VARANASI by MEO FUSCIUNI (2020)

Varanasi is a fascinating perfume. It smells like baking hot sun on a mud-cracked river basin; warm, dirty, vast in scope, human and poignant, with a tangible mysticism rooted in its theme: the holiest of Hindu pilgrim sites, where the funeral pyres burn continuously, forever, in an open-aired cycle of life of death. There is an ashen quality, like grey clay; incense; a smattered of spices; a thick centre of gurjun balsam, cardamom, saffron oud and spikenard over leather and animal notes that feels more ‘experiential’ than personal-sensual – very centred on an unfamiliar emotion – although the whole glows with a unification of ingredients that works. Peculiar, exacting, – it lasts a very long time on skin, and is somewhat linear, like an immeasurable panorama majestically rising up and then slowly fading from view: a curious scent that does feel alive with another person’s memory of a place I have never been.

I have never been to India. We would both love to go there, but there is just one thing preventing us. Our stomachs. Even Meo Fusciuni, the creator of this Italian perfume line, clearly very passionate about this work, cannot help mentioning in his travelogues some inevitable references to terrible illnesses, stomach cramps, shivers; quite frightening and hallucinatory sickness; almost every person I have ever spoken to who has been there, many multiple times, because they become addicted to something there that I want to know myself, say that although on certain occasions they will be fine, equally often they will not. Madame Persolaise and her consort go to India for months at a time, often without incident, others quite desperately ill. A Canadian friend of mine who has travelled through much of the country and loves nowhere better, tells me that such is her great yearning for the place, she accepts the ‘Delhi Belly’ as just a part of the general experience that for people not from India cannot be avoided. You move through it and move on. The pros outweigh the cons. I am still not sure, though. Having experienced true horror in Laos when I thought Duncan was lying dead before me in the middle of the night (out stone cold, unconscious, white as a sheet, naked on the hotel bathroom floor in Vientiane – see full story here), I am afraid of it happening again. Having suffered a different gastric flu in Cambodia, his body so hot in our hotel in Pnom Penh it was almost painful to touch, as well as my own terrible bout of incapacitating stomach illnesses in Java, where I couldn’t leave my hotel room for days, and was very weakened, I know we both have very delicate entrails and I have to always weigh this up against considerations of spiritual ravishment and aesthetic delectation. Hopefully I have not become a total coward and a bore, but I think the older you get, the less you are willing to put your system through it. Vietnam was fine – D pronounced the food there the best he has ever eaten and the cuisine that most suits him: our worst was surprisingly our travels through Mexico, which violently didn’t agree with us. Whatever oil is used in the food there simply didn’t suit – not to be too graphic, but the toilet bowl issues you usually expect from these travesties to the intestinal tract were quite the opposite in every place we went to there. I don’t think either of us could go for what felt like weeks. Bloated beyond reckoning. Duncan just eventually stopped eating.

Intestines aside (we both adore Indian food, and I have poor impulse control: what would I do, just eat crackers and try to resist it? I would be doomed), I know in my heart I would be ecstatically hyperstimulated the moment I arrived anywhere in India, a feeling I long for again. Like most people I miss travelling, the absorption of the newness making each day seem three times longer than a normal one, the osmosis through the skin membrane of the colours and the smells into your bloodstream and memorybrain, even if my recollections of all the places I have been in my life still percolate through my veins and flash into my mind’s eye on a regular basis – I have not yet reached cultural cabin fever. I am still ok for now, still fine with just Kamakura, but I know once the vaccinations are all done – so wonderful they are working – and the airlines are back up in the air with regular passengers, the wanderlust will naturally rear its head. We were once fairly recently on the verge of booking a trip to Chennai and Colombo; we quite fancy going to the Philippines as well. I wonder if we will after all make it to India. There is always that hesitation. I once knew some Japanese freshmen in my company who, in order to celebrate getting jobs and wanting to bond hard on a special trip together, went to Varanasi, where they jumped gung ho right into the Ganges and then spent the entire week violently ill in their hotel rooms. I don’t think I could go into the water myself, but I don’t doubt for a moment that witnessing, and smelling, the funeral rites, the continual cremations of corpses, done publicly day and night by the banks of the river, must in some ways alter your interior landscape.. “Varanasi is my India”, Fusciuni writes. “When you listen to Varanasi, imagine the water, flowing in the bowels of the earth, touching the roots of everything, nourishing our soul. Varanasi is an olfactory mandala”.

