In elementary school, I learned about the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. I would be lying if I said I actively sit around and think about how these senses make up my personal reality. In fact, I have taken these senses for granted for a long time. I wake up every day to my blaring alarm knowing that I will open my eyes to see my messy room. I make a note to myself to clean it and it inevitably gets lost underneath papers on my desk. I grab my phone and feel the slippery glass screen that’s covered in my fingerprints because I never remember to clean it. My second alarm painfully blares the ringtone that I’ve grown to hate while I quickly enter my passcode. I reluctantly get out of bed and pop a hazelnut K-Cup in the Keurig, and the brewing coffee aroma fills the kitchen. After adding creamer, I take a sip and purse my lips together. I always end up making it too sweet.
I go about my day knowing that my reality is presented to me through these senses, even if I don’t actively think about it. But lately, my five senses have been acting differently. They now serve as a reminder of past moments in my life — moments that I long for.
I aimlessly scroll through TikTok when I catch a glimpse of the time. It’s 8:00 at night and I’ve done nearly none of my homework that’s due in the next two days. I’ll wake up early and start tomorrow, I think to myself. I slip my feet into my pink house shoes that are tucked under my bed and walk toward the closet to pick out my outfit for tomorrow. My eyes scan through jackets, sweaters and my long sleeves until I see it — the one striped short-sleeved button-up shirt that I “borrowed” from my dad.
I know I should see this shirt and think of my dad, but I don’t. My mind races back to 2018, when Thatha, my grandfather, was given a plain, light blue button-down shirt from a family member. He looked at it and let out a quiet sigh. While the other family members were talking, he turned to me and told me with a small smile that he has a closet full of shirts that look exactly like the one he was just given. I laughed and he said that he can show me the short-sleeved button-up shirt that he wore to my parents’ wedding nearly 25 years ago. According to him, it looked just like the one he just got. Before I could ask him to show me, my auntie asked Thatha a question, and the short-sleeved shirt conversation shifted into a discussion about what the plan would be for tomorrow. The moment slipped away from us.
Now I stare at my one borrowed striped button-up, short-sleeved shirt and think of him. Did he have one just like the one that I have too? I grab it from my closet, deciding I’ll wear it tomorrow.
My friends and I pile into the back of a Toyota Camry and set out towards the Salvation Army just down the street. The car ride is short and filled with potholes, laughs and quiet music playing under our loud voices. Once there, we walk in eagerly. None of us are looking for any clothing item in particular, but this is our favorite pastime in our suburban hometown.
As soon as we walk in, the sound of plastic hangers clanging against each other fills the room. My friends and I split apart and contribute to this noise as we look through clothes. I head towards the women’s section and feel the clothes, pushing aside the ones that I’m not interested in. I swipe through fuzzy corduroy pants, a smooth satin dress, pilling cotton shorts and a rough sequined skirt. My hands freeze for a second and then scramble back to find the skirt that I so brainlessly just pushed away. Once I find it, I delicately run my fingers over the fabric. The seams on the edge of the skirt are splitting, indicating its age. The threads poking out from the stitches are so soft, they slip out of my fingers. The pink sequins are rough and scratchy to the touch. The skirt’s thick cotton is exposed in the areas where the sequins have fallen off.
It doesn’t make sense, but I expect to pull out a lehenga. There’s no reason why a jeweled lehenga would be sold in a thrift store in my predominantly white hometown, but my fingers assume while my brain catches up. I briefly think about how my auntie used to laugh at me for being too picky when we were shopping for lehengas for my brother’s Munji, a religious thread ceremony. I wonder the next time I will have an occasion to wear a lehenga. I would have been at my cousin’s wedding if it wasn’t for school and COVID-19, I think to myself. I push the thought out of my head, trying to convince myself that a scratchy sequined shirt shouldn’t make me miss itchy lehengas and the way my auntie used to poke fun at me for my particular taste. I spend the rest of my time roaming around the thrift store waiting for my friends to finish, unable to forget the skirt and my family that I haven’t seen in years.
I step out of my car into the parking lot of Meijer on Ann Arbor-Saline Road. My fingers go numb in the frigid weather as I pull my phone out of my jacket pocket. 11:30 p.m., it reads. I only have a few things to pick up, but I quickly walk inside knowing that they might close a little before midnight.
