excerpt from The Emperor of Scent

Turin’s plane lands in Bombay. The next morning, he gets up early and leaves on his pilgrimage to Mohamedali Road, famous for perfume, firecracker shops, and muglai food snack joints. He is looking for the rare and expensive perfume ingredient oudh.

Perfume shops are everywhere. Peer into their dim interiors, and most look like old, dusty apothecaries, lined with large metal containers and huge glass jars of things. There is Arabic writing—virtually the entire immense perfumery business in Bombay is Muslim—and English, and Hindi and Gujarati script in some places. He walks slowly, selecting the right store. He enters one and asks, “Do you have oudh?” Yes, yes, they do, and they get it and he smells it, very excited, and he frowns and there’s some discussion and it turns out that no, this is a synthetic. “You don’t have the real thing.” No, sir, don’t have real thing, very sorry. He leaves politely.

Beggar kids are collecting like a cloud of flies, buzzing in odd orbits around him as he walks, demanding money and dancing daringly close. He sort of ponders their existence, mostly ignores them and examines the stores.

He tries another place. This time they just say: No. No have oudh.

On the street he purses his lips. Sighs gently. “Damn. This stuff is going to be hard to find.”

He tries another place, they say, Have, have! Synthetic have!

He walks along the dusty road, cars and trucks grinding along noisily, people streaming. Stops before Abdul Aklur, 107 C. Mohamedali Road, 400 003, then goes in.

A few old men and a boy, a teenager. All Muslim—the hats, the clothes differentiate them from the Hindus. The beggar kids make a pro forma effort to follow him in, retreat immediately to the street at a glare from one of the men. The boy approaches like a cat, silently, not hostile, not helpful. Turin, perusing the bottles behind the counters with great interest, appears not to notice the boy’s opaqueness. He points at amber 320. “Could I smell that?” The boy gets down amber 320, dips in the strip, hands it to Turin silently. Turin blinks at it. The smell strip has “Robertet” printed on it. Turin laughs out loud. “Here in the middle of India, smelling things with Robertet”—he gives it the French pronunciation—“smelling strips. Robertet is one of the two or three truly great Grasse firms still producing naturals.” He smells the amber 320, asks for another amber to compare, which the boy wordlessly delivers. “Hmm. Hmm.”

He narrows his eyes, visually strafes bottles on top of bottles, stops on a rose. The boy moves toward it, hands over the smell strip. “Very peculiar. Very peculiar.” The boy gives him a few more. “Now here’s an interesting one. This is why Susan Maas, who works on smell, is so ignorant. ‘You mean you can smell seratonin?’ ” He mimics her. “Little does she know, silly cow, that if you remove the amino group from serotonin you get indole, one of the strongest odors around. We smell indoles all day, especially when we crap. Fecal matter is filled with indoles.”

He starts questioning the boy about the ingredients. Gets the boy to talk, a bit. Kannauj, it turns out, is where everything is made. He sniffs the amber 320 again. “When it settles down, it’s actually a very nice, earthy amber.” But he is restless. His eyes scan the rows of glass bottles. He says, more to himself, “But you don’t have oudh.” The young Muslim watches him and then says, emotionless, “Have oudh.”

Turin’s eyebrows shoot up. “Natural?”

“Yes. Natural.”

Turin’s eyebrows go up farther. “You have natural oudh?”

The boy just looks at him, impassive. Then he says: “You want smell.”

“Yes, I want to smell it.” Turin waits, holding his breath. The boy starts moving, catlike. He gets down a large glass bottle with a particularly ornate, garishly painted flower exterior, topped with a round glass plug. He dips in the smell strip, holds it out. Turin accepts it with reverence and skepticism. Holds it to his nose like a lit and trembling match flame licking at the tip of a finger. He breathes in. His eyes are open, but he is seeing nothing. He breathes out. He breathes in.

The oudh is unbelievable. Incredibly strong, first of all. It knocks you over, clubs you like a falling stone. But its vast dimension is what astonishes: a huge smell, spatially immense, and incredibly complex, a buttery layer as deep as a quarry, entirely animalic in impact, and yet the oudh itself is not actually an animalic, spicy without being a spice. The fungus—the tiny organic bugs that have eaten, digested, and defecated this sensual wood—have left behind their fragrance, and oudh is the smell of this rotten, priceless wood and billions of tiny dead animals. How much? The boy points first at the amber, the best-quality amber, gives the price for one dohla, or eleven grams, in rupees. Turin does the calculation rapidly in U.S. dollars. About $33.80 for eleven grams of the amber. “Huh!” says Turin, “The Ruhkhus A/Y, this absolutely incredible cucumber, only costs about, ah”—he calculates—“five dollars and thirty cents for eleven grams.” He turns to the boy. “And the oudh?”