It is easy, from the outside, to be cynical about the ‘westerner’ being transformed by his fascination with the ‘East’. People ‘finding themselves’. I think of Julia Roberts in the unbearably vacuous Eat Pray Love. Spoiled selfish woman goes bindi and spiritual. A few garlands of saffron coloured flowers. Some people base their whole ‘new identity’ on a bit of hemp and souvenir shop Buddhas – it can get tacky. I have a good childhood friend who once got waylaid by an Indian cult for many years, but then luckily found her way out again, not that I think she regrets the experience in its entirety, as she learned a great deal from it; trinkets aside, learning and developing is ultimately for me what it is all about. There can be no doubt, also, that the fact I have lived precisely half my life in each cultural sphere – 25 years in both, and you can’t really get much more ‘eastern’ than Japan – has had a profound impact on my thinking and philosophy as a whole on life as well. In my case, I had to feel other ways of being: I can never, ever just accept one set of rules. What I have learned personally is that The East is powerful, but then so is the West. The intense fascination works both ways – Japan, like many Asian cultures, has long been mesmerized by the Occident, even if it cherrypicks what it absorbs into its own culture and rejects the rest. Precisely what I do myself with any culture. You learn from both, but see the faults. Extreme egotism in the west vs the apparent virtual obliteration of it here : it rends the soul trying to get to the truth of it all, which realities are ‘realer’ or feel more truthful to you as a person. Daily life, rituals, customs, all gets questioned and analysed – it frees you from a certain calcification of the mental arteries. English weddings, for instance, to take just one example, are far more fun and spontaneous for me than the ultra scripted, fake-Christian-chapel white dressed kekkonshiki that are planned and rehearsed to a microsecond and presented by a professional ‘MC’ who usually doesn’t even know the couple, blessed by a ‘priest’ who could be anyone (I have two friends in the underground cabaret and poetry scene who double as priests as well-paid weekend part time jobs; two hour jam-packed breathy events that to me feel just like being on a TV show (traditional Japanese weddings are different, more solemn and affecting, although most couples these days opt for the former style). Me and D, when invited, are usually just screaming to get out of them, as, the complete lack of spontaneity and the veneer of showroom commercialism – and the de rigeur, overly rich and heavy French cuisine which always has D running furtively to the bathroom, to me is not the ideal expression of love. The weddings I have been to in England begin with the ceremony (even if they are not Christian, the vows have usually been exchanged at least in a real church, with an ordained minister standing in front of the crucifix – in Japan it is just an empty decoration, a prop). Then, when the drink gets flowing, it gets more chaotic, the day gradually flows into evening, everyone dancing, and it starts to really feel like a celebration. In Japan, people don’t dance.

In contrast, I think British funerals – at least the Church Of England ones I have been to – feel insufficient; lack closure, the sense of a full taking stock of a person. A thirty minute time slot, with few or no personalized touches, no readings, another family waiting outside for their turn out in the car park, a quick cremation, with words from a religious person that don’t seem to fit the person in question, (who was not usually religious anyway), it can often seem just a rushed, a grim formality, a whole life processed in such a short time that to me it has almost felt like something of an insult. A crummy ending. I believe that people deserve more. In Japan, funerals are Buddhist; the deceased is never left alone; there is a wake immediately with flowers and monks chanting and incense constantly burning as the sutras help the spirit go on to the next life, and then the cremation ceremony, and the careful placing of the cremated bones – picked solemnly and carefully by close relatives with chopsticks and placed in the urn – as well as ceremonies held once every seven days for the next 49 days until the spirit is safely in the next world. I have always found it more respectful and appropriate. A proper send off.

