Perfume in The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things opens with someone dabbing a dead body with 4711, a classic cologne popular because of its affordability and high quality.
Fragrance nerds will be familiar with its zesty freshness, but not everyone knows about it. Slowly we learn that the setting is 1960’s Kerala, a southern province in India, in a small town where most people wouldn’t have access to foreign perfume. The fact that this family does indicates their status, their wealth, class, and caste, and caste does play an important part in this story. Later, a visitor from England is observed as smelling cheap but no other description of the scent is provided, leaving the reader to imagine what it might be. It’s not 4711 and it’s not Dior.
Incidentally, I’m not sure why, Dior perfume seemed to have been the perfume of choice for Indians who could afford to go abroad at that time. I know that because of my own mother’s description of the Dior boxes that came out of her dad’s suitcases after a trip to Europe. There’s no Chanel in the picture, maybe because they didn’t advertise at the time. I asked her why they didn’t get a different brand, and she said, everyone just talked about Dior.
The link of scent to class is iconic here – the casteless are said to stink, being white and smelling bad is an indicator of being of a lower class, foreign perfume is meant to be sniffed not worn. Again, the only reason my mom still has her Miss Dior is because she doesn’t wear it, but she appreciates the memories.
The best art reveals something new facets of ourselves every time we revisit is, and that’s what I love about my favourite books and perfumes. I’ve read The God of Small Things a number of times, but this time all the perfume references caught my eye.