Cover photo of Smell by Rhadika Jha on the left and Author's pic on the right

Smell by Radhika Jha: Book Review

“Smell” is an enjoyable book and a quick read. The plot is quite simple, but using smell instead of the most common visual sensations gives it an overall artistic lure. 

I found the use of words very fluid and captivating. In the beginning, the relations are a bit difficult to remember, who is who to whom. However, as the story progresses, it makes little difference.

The betrayal by fate and family drives Leela’s life. Her reaction to this and consequent choices in order to survive are quite understandable and make one sympathize with her. But as the story progresses, one begins to hate Leela for being so weak and, at times, selfish, and questions oneself, is she justified in her actions given her specific background!

Regarding the title and the main highlight of the story, I applaud the author for the way she has described all of Leela’s experiences from the olfactory sense rather than visual perception. While cooking, she discovers her extraordinary sense of smell:

He led me over to the stove and lifted the lid off a large brass pot. My head jerked back in surprise. Inside the pot a bitter war was being fought between the spices and the chicken because no attempt had been made to marry them.” 

She then ground the garlic and chilies gently and added them to the pot along with yogurt.

Slowly the bitter acrimony in the pot subsided.

It makes us wonder how long it has been since we’ve relied on our sense of smell as guidance, for instance, while cooking. It’s always the taste, the time of cooking, or the presentation. 

From then on, Radhika makes us think about how different relations in our life would smell or what the smell of Love, Hatred, Betrayal, Laughter, Tears, and Freedom would be! 

Smell defines every aspect of Leela’s life. Every place, every person, and every experience is described through the sense of smell.

It is this aspect of the story that makes it stand par for me. In this book, Radhika Jha creates powerful images. At times her writing is so clever it makes you pause and reflect on your identity in context to your place of origin, ethnicity, and self-identity as a person.

Amid all the scents, she notices a subtle presence of a phantom smell. It exhibits itself now and then and threatens to overwhelm all other scents. It’s the acrid smell of her insecurities and despair. As Leela herself explains it,

The smell begins in the brain.

I definitely recommend this book for Leela’s story as she finds herself in a foreign city with a foreign language and an unfamiliar smell. 

It is well-written, using language elegantly to evoke the sight, smells, and experiences of the main character. Although the writing was good, the story-telling lacked an overall depth in some parts of the story, while others seemed to be a bit dragged. 

The end was quite abrupt and disconnecting. It was more of a fairytale ending in which all the relationships and plot points get neatly wrapped up in the end. Leela learns to overcome her fear and self-hate in the end. 

Radhika Jha is an Indian author who studied anthropology at Amherst College and did her Masters in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She lived in Paris as an exchange student. Radhika writes and performs Odissi dancing. She has worked for Hindustan Times and BusinessWorld, writing on culture, the environment, and the economy. She has also worked for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, where she started up the Interact project for the education of the child victims of terrorism in different parts of India. Today she lives in Tokyo with her husband and two children. 

Read more from Radhika Jha

Sonia Ahmed is a short story writer and critic. She writes fiction that stays true to the non-fictitious unvoiced sections of the society. She enjoys writing opinion articles close to her heart. Health and fitness writer by day, she looks for positivity in this increasingly chaotic world.
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June 2024