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Does this happen to you? A visual image or a musical note or a smell brings back a strong memory unrelated to your current reality? Moves you strongly and leaves you just a little disoriented?

A week ago, I was in my car stopped at a red light. It was afternoon traffic, fairly light. A couple of blocks ahead, at a slight curve in the road, there was a woman walking towards me. Bundled in a knee-length coat with light-colored pants there wasn’t much about her I could see. I had a sense of a woman of average height and average weight but nothing more. Yet, something in the way she moved, with one arm slightly angled, I had this flash of a few African women carrying water and walking single file in a Saharan landscape. This was truly an instinctive/flash image. As the light changed and I moved forward, I was sort of taken aback to see that the woman was of African descent. Why did I make that connection in my head? Was it some sort of sub-conscious stereotyping? After some more self-examination, I honestly believe that it was a sort of visceral memory, for lack of a better phrase.

Image courtesy of China Daily

It fascinates me that the lady and her body language brought back strong memories of a place and situation which I know only through books and movies. I hope to visit Africa one day but until then all I have is these flashing images!

As I thought some more about this oddity of a memory that is not really a memory, I remembered another occasion from a long time ago. I had just read a magazine article by an Indian writer about monsoons in Kerala and she had spoken about the sound of the rain falling on the roof tiles. Her nostalgia became mine and I felt a strong pang for that sound even though I had never heard that particular sound….she was a good writer! I have tried Googling and I am not able to find that piece. Will continue my search. Friends offered to try to recreate the sound by placing objects outside in the California rains, It didn’t feel quite right!

I know. Neither of these really qualifies as visceral memory. Given that they are not my experiences, they can’t be my memory, right? I love that the brain or mind retains these bits and pieces of evocative sensory memories. It adds so many layers to our everyday experiences.

I do have one of my own to share. The smell of the dry earth before the rains: as the clouds gather and the skies turn gray, as the temperatures drop a little and the breeze becomes stronger, there is this smell, that is distinctive. It is called “manvaasanai” in Tamil – literal translation would be “smell of the soil” but a more apt interpretation is “scent of the earth.” And it is a truly glorious smell! It captures all the drama of the changing weather of the tropics. I get a whiff of this smell in summer sometimes, far from the tropics, when a neighborhood sprinkler comes on to quench the parched soil….and for a moment it takes me to a far away place and time.

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