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The potency of smell

Unpleasant odours send signals to the brain to warn us of possible danger

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While Phoebe (actress Lisa Kudrow) in the television sitcom ‘Friends’ sang her way into the hearts of her fans with her unique rendition of ‘Smelly Cat’, the passengers on an air-conditioned bus in India recently sang a different tune.

A tourist from the state of Bihar boarded the Delhi-Varanasi bus and decided to make himself comfortable. He removed his socks and shoes as the bus neared Kangra. The overpowering stench emanating from this passenger soon had the others up in arms. They asked him to throw out his socks or pack them deep in his suitcase. However, the man who had raised a stink, refused to comply with their request. A heated argument ensued and the driver and the conductor had to stop the bus twice to try and resolve the matter. But their efforts proved to be futile.

The passengers forced the driver to take the bus to the nearest police station where they lodged a complaint. The police registered a case of causing a public nuisance against the man. He was later released. Instead of learning a lesson from this, he later filed a counter complaint against the other passengers, saying that his socks did not smell and that they had picked a quarrel with him for no apparent reason.

Body odour can be very offensive but what is strange is the fact that those unfortunate enough to suffer from this, are rarely aware of the problem. Perhaps we can blame this on impaired olfactory nerves but perhaps they should reflect on why people avoid coming too close to them. We have all encountered such hygiene-challenged persons and wonder how they cannot smell themselves. Is it that their noses have gotten used to the odour that it seems perfectly normal to them?

Articles have been written on ways to tell someone that they smell bad but this is easier said than done. If it happens to be a friend, it is even more difficult to break the news to him or her without being rude and sabotaging a friendship.

You can try subtlety by presenting the person with a hamper of deodorants and soaps but if I were that friend, I would be suspicious of the one bearing gifts. Or suggest they buy a certain product, saying it smells divine. If they still don’t get the hint, complain about smells every time they are around. Or talk about a fictitious friend who has this problem with personal hygiene and how you have tried every possible way of letting the pal know that his body odour is offensive and how your advice finally struck home. The person has come clean, so to speak, but you have lost a friend.

If all your little tricks don’t work, perhaps you should come right out with the truth. It might hurt but using phrases such as “I love you but you should know...”or “Don’t be offended but I think you should know...”.

If the friend takes it badly, you can take solace in the fact that although you are one friend short now, the person in question knows what his problem is and, hopefully, will do something to remedy the situation. Console yourself by reasoning that all you did was tell someone the reason why others were avoiding him. And remember the saying “Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.”

They say that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but in this case, the person suffering from body odour is hurting others, not himself.

Unpleasant smells actually send signals to the brain to warn us of possible danger. So, you have a choice. You can be blunt to the point of rudeness by doing someone the favour of telling him what his problem. Or you can run and hide.

Vanaja Rao is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad, India.