When you grow up in India, curry isn’t really a smell. It isn’t even a word. But on one day in April 2015, at my bartending job in Brussels, I was told I smelled like curry. And became, in one instant, reduced to a dish.
It was after years of envisioning a life abroad that I had finally moved. Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, the center of Western Europe, was, and is, a complicated city — which is what makes it one of my favorite places in the world. It is at the same time diverse and homogenous, at once cruel and kind, in the same vein replete with colonial bias, and home to some of the largest immigrant communities in Europe. When I moved, I spent all my time immersed in my new life’s webs, skipping classes but making it to every appointment with new friends. I switched apartments every six months, drank coffee in every café, made fast friends, lost new loves, and before I knew it, a city that had never existed in my mindscape had become home.
The bar from which I was fired was one of the city’s favorites. Brown wood tables, generic menus flowing with all kinds of cheese, though it reeked of mediocrity, the bar brought scores to it everyday. On my last day in it, I had finished up cleaning my tables, and was in a good mood, pleased at myself for working hard.
“Julien wants to talk to you”, said my colleague Anne, in pretty, fluid French when I walked in.
Anne was of Sri Lankan origin, was adopted by French parents and raised in Paris. She had moved to Brussels five years ago as an aspiring pastry chef. Sometimes people mistook me for her, even though I was a foot taller, fifteen years younger and had different coloured eyes. Anne refused to speak to me in English, which we could both speak, but continued to speak to me in a language she knew I didn’t understand. Julien, the bar’s tall, blonde owner was waiting for me in the basement, bills in hand and eyes fixed on the juicer.
“Oh, you’re here, take this, wear it, now” he said, in characteristically short sentences, handing me a bottle of pink cologne. It smelled sweet, like someone had imagined the smell of flowers, but not like flowers themselves — stark, rousing, like the ones my mother wore in her hair. “I can’t, I don’t like it”, I said to him, thinking about Ma, thinking about home, and everyone’s mutual aversion to thick, cosmetic smells.
“Okay, alright, then, you’re fired,” he said. More short sentences. “I am?” I asked.
“Yes.” He answered. “You smell like curry, we don’t want the customers to complain.”
I just stood there — deep in thought, wondering, how could someone smell like curry? My thought process switched. What does curry even smell like? Which specific spice?
“But cologne is bad for your pores, Julien” I said, after what felt like ten minutes. “No, it’s okay. You have to go.” he said, juicer in hand, and walked out the door.
Nothing dramatic happened as it’s supposed to the first time you realize you have been singled out for your race. No glass shattering. No revolutionary anger. Just confusion, and worry about how I was going to pay rent. I was having a terrible year. My grades had fallen, my heart was broken, this job — though terrible, underpaid, and alienating was the best thing that I had. After Julien left, I walked out of the basement and went upstairs where Anne, for the first time in perfect English said to me — “He asked me. I did it. You should do it too.”
In their podcast Racist Sandwich, Zahir Janmohammed and Soleil Ho talk about food and race in America. In one of their episodes Namaste, Motherfucker; a young poet named Mitali Desai reads a poem in which a white boy in her high school asks her “Does your pussy smell like curry?” Curry, as the hosts and guests of the podcast illuminate, becomes a blanket term for a complex culture coined by people that had set out to colonize it. “The British word for Indian food, curry is said to come from cuire – which is French to cook”, says Janmohammed to his listeners. “Actually, it’s probably because they couldn’t say Korma” disagrees my mother from her bed.
Just like that, the word Curry — seemingly harmless, naïve, pandered around aimlessly became my first experience of Whiteness. It became my first awareness of a power structure that so nonchalantly took language, twisted it, and used it against the people it was taken from. It was my first awareness of my own brownness, my racial otherness, and my automatic exclusion from a place I had begun to call home. “Indian curry house” boards across London everywhere read. “Curry Ketchup?” a girl at the fries shop in Brussels asked me one day. “Try the Curry chicken,” a self-assured supermarket assistant in Antwerp recommended, about a green, stale-smelling sandwich spread that everyone seemed to love. All these versions of curry were equally obscure, but a curry person — my own body, myself, was the most upsetting one I had found.
After that, it would happen again and again. Maybe it was happening all along, and I just hadn’t known. “Why do you let her wear your clothes, she smells” I heard a tall Russian girl tell my best friend when she thought I wasn’t in the room. “Yuck! Curry!” my Serbian flat mate said when he walked into a fuming kitchen full of Italians making my favorite Parmigiana.
“Open the windows, at least” he said to me as the Italians sang about their tomatoes. “I don’t want it in my room.”
With the first time I was told I smelled like curry, I realized that whiteness, unlike I knew from my childhood far away from it — was not the mystical, alluring color of someone else’s skin, it was a system, one powerfully and inscrutably in place.
Whiteness demanded from me brownness, it met me at bars to tell me I looked like Princess Jasmine, it asked me where I had gotten my tan, “A-salamu-ailakum” it said to me confidently, when I had walked onto a table and said a polite Hello. Whiteness looked aghast at my perfect English, it looked surprised that I could hold my drink, and ultimately, it fired me from a job I desperately needed. After the day I was told I smelled like curry, whiteness came at me in all forms — sometimes friendly, sometimes mean, sometimes annoyingly kind, but at all times reductive, ignorant, and terribly unfair.
For the next three years, I would carry this around, a deep aversion to the word curry and confusion over how to get rid of my smell. My mind would veer to the young poet in the podcast, to Zahir JanMohammed, whom I had since then met and discussed this with, and the curry-smelling South Asians everywhere in Brussels, and the rest of the world, who were being told that smelling like the foods they loved was an ugly truth.
Back home, a month ago, I told my friends this story over drinks. In typical New Delhi cacophony, half the table broke into roaring laughter.
“Wait but what is curry?” asked one of my best friends. “And what’s wrong with it anyway?”
“Was it jeera? Did some dude fire you for smelling like jeera powder?” asked another, bewildered and amused at the same time.
Suddenly everyone was thoughtful – thinking of the same things that crossed my mind at the day I was fired, but also the smells of curry, and which ones they could be.
“I wish I smelled like jeera. HE wishes he smelled like jeera.” Added my friend, referring to Julien at the bar.
On the day I was told I smelled like curry, I didn’t have the vocabulary to fight back. On that day, I was dark skinned, foreign, curry-smelling, insecure, alienated, and inadequate — feeling and internalizing everything I had been branded with. But today, around my friends arguing over which spices they’d want to smell like, loving it, owning it, I was different, and even though I probably still smelled like curry, whatever curry was, I was fucking proud.