“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off; it enters us like breath into our lungs, fills us up, and imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” — Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

In one of the seminal scenes in Nicholas Kharkongor’s 2019 movie Axone, as the two North-Eastern women initiate the cooking of the delicacy and add the much-maligned axone into the wok, the pungent smell wafts through the kitchen window and starts spreading throughout the apartment. The residents, who had been taught to associate the smell with that of a septic tank, rapidly shut their windows and cover their noses with hands and handkerchiefs.

The aged landlady, woken from her slumber, berates and shames the women in front of the entire apartment and yells, “When you rented this apartment, I had told you can’t make that stinky food here, didn’t I?” Shock, grimace and anger — these are the resultant expressions of a smell, terrifying alien and infinitely removed from the so-called urbane social space of a New Delhi apartment building.

Axone is delicately crafted within the purview of this otherisation of smell which tends to normalise and invisibilise the recurrent and prevalent discrimination of individuals from the northeast. David le Breton writes:

“Smell subverts borders, and breaks down the barrier between the outside and the inside, the other and the self. It arouses an imaginary mixing of bodies which provokes, according to the circumstances and the individuals present, the pleasure of sharing an intimacy, arousing desire, or conversely the disgust at being physically confronted by the emanations of another whose condition we condemn or who is considered to belong to a contemptible social category. Smell is the other reduced to an olfactory formula, penetrating, insidious, invasive, transformed into an essence.” (Breton 11)

Smell, thus laden with nearly mythical dimensions, becomes an inescapable link to interrogating race, class, caste, and gender identities of independent India, a testament to the socio-political histories and realities of the individual. Smell is provided with the unwritten power to etch out favourable, wholesome, safe spaces and distinguish those from filth, degradation, and unfamiliarity. Among other things, smell constructs normativity, creates moral dimensions and designates the narrative of the “normal and good”. This article will try to look into the politics of smell in a short story by Perumal Murugan called “Shit”, originally written in Tamil and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. 

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“Shit” begins with the fascination for a seemingly exquisite plastic tumbler, elaborate descriptions of how the pouring of alcohol creates “a chaos of colours” and leads to “the stickiness of attachment”“The liquor in the tumbler has a stink that ruins the fragrance of your dreams. It crams the stink into your mouth, spits it out through the nostrils and smears the stench on the organs. It flows along with your nervous sweat when you are startled awake, and spreads unremittingly on your skin as you keep wiping it off” (Murugan 146).

This tumbler, the treasured possession of a group of young bachelors living at a huge house in a remote suburban area, is cleverly transformed into a satirical tool, simultaneously delineating and blurring caste and class hegemony. The young men lived comfortably in squalor without bothering much about cleanliness, “Trash accumulated in the house in a myriad of unexpected ways” (Murugan 145) leading to an uninhibited description of the filth in question.”

“When someone eventually realised that the pile of trash had grown even bigger, he would clean up the house if he could spare the time. When the trash was swept, gathered and scooped up, stinking dead frogs and house rats were found in it. The droppings of house lizards would have collected in a corner. Bare skeletons of charred cockroaches and house crickets lay in a pile… The remains of prey discarded by a cat were strewn in the corners of several rooms. The foul odours from those remains never bothered us much either. ‘Why make a fuss about the stink in our house? Isn’t society itself a warehouse of bad odours?’ We would philosophise thus and ignore them.” (Murugan 148-149) 

The stink, however, becomes unbearable and unremitting, even after conscious efforts at cleanliness, leading to an unfortunate discovery — the pipe connecting the bathroom to the septic tank had broken due to rust and age, and the eponymous “shit” had accumulated in a heap leading to a hitherto illimitable space for the smell to spread, “Little by little, the smell had travelled outward, entered the house with a stranger’s diffidence, and in time, begun to roam freely inside all the rooms” (Murugan 152).

What, however, is to be noted, is that the change in the viciousness and tenacity of this particular smell leads to the immediate deconstruction of a known habitat, their home, into an alien territory, an unfamiliar and intolerable domain of filth, inhospitable, unlivable and profoundly affronting to their senses.

Smell becomes an important motif, spreading with abandon, impregnating and revealing objects, spaces and individuals and rendering them defenceless. Impossible to escape, it determines the emotional atmosphere of a place or an experience because it “embodies an aerial morality, powerful in its effects even if it is always mixed with the imaginary and above all reveals the psychology of the person who smells it. It is never the smell that means but the meaning with which it is invested” (Breton 13). 