“Oudh,” says the boy, “one dohla,” and gives the price in rupees. Turin does a lightning calculation, looks at the boy, smiles. One dohla, eleven grams, of oudh is $309.

Turin leaves both thoughtful and elated. He takes a turn down a side street, walks maybe forty yards, the child swarm following, pushing and yelling a bit, and on his left he sees a store that has, over it, a sign reading aqua aroma. It is almost literally a hole in the wall, a room that is more a very large five-sided box. Red and tan coir carpets. Just enough room for a guest or two to sit on the six-by-six-foot floor amid bottles atop bottles. From his seat in the big box, Quraysh Aziz Attarwalla is watching him, expressionless. (Attarwalla means “perfume seller” and functions as both family name and occupational designation, like Smith.) Turin looks up at him. “Hello,” says Turin, stopping. The attarwalla nods his head, once. His hand indicates the coir carpet. Turin takes off his shoes, climbs up on the carpeting, and sits cross-legged.

“Are you interested in perfumes?” asks the attarwalla.

“Yes,” says Turin.

An assistant is dispatched scurrying for tea, and the attarwalla begins with a sandalwood from Mysore, a natural. “Very nice,” says Turin, “it’s good stuff.” One dohla for three hundred rupees, about six dollars. They talk. Turin mentions perfume ingredients, flowers, gives the provenance of a classic perfume. The attarwalla takes it in impassively but shifts into a different—collegial, now—demeanor. He proposes a geranium. It is one hundred rupees for one dohla, two dollars. Turin inhales it, and his face automatically turns upward. The movement means nothing but that he is processing the smell. “Minty, aromatic.” He is gazing up, not seeing the light blue Indian sky, his focus interior. He smells again. “Oh! Of course. The stalk is prominent, that’s the greenhouse–flower shop note.” Looks down, says crisply: “People don’t realize that geranium is heavily mint.”

The Muslim attarwalla considers this. “Call me Quraysh,” he says. He evaluates Turin. Then he has his assistant bring out some ingredients. He makes these smells himself, he says. He takes his own raw materials, macerates them, processes the smells, puts them in the bottles. He is the manufacturer for and proprietor of this tiny little store. He says this matter-of-factly. Offers his chameli—tiny white Indian flowers—and then a jasmine. Turin notes, quite frankly, that the jasmine starts wonderfully and then descends into pure aldehyde soap. He doesn’t try to be polite about it, he simply states it, but Quraysh acknowledges it with perfect equanimity. It’s true. It does. Some are better than others.

He says, “I also create my own perfumes.”

“Oh, really,” says Turin with interest.

He hands Turin a business card:

Quraysh Aziz Attarwalla
Aqua Aroma
47 Bhajipala Street, Near Crawford Market, Mumbai 400 003, India
Tel (91-22-3443432)

“I would like to present you my own perfume creation,” he says.

“Great,” says Turin.

Quraysh motions to the assistant, who quickly reaches up the wall of boxes and hands down something. The smelling strip. “I call it Rebecca.”

Turin smells Rebecca. “Nice. Like Tresor. A peony-and-jasmine effect.” He smells. “Opopanax?”

Quraysh: “No. Mostly C11, C10 aldehydes.”

Turin: “Ah, that’s it, Chanel No. 5!”

Quaraysh (laughs): “OK, yes.”

Turin realizes something. He’s alerted: there’s an experiment to do here. But how to do this. . . . He tries not to startle his quarry, works toward it elliptically. “So,” he enters casually, “what do you think of C10?”

Quraysh likes it. “Smooth, fruity.”

Turin: “And C11?”

Quraysh says, “Coconut oil.” Harsher.

Turin: “C12?”

Quraysh says, Yes, fruitier again.

Turin is grinning, swinging in on it now. “Really? So you think C10 is like C12?”

And then it comes: “Yes,” says the attarwalla. “The even numbers are softer and fruitier. The odd numbers are harsh.”

Turin looks at him, grinning like the Mad Hatter. It is the observation his Vibration theory predicts.

The beggar kids hover outside in the invisible no-fly zone that surrounds all commercial establishments. When they start to clamor, the assistant snaps at them and they hush. Quraysh shows Turin a synthetic rose, then khus, a sort of supergreen made, Quraysh tells him, of vetiver.

