The oral history of my family has told me that the first inkling came about when I was one. My first birth anniversary was being celebrated with the appropriate sense of pomp, and I cried, and cried, and cried some more, and drove everyone just a little bit up the wall. They were smart, though. They soon found out that the minute the fragrant garland of flowers touched my neck, I began to bawl; and when they magnanimously removed it, I stopped. They brushed it aside as the idiosyncrasy of a one year old. They didn’t know better.
When I was a scrawny child with a love for Enid Blyton and an even greater love for the cartoons on Sun TV in which raccoons and pigs spoke in Tamil, I would refuse to go near my mother if she had flowers entwined in her hair. I would turn away if she came to lie down next to me. I would not look at her when she disentangled the crumpled flowers from her braid. And I would most definitely place a hand over my nose if the flowers were in that stage where they begin to brown around the edges. They thought of me as an obstinate seven year old.
And then during my teenage years, I was considered to be some kind of rebel, initiating mutiny. I would wait in a mixture of fear and disgust, when well meaning relatives gave me flowers. Sometimes they wouldn’t stop with giving the flowers to me, they would ask me why I wasn’t going ahead and keeping those flowers in my hair. I would try to stage as quick an exit as possible, so that I could stop holding the jasmine and hand it over to my mother. I believe her thought at that minute might have been: What is the harm? This is surely too much. She wasted no time in voicing these very thoughts, and I was also told that I was being unreasonable, girls are expected to like and keep flowers, surely I know that every wedding ritual involves nauseating amounts of flowers.
We tried some compromises. Flowers given by priests and given during religious rituals were not meant to be handed over immediately. Repulsion needn’t be shown explicitly on the face, it can be saved for later, within the confines of my home (where my peculiar dislike was well documented). Initially it was thought that I only had a notoriously low tolerance for flowers with a smell, any smell; but we went on to find out I was ill-at-ease even while holding odourless flowers (thereby making me more unaccommodating than previously thought). In Chennai, it is especially grueling to sidestep this aversion. Flowers are everywhere. In the bus, when the lady standing in front of my nose becomes the proprietor of the oil-sweat-flower blend of smells. In a closed office space, where the flowers go through their life cycle within the work day, but their scent never leaves the air conditioned room. At home, strung around photographs of deceased ancestors and deities. There is no escape.