The defamiliarising capacities of the smell, thus, initiate the discussion of caste and class, as they wait ardently for a manual scavenger/sweeper to come and rescue them from the pile of shit and the essentially dehumanising smell. The description of the sweeper is heavily laden with class arrogance and entitlement, “His thin and bony physique looked as if it would break into pieces and collapse any minute…When he laughed, baring his betel stained teeth, we could only feel disgust towards him” (Murugan 157). Breton writes, “smell is a strong sense of discrimination. It immediately defines alliance or rupture, sympathy or hatred; it abolishes distance or increases it to infinity. It is an index of moral classification. There is a smell of otherness, an olfactory line of demarcation between oneself and others” (15).

To the eyes of the privileged witnessing the event, the gradual dehumanisation of the manual scavenger occurs with him following the “scent like a dog” and then the transformation into a superhuman figure embodied in incomprehensible monstrosity, “With flaring nostrils, his face looked very serious. His eyes had bulged out and turned red. He made a face and laughed, like a madman. His brain must have sent him a victory signal that the territory belonged to him now. Then he started walking towards us. Unconsciously, all of us took a step back or sideways, as if to escape from an evil creature. It was impossible to accept the figure as human.” (Murugan 158)

Smell, thus, categorises a privileged morality and constructs an entitled collective identity through the enforcement of social hierarchy — in this case, the scared humans vis-à-vis the terrifying monster claiming the realm of his senses. The scavenger is bestialised and otherised, provoking derision and justifying in the imagination, the symbolic or real violence of which he is the object. Smell is produced and explained through being situated in deeply political and disputed contexts and due to its furtiveness and proximity to material and emotional selves, is indisputable to analyse and comprehend how power is structured in society.

When the scavenger asks for five hundred rupees and repeats, “I have to put my hand in your shit, sir,” (Murugan 159), it enrages the youths so terribly that they wish to indulge in actual violence and chase him away, “Go away, you dog” (Murugan 159). But the situational irony guarantees their non-violent acquiescence to his meagre demand and enforces once again, the transgressive potential of smell through which an upper caste/class privileged space is unwittingly transformed into the territory/kingdom of the unprivileged.

This initiates a critical framework that can help one to investigate the various discourses of smell that traverse the landscape of caste in India, which have repeatedly and historically marginalised, ostracised and dehumanised particular sections of society. 

Shivani Kapoor, in “The Smells of Caste — Body, Self and Politics”, writes, “Caste, a system of hierarchical arrangements, can also be thought of as a system of sensory ordering of bodies, spaces, and objects. It is through this sensorial ordering that caste produces and retains its ability to classify, create boundaries and thus rank bodies and objects in a relative relationship with each other” (22).

Caste enforces itself by deliberately associating those qualities which polite society considers as predominantly negative to the lower castes; offensive smell and permanent filth, thus, become their reality. “The odour of the lower-caste body is not only considered to be innate but also hereditary and is not supposed to change with a change in occupations, social status or even identities. Sense memories and experiences such as these then become important markers for the constitution of caste bodies, selves, and politics” (Kapoor 22).

This is what is revealed when the youths of Murugan’s story refuse to hand over a bicycle to the sweeper in fear of contamination: “We imagined him touching the bicycle, and us touching it after it became filthy with his touch, and felt a deep sense of revulsion. It seemed his entire body was made of shit and gave off a foul smell all the time. As he walked away, swinging his hands and feet, we saw shit scattering and falling all along his path. His speech too carried a fetid odour.” (Murugan 161-162)

UN India defines manual scavenging as a practice of manually cleaning, removing or disposing of human excreta from latrines, sewage and manholes. This appalling practice has its roots in the terrible caste system of hierarchy and exclusion, which compels the underprivileged sections belonging to lower castes to perform lethal and dehumanising tasks. 

“Various legislations like Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR) have been brought to provide the group with the rights they deserve and are necessary for living a dignified life. However, due to the lack of pace of the reform drive, changes have been less than expected” (Saraf).

The manual scavengers work in unimaginable conditions without any protective gear, usually with handkerchiefs covering their faces, diving into stagnant septic tanks with just a rope tied around their waists and using hands to touch highly toxic substances. Outlook reports one saying, “This is the last job on earth one would want to do. We do this because we do not have an option. There are no other jobs for us in the market. Our identity as manual scavengers makes it even more difficult to seek employment in other sectors. Moreover, social ostracism is so strong that we even have to hide from our family members the nature of our work” (Ashraf).