Turin goes through sandalwoods as Indian scooters honk piercingly, each shattering blast on the upper edge of the human auditory spectrum, ringing bells, kicking up dust from the baked asphalt. He asks if Quraysh has created a truly expensive perfume. Quraysh brings out one he calls Novalia. “Somewhat close to Rebecca,” says Turin, thinking about it. “A little more heart.” Quraysh: “Yes. Like Charlie, don’t you think?” Turin thinks about it. “It’s fruitier than Charlie. That’s a more classic chypre. This has a powdery, fruity note. Sugary, with a spice. I find this more modern.” He inhales. “Really nice. Really nice. What’s it like in drydown?”

The Indian is pleased as punch. He laughs, but there is a reticence. He says, “Don’t just say that to be polite. It’s encouraging to me, and I feel—”

Turin: “No, no! Not at all! Believe me!”

Quraysh (wistfully): “—because you in the West have a more scientific way of doing this.” (Turin makes a face that conveys utter contempt for the West.) “Here we create perfumes only hit or miss.”

Turin (snorts): “How the hell do you think they do it in the West?”

Quraysh: “What perfumes do you like?” Turin recommends Tocade. “It’s for women?” asks Quraysh. “Yes,” says Turin. “I wear it occasionally.” The attarwalla hands him another of his own compositions. He enunciates the name: Musk Tea. Turin puts it on his hand. The Indian raises an eyebrow. “You’re smelling it on your hand? That’s not the right way, is it?” “I do it this way often,” says Turin, “because it makes it move faster.” “Hm!” says Quraysh, delighted. Turin smells the elixir on his hand. A dark, intoxicating mix of the mild South Asian narcotic pan, sopari (the flavoring that comes from the drug betel nut), tobacco, musky and animalic. “An absolutely classic base, the animalic,” says Turin, “very 1900s Paris. They were all like this. I think the person who figures out how to make this smell modern is worth millions.”

A band of beggars and women with babies have joined the children just below the box and are floating daringly just inside the no-fly zone. The assistant gives them a dark look. Back. They demur, warily. They are patient and, every time Turin glances toward them, encouraging. We’re here. A few coins afterward?

They talk about Brut. “Now, the old Brut,” says Turin, “the first one, that had a lot of nitro musks in it. It gave that tremendous sweetness.”

Quraysh: “So what do they use now?”

Turin scrunches up his face, thinking. “If they have the money, they have macrocyclics.”

Quraysh: “Ah! Yes. We get some very good musk xylol here.”

Turin: “Really! They have a fantastic effect in composition. These are the musks that came from TNT. The explosive, trinitro toluene. These things just have a couple more methyls and an aldehyde group.”

Quraysh hands him another home brew. Turin’s eyes narrow. 

Almost warily: “Dihydromyrcenol?”

Quraysh’s head goes back: “Yes!”

Turin laughs as well. “I’m impressed I got that one.” He explains, “It’s the nutmeg effect.” He lauds the lack of vanilla. “Vanilla has been used so much; every time people run out of ideas they put in vanillin. It’s become completely banal, and unless you get the very top, the Guerlains, Shalimar, arguably the great Big Vanilla . . . Otherwise, well, it’s the usual suspects, ethyl vanillin, maltol . . .” He rolls his eyes. He says, “Someone once criticized Jacques Guerlain to Ernest Beaux for using vanilla. Beaux retorted, ‘When I use vanilla, I get crème caramel. When Jacques uses vanilla, he gets Shalimar.”

This reminds him. “Guerlain,” he recounts, “used to buy his vanillin from de l’Aire, whose first vanillins were all yellow with rubbish, infected with all sorts of things, smelt of guaiacol and everything. Then de l’Aire improved the extraction method, and suddenly he was producing a very nice, pure vanillin. And Guerlain didn’t want it. He actually paid more money for the dirty vanillin infected with crap. It was more interesting, and de l’Aire thus carried on making dirty vanillin for years.”

Quraysh: “We do that. We actually get the best labdanum we can and then distort it.”

Suddenly, Turin changes the subject eagerly. If he might? Oudh. If the attarwalla has some? Natural? (This is his standard procedure. Try the smell, try it again, get a fix on it, imprint it in memory, figure it out.)

Ah, says Quraysh, oudh . . . He motions briskly with a hand, and the assistant scurries out for some oudh. He says that the name oudh comes from the Arabic word udder, which means “wood.”