I head toward the bundles of browning spinach. All of the good ones have been picked through earlier in the day. This is the price to pay for grocery shopping at night on a weekday. As I dig through the bunches of spinach, I hear a man laughing behind me. His laugh is so loud, it echoes in the nearly empty grocery store. The pitch is low and full, but it feels slightly forced — as if someone had told him he had to laugh on-command. I drop the spinach and whip my head around to the direction of the sound. A middle-aged white man in jeans and a jacket is headed towards the check-out. He is telling another man about his day, and they both smile through their masks. I slowly turn my head back around and grab the spinach I’d dropped.
I try not to be disappointed with the person who laughed. I just expected the man behind the laugh to be my dad. There is no reason that my dad would be in my college city’s grocery store at night, I tell myself. Still though, I thought I would turn around to see my dad dressed in his work clothes on a work call. I thought the laugh that I’d heard was his “work laugh,” the type of forceful laugh that used to fill my childhood home early in the morning during the summers. His real laugh is silent, but his work laugh booms. I wonder if he’s on a call at home, if he’s been working too much.
The elevator opens to the fourth floor of Bursley Residence Hall. My shoes click as I walk down the empty hallway. I reach into the bottom of my backpack in search of my housing card. Once I find it, I swipe my card and swing the door open. As soon as it opens, the scent of jaji (jasmine) floods into the hallway. I stand in the hallway stunned. The smell is subtle, yet familiar. It’s sweet and floral, but not overwhelming. Once I finally walk into the dorm, I expect to see flowers; but instead, my roommate tells me she’s bought a new candle — it smells exactly like jaji.
The scent takes me back to Gandhi Bazaar. Amma holds my hand as we walk the packed streets of Bangalore, her hometown. She walks with purpose towards a stand in the corner of an intersection. I follow her, trying not to get lost in the sea of people. She slows down and looks at me, smiling in anticipation of my excitement. We are in front of a stand that is filled with flower petals weaved on thread. The flowers hang from the tops of the stand and lay on the table. Women sit on the ground carefully weaving the flower petals onto the thread. The aroma of jaji is so strong that it momentarily dulls the smell of pollution from the cars. Amma lets me pick out jaji for both her and myself. She carefully tucks it in my hair, which still smells of jaji days after I take it out.
But for now, I set my backpack down near my desk that is scattered with notebooks and pens. I sleep and dream of the next time I will be able to go to India and put jaji in my hair.
After finishing our meal at an Indian restaurant in my hometown of Rochester Hills, my parents and I place an order for Madras coffee. I am chugging my water in an attempt to get rid of the lingering spicy flavor in my mouth when the three cups of coffee come to our table. In the States, Indian food and coffee usually taste different compared to what we consume in India. I can never put my finger on what it is, but something just feels off. Still though, I hold the small metal tumbler that is hot to the touch and take a sip. My tongue burns in the process.
The hot coffee goes down smoothly and leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. The frothed milk on the top of the coffee tastes creamy but isn’t overwhelming. It’s sweet but not sugary. Upon my first sip, I don’t just taste the coffee — I get a taste of familiarity as well. For the first time, coffee in the States tastes exactly like the coffee my relatives would make for me when I visit India. I take another sip and think back to the times where my siblings and I would joke that our family is the only family that would offer you coffee before you even brush your teeth. Thatha and Ajji would make us coffee first thing in the morning when we were jet-lagged. We would sit in silence as we waited for the coffee to kick in. When Amma woke up, she would ask her parents why they would give her 12-year-old daughter coffee, but I would take a few sips anyway, refusing to let our coffee mornings be taken away.
These moments of nostalgia from the five senses crept up on me when I least expected and reminded me of the memories that I hold closest to me. I took the senses for granted because I got in the routine of expecting things to be what they appear to be and nothing more — coffee as just a warm drink or a sequined skirt as a niche thrift find. It was in these unsuspecting moments that my preconceived idea of the senses became something entirely greater — reminders of my past. I didn’t realize the power of the five senses until their conclusions came first, and my logic came second. Once we recognize the duality between the senses’ simplicity and power, we open ourselves up to a new appreciation for the things that we once marked as routine.
MiC Columnist Meghan Dodaballapur can be reached at email@example.com.