareness. As Shyama said:”It is the smell of the will and drive to succeed, the dream of a better life and the grit to make it happen.”


2 thoughts on “The Smell of Human Spirit

  1. People smell of all sorts of different things at different times of the day. Whether it’s the human body, illustrating a tough day at the office or a medical problem, or the clothes that may not have been washed for whatever personal reason…doesn’t bother me, I am in the zone at all times, immersed in my own thoughts, unraveling my mind constantly. If by any chance the dinner smells nice, no harm in absorbing the flavour.
    I must add, why would one want to “Tweet/text about the terrible ordeal”?

    Maybe a post for you for another day..”Tweeting in a mindful and respectful manner: chronicles of your readership”.


  2. You are on your way to becoming a real good writer. Writers look at people with different eyes. For them every one has a story. Every aspect of a person makes them curious to know that person’s story. In short they are observant and not only notice more than others but understand things that most people would just ignore. Good job, dear. Love you.


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