Hmm, says Turin. It’s a sweet, honey amber, says Quraysh, not animalic. Turin frowns. “Right next door to you, we got this stuff here.” He takes out the oudh smelling strip from Abdul Aklur, glares bemusedly at it. “Hugely animalic. Like castoreum!” The assistant pops back with an almost microscopic bottle in his palm. “This is immensely expensive,” says Quraysh, needlessly, given the size of the bottle. He has to fold the smell strip in half lengthwise to force it through the tiny opening. “A woody,” says Quraysh, extracting a few of the precious molecules on the strip of paper. He hands it over.

Turin leans into the scent. In lotus position, he holds himself over it. Then: “You don’t call this animalic?” At Abdul Aklur, Turin reveled in the smell. Here he is analyzing it. This one is slightly different.

Quraysh: “I call it woody.”

Turin (grudging): “Weeeellll. . . . OK, woody a bit, but animalic.”

Quraysh: “In the Middle East, they say civet.”

Turin: “It has a slight civet note, but really more castoreum.”

Quraysh: “Castoreum, yes, but castoreum giving it a woody effect.”

They jab and feint. Quraysh says cedar, and Turin finally does get that. “Ye-es, yes, now I see the wood angle.” He is rolling the scent around, twitching the strip through the air with thumb and forefinger, sending shots through his neural wiring every which way he can. “When you said cedarwood, that did it. Fascinating! Of course, with the prices we’re talking about, maybe three perfume houses are going to buy this stuff. And Chanel may want to have a tiny bit just for reference. But it’s like natural iris butter. No firm can afford it because no customers can afford to buy perfumes made with it.”

Quraysh: “Ten thousand dollars per kilo?” In the West, he means.

Turin: “Oh, more than that.” Turin is familiar with the Agony of oudh among perfumers in the West. “By the time it gets to them we’re talking forty thousand. There’s a firm called Laboratoire Monique Remy—they do absolutely the best. They have a stupendous narcissus. And one . . . I forget the name, a tiny flower that only grows, wild, in central France, they pick it by hand, I smelled it once.” He has to stop talking at the devastating memory of the scent. Then he snaps back: “Then the accountants start demanding substitutions, and the quality goes down, down, down, down.”

Quraysh has a synthetic oudh at eleven grams for eight hundred rupees, or seventeen dollars, so it’s one-eighteenth the price of Abdul Aklur’s, but it’s also one-eighteenth the smell. No comparison. Quraysh says he can’t figure out what they’re putting in this thing. He studied three years of chemistry in Bombay, “but it’s not enough for this,” he says, regretful.

“A lot of perfumers know no chemistry at all,” says Turin, supportively.

“I make my perfumes by trial and error,” admits Quraysh somewhat forlornly.

“That’s how they all do it,” Turin yells. The Indian looks at him sharply, wonderingly. Turin raises both eyebrows, grins, nods. “Those guys in their big gleaming expensive labs in Switzerland and France, they gas-chromatograph everything, and then in the end they just try sticking everything with everything else and smell it all. And that’s it.” Quraysh thinks about it. He feels better. He turns around with interest, selects, hands Turin another bottle. Turin inhales. “You really have the nitro as your base note in that one.”

“Yes, I love it. I put in a tree moss,” the attarwalla says, slightly doubtful, “because here, you see, you have a real spicy turmeric smell. And that will clean it. But . . .” He asks for Turin’s advice on how to improve it.

Ah. Turin settles into this seriously. His whole body both relaxes and stiffens, preparing. His eyes go not exactly soft-focus but rather hard-focus on the smell, which looks similar. The bottle levitates under his nose. He frowns. “There’s a beta-damascone, a single molecule with a clean floral-woody wittiness that would help you achieve the woodiness with a seventy-five percent oak moss. It’s a great note to balance, a wry presence, a dried-fruit note—very clean—at high concentration.” The Indian is sitting absolutely stock-still. Not writing it, absorbing it. The bottle still hovers, vision lasering nothing. “I would start with a woody moss base, and then I would add emoxyfurone until you get just that spicy effect that you don’t have with the moss. And then I’d sweeten it with maltol.” Turin lowers the bottle. Eyes snap back. Some mechanics now: “Maceration is at room temperature. You put your whatever it is in pure ethanol, forget it for six months, come back, filter it, and that’s it. You get whatever dissolves in alcohol. Problem is, the quality’s not constant.”

Quraysh: “What do you use to dilute?”

Turin: “Oh, well, normally I use dipropylene glycol.”

The perfumer pauses slightly. Up on Mohamedali Road, an immense truck lumbers anciently past, demurely covering itself with a veil of thick black diesel smoke. The beggar children have lowered their hands. They’re just watching now. The attarwalla frowns, pleasantly. “What do you do, incidentally? Professionally.”

“I’m a scientist,” says Turin. “At University College London. I research smell.”