We’ve heard of the term ‘Good cop, bad cop’. There was a time when Aamir Khan would turn up on our television screens on Sunday mornings, teaching children the difference between ‘good touch, bad touch’. Over the last few days, a variation on these phrases has got stuck in my head: ‘Good smell, bad smell’. The former emanates from Akhilesh Yadav’s socialist perfume; the latter from the toxic foam that bloomed on the Yamuna, creating a bubble bath of ammonia. I had visions of devotees taking a dip in polluted waters, then having a bucket bath at home — a second round of cleansing — before finally dunking themselves in political eau de toilette or eau de Dimple, if you may.
On the day of Chhath Puja, the situation in the Yamuna resembled the terrible beauty of war. The point was not lost on the devotees who wasted no time in taking selfies while wading in white candy floss. They appeared to be pop stars in a music video. Or an episode of Mahabharata meets an episode of Pop Time, a programme dedicated to Indian pop that Doordarshan used to broadcast in the 1990s, and which made generous use of the smoke machine during live performances.
Was there a soap-bubble man lying on the river bed, merrily blowing bubbles? Had someone taken a can of shaving foam and played a prank on the river? If nothing else, it looked like a very original commercial for a brand of detergent.
The authorities tried everything to remove the foam, from spraying water and launching motorboats to barricading the river and scooping out the pretty blobs. All this amounted to little more than a drop in the ocean. It would be better if we accepted defeat: Let’s face it that we are terrible at tackling pollution of air and water. It happens year after year. The devotees, their faith unshaken, still went ahead with the ritual. They could not even catch a glimpse of the sun, central to the puja, because of the thick layer of smog. It would be better if we thought of an alternative.
One option is to create an Olympic-sized dip pool. It doesn’t have to be deep since no one will use it for swimming. It can be shaped like a river, with bends and curves. It should be filled with purified water from the Yamuna; a filtration plant will keep recycling the water. Throw in some boats for decorative purposes. Everyone will get ten minutes in this artificial Yamuna, enough to offer prayers and prevent overcrowding. An electric sun can be installed at the site, a fake orb but one that is visible nonetheless. This will be puja in simulated conditions, not the same as the real thing, but it will at least be a safe puja. Otherwise, the same scene will repeat itself the next year, with political parties and states passing the buck and blaming the other, none of which helps the devotee’s cause.
Meanwhile, downstream in Kannauj, Akhilesh had his own solution to counter bad smells and the pollution of the secular soul: Samajwadi ittar. This made international headlines, including a report in the Jamaican Observer. Most Hindu immigrants in the Caribbean originally belong to Uttar Pradesh, a fact discussed in detail in VS Naipaul’s Area of Darkness, in a chapter called ‘Village of the Dubes’. They still like to keep in touch with fragrant news from the home state.
While the world is racing to find a cure to the coronavirus, from pills to vaccines, the ‘scientists’ of SP apparently raced against time to produce the socialist perfume in just under four months. Dubbed ‘the scent of socialism’, the bottle sports an image of the party symbol — the bicycle. ‘The scent of a bicycle’ might have been a more apt description. The perfume is made of twenty-two ingredients drawn from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The number of ingredients is meant to reflect the year of elections: 2022. The fragrance also contains soil, so don’t be surprised if you spot a karela creeper growing in your vial. A party member said, “When you use it the anger and hatred in the air will be defeated.” The pollutants in the air will remain unchanged.
I wondered where Akhilesh got the idea from. Of course, Dimple and he represent Kannauj, the Paris of the East (as far as perfumes are concerned), the ittar central of UP. Years ago, Dimple and Akhilesh had got stuck in a faulty Otis lift in Lucknow. Perhaps the idea was seeded then; claustrophobia and adversity have a way of igniting the creative light bulb in the head.
This is a limited edition perfume — only one lakh bottles (sporting party colours red and green) will be distributed initially. As a seasoned investor, I’d highly recommend readers grab as many bottles as they can. Trust me, this will appreciate faster than bitcoin and, in a few years, will overtake vintage YSL perfumes in value.
For those who fail to lay their hands on this edition, there is still hope. There will be a sequel for the 2024 elections, which will be made of twenty-four ingredients. It’s not clear as of now if this one will be called eau de Mulayam. Die-hard collectors should also look at locating limited edition bottles of a Samajwadi perfume that was launched in 2016. Four fragrances inspired by four UP cities were launched in 2016. The occasion? To celebrate Akhilesh’s four years in office. They are selling on the dark web for crores.
The officially-mentioned noble intention underlying the ittar is that it is ‘the fragrance of brotherhood, love and socialism.’ But there is a link between the launch of these perfumes and the alluring smell of votes. To that extent, it reminded me of a Pulp song called ‘Cocaine Socialism’, in which the singer, Jarvis Cocker, takes a dig at Tony Blair’s New Labour and its fading promise (Cocker has two popular songs called ‘Common People’ and ‘Misshapes’; in the following lyrics a Labour MP is asking him to cross over to his party):
“Well you sing about common people,
And the misshapes and the misfits,
So can you bring them to my party,
Can you get them all to sniff this?
All I'm really saying is,
Come on and rock the vote for me,
All I’m really saying is come on, roll up that note for me,
Your choice in all of this is:
Do you want hits or do you want misses?
Are you a socialist?
And we’ve waited such a long time for the chance to help our own kind,
So now please come on and toe the party line”
The writer is the author of ‘The Butterfly Generation’ and the editor of ‘House Spirit: Drinking in India’. Views expressed are personal.