Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Still In India...

All this talk of Arctic winds makes me feel like sticking to the Indian theme I started yesterday.

Visiting the perfume shops on Muhammed Ali Road is probably similar to what it was like to step inside a British perfumery circa 1960. For a start, there are counters behind which the customer must not set foot. UK shops have almost completely lost the notion of a counter: the strategy is now to allow each potential buyer direct access to whatever he or she wishes to touch. Or perhaps the change was partly sparked by British employees' increasing - and misguided - loathing of being in a position of servitude: if you take the counters away, SAs don't feel their customers are superior to them. Personally, I've always thought that giving someone your time and knowledge has the potential to be a fairly noble activity, but I guess many employees working in the gloriously class-obsessed context of the UK don't see the situation quite like I do. Still, I digress.

Muhammed Ali Road perfumeries most certainly feature counters, as well as rows of oversized, 80s-inspired, comfortable chairs and an endless supply of small bottles of mineral water to fight the effects of the monsoon heat. Lining the walls are floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets inside which are displayed the star attractions: the perfumes themselves. Most of them are stored in heavy, whisky decanter-style crystal bottles which catch and reflect the lights beaming down from the ceiling.

After you're greeted and asked to take a seat, the first question that's aimed at you is, "What type of perfume do you like?"

You're generally expected to give one of three possible answers: European, Indian or Arabic. The latter are almost always the heaviest concoctions: dark, resinous liquids that reek of oud and powerful, diffusive floral notes. The so-called Indian perfumes are perhaps a touch lighter, opting for friendlier, cleaner ingredients. The European ones are probably aimed squarely at the tourist market. Essentially clones of familiar names like Cool Water, Eternity and J'Adore, they're all worth trying for a laugh, but the majority resemble their namesakes only for about two minutes.

When you point at a particular scent you'd like to try, it's lifted off its shelf and brought over to where you're sitting. The sales assistant twists and pulls the stopper, allowing any excess drops to fall back into the bottle. He then hands the crystal bauble to you and steps back. After a few moments, you smile as a familiar line reaches your ears: "It's better if you try it on your skin."

"You're absolutely right," you say, "but I think I'd better just smell it like this first."

And then, before you know it, you find you've spent ages trying perfume after perfume and enjoying a lengthy conversation with the assistant, who turns out to be the owner's grandson and is learning the trade, so that he can take over the business one day. You don't feel for one moment as though you're being pressured into buying a single item, which is why you invariably decide to ask for a small bottle of something. With an iron-steady hand, the assistant - who now feels much more like a guide or a host - pours your selection from the massive whisky decanter into a small, daintily decorated flacon which then gets tucked away inside a velvet box. You shake his hand, take one last sniff of the incredible sandalwood-infused incense he waves in your direction and you step back into the crowds.

The next time I walk into a John Lewis or Debenhams and get attacked by the pointy end of a blotter, I think I'll just close my eyes for a moment and remember all of the above.



  1. This sounds absolutely lovely and reminds me of my time in the Middle East. So did you find anything that rang such a chord you had to buy it??
    PS: That's a hoot about the "European perfumes"!

  2. I had goosebumps at "you smile as a familiar line reaches your ears." That moment when something is so pleasing you can't help but have the biggest grin on your face.

    Lovely told short story :) I had the same experience in Rome. I wasn't being forced into buying anything, rather, it just happened that way. Good technique or just, I really wanted that Neroli cologne!

  3. Marla, I most definitely did buy a few things, most notably a beautiful sandalwood oil and a small bottle of an incredibly potent vetivert oil.

  4. Liam J, thanks very much. And you're absolutely right: sometimes the most effective sales techniques are those that involve no active 'selling' at all.

  5. This sounds like when I used to go to the Middle East! It's beautiful, isn't it. What a beautiful way to discover new scents as well. I had brands I had never heard of before and I sniffed and finally back home I felt Stendhal's syndrome in an olfactory way of speaking! But it was lovely!

  6. Vintage Lady, it was very special. I'd go back to Mumbai any day.

  7. oh heavan. I'm reading through all you India related posts - homesickness, yes. In Delhi, please visit Chandni Chowk and look for the perfume lane. There is a shop called Gulabchand. Their attar gill is as they said 'the earth after the rain'

    1. Mridula, thanks very much.

      I have been to Delhi once - several years ago - and I'm almost certain that I went to Chandni Chowk, but I don't remember a perfume lane. I'll have to go back ;-)

      Which part of India are you from?


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