Photojournalist Sudharak Olwe in a visual essay writes about conservancy workers/sweepers who work for Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation: “All of them are Dalits, belonging to the lowest rung of the caste system. They have little or no education. Without exception, all of them despise their work. They are completely ignored or looked down upon with disgust by the rest of the society. They have to work in the midst of filth, with no protective gear not even access to water to wash off the slime. Most of them are alcoholics and live in poverty, in dismal housing…The workers abuse their wives and children. And when the husbands die, the despised job passes to the widows. The despair continues.” (Olwe)

This social ostracism is fundamental in the ideology of caste, which enforces binaries of pure/impure, good/bad, moral/immoral, upper/lower etc. The Brahminical social order conceptualised by the Indian caste system disseminates the idea of physical and moral pollution wherein the corporeality of the lower castes can destroy the sanctity of the upper castes through contact.

Kapoor states, “Caste thus operates through strict restrictions on the sharing of food and water between different castes, physical segregation of the untouchable castes in terms of spatiality and temporality, restrictions against sharing common resources such as ponds, wells, roads and grazing grounds. Untouchables can be forced to tie a broom around their waist so as to erase their footprints as they walk, wear a spittoon around one’s neck so that contact with her spit cannot pollute others, announce one’s entry into public streets using bells, since even the sound of her voice could cause pollution, at times position themselves so as their shadow does not fall on public roads or on others and lie prostrate when Brahmins pass them… Lower caste individuals are also forced to perform what are perceived as dirty and malodourous tasks such as scavenging, cleaning and carcass-removal. (23)

The refusal to lend a bicycle dissembles as an ineffectual act of human selfishness but reveals centuries of restrictions on access to material and moral resources. The immensely scatological image of shit flinging from his body is a volatile reminder of how following the rules of the caste system, “untouchable bodies must forcefully appear dirty and emit foul odours in order to permanently remain less human than those above them” (Kapoor 27).

The man returns intoxicated with country liquor, another horrifying reality of manual scavengers and their helpless dependence on alcohol and drugs to dull the senses and tolerate the stench. As he worked skillfully, the upper-class observers “stood at a distance and watched him. We thought that if we went closer, we might faint; if we inhaled the shit, we might develop an aversion to food or feel nauseous” (Murugan 163).

The segregation between upper and lower caste bodies is kept vital and effective through caste, and the social values allotted to real and imagined smells, through disgust, repulsion and the still relevant idea of contamination. The manual scavenger climbs out of the septic tank with shit smeared all over his face and smiles, “It was like a pile of shit opening its mouth wide…His thin torso was also covered in shit…Looking up, he said, ‘Shit’, and laughed. That word felt like an angry whiplash on our skin. The relentless lashing echoed through all the rooms, settled and spread out on the ground, filled the sky with its sound, pulled out all the organs of nature as blood gushed out.” (Murugan 165)

The dehumanisation is complete; the monster with the bulging red eyes is now a pile of grinning human excreta, abominable and unearthly. Murugan, with his infinite sensitivity and intelligence, subverts the debased corporeality of the word into something which shatters the banality with awe, shocks one with its multifarious dimensions and propensities of violence and gets hallowed into something simultaneously sublime and fearful.

The word is an offence to polite ears, the laugh even more so and thus, the dubious propriety of refined society is wrenched apart, and the hollow interior is displayed. As he cleans himself, Murugan writes, “But how could he ever become clean again? What could he do about the shit that must have entered through the pores on his skin?” (166). When he asks for water to drink, they are confounded at the basic request. His statement, “Bring it in the utensil you drink from”, is probably another devious way of befuddling them and Murugan’s way of reminding alert readers about the prevalence of separate utensils for house-helps even in contemporary times.

Also read: The State of Women Involved In Manual Scavenging

One of the youths brings water in their treasured plastic tumbler, and “Chortling triumphantly, the sweeper raised the tumbler to his mouth and drank from it with his snout, like a pig; it was perhaps his intention to drench the tumbler in shit” (Murugan 167). Repeatedly it is the prejudiced upper caste/class gaze which narrates the story, but what remains unforgettable is the irrepressible candour of the manual scavenger and the terrible misalliance of cheekiness with caste intolerance.

Also read: Book Review: Bhasha Singh’s Unseen—The Truth About India’s Manual Scavengers

As the tumbler lies discarded, it is exposed as nothing special, a prototype for the superficiality and hypocrisy of the privileged class and the entitlement of caste hierarchy. The triumphant laugh of the manual scavenger is a much more potent weapon than smell. 


Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee has pursued Ph.D. on “Womanhood in Haruki Murakami’s Fiction” from Jamia Millia Islamia. Presently she is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and a regular reviewer of books on her page on Instagram. Her Instagram ID is @chaandreyi

Featured image source: Mint

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