Quite how I would feel, though, if I were by the Ganges, watching dead bodies float by, seeing the pyres burning with the recently passed, I don’t know. That would be a new step in a whole different direction. I might be transfixed, or horrified, I can’t say. Both. Fascinated, certainly. I could not watch a person self-immolate : but the Sati law was thankfully passed in India in 1987, meaning that the practice of suttee, whereby widows would sometimes climb atop the structure to burn with their husbands while still alive is no longer permitted. Whatever the cultural or religious origins, that would have been too traumatizing.

A writer for National Geographic, Pete McBride, in 2014 documented his feelings on being present at the ghat on the Ganges, where people had gathered to say farewell to their relatives :

“When you step off a wooden boat onto the banks of the burning ghat in the oldest of India’s cities and you weave through a maze of funeral pyres hissing, steaming, and spitting orange embers into an inky night and you feel the metronome clang bells vibrating inside your chest and a wave of furnace-like heat consuming everything in its reach, you realise how removed you truly are from the ritual of death. I’ve lost my fair share of friends and family. I don’t feel sheltered from the bony hand of death. But when I stepped on Varanasi’s famous cremation ghat, which runs 24/7, burning hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight, it dawned on me how physically distant most of use are from the departed. In the west, the dead are typically hidden away either to be beautified for a funeral or be cremated, depending on beliefs. Either way, bodies are rarely seen again. Some might argue it is civilised, clean, or perhaps just emotionally easier. Or maybe it is the modern world’s subtle way of hiding from the inevitable…

Funeral practices vary worldwide. Of those I ‘ve witnessed, few are as transparent and raw as the Hindu ritual on the banks of the Ganges River. The belief is that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept, called moksha, is profound.

“…….At 4:30am the next morning, we returned. A blood red sun was rising across the river. Only one pyre was burning. The bells had stopped. Smoke was everywhere as workers meticulously collected human ash and bone fragments to dump into the river. Goats and dogs roamed freely and steam rose from the ground…. As I photographed, a teenage boy started shadowing me. After a few minutes he asked, ‘want to see my auntie?’ I looked at him confused. He explained that his family was about to cremate his aunt. I looked down on the lower burning deck, and saw the boy’s relatives surrounding a body draped in flowers, saying goodbye and offering final prayers. The boy proudly listed off the oils, herbs, flowers, and trinkets, that they brought to help his aunt on her journey. There was something beautiful about the process unfold before me – the rawness, the simplicity, the completeness.”

Varanasi, the perfume, is the first chapter in Meo Fusciuni’s “Timeless Trilogy”. And it does, I believe, capture something religious; human. I would agree with him that the ‘perfume has no compromises’: it tells what India left in his ‘mind, heart and soul’, a ‘visceral expression.’ I could not wear this myself on a regular basis myself – it is too……grave (while joyful); intense, though I did enjoy experiencing it all day on Sunday, quietly at home. It arouses something in me. I find it perturbing, serene and compelling all at the same time; and I look forward to experiencing the next chapter.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “VARANASI by MEO FUSCIUNI (2020)

  1. I have never been to India but I do have all of Meo Fiusciuni’s perfumes, including Varanasi. I discovered them in Taormini, Sicily in 2018 and have been a fan ever since. I think his perfumes are not that well known except perhaps in Italy. Have your tried “Little Song”? That is one of my favorites from Meo, but I truly love all of them, including the older version of the 3 Nota di viaggio (ciavuru d’amuri. The way some people feel about India is the way I feel about Sicily. I dream about it all the time. One would not have too many stomach problems in Sicily. Their food and wine are both great and there is an anticdote for every malady one might have.

    • I actually had a bad stomach in Italy last year too – it no longer suits me! Too heavy. It is strange the way your body gets used to certain things and reacts to others.

      In terms of Meo Fiusciuni, do like Little Song, actually, and am planning a review of Odeur 93, that dark tuberose. D has been wearing L’Obblio (Oblivion) and Shukran is a very interesting Moroccan Mint and lemongrass scent that will work in summer.

  2. Most Westerners do not realize that Nepal is home to one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, Pashupatinath. It is an ancient temple complex about 5 miles east of Kathmandu that straddles the Bagmati river which is a tributary of the Ganges. Bodies are cremated on the Aarya ghat within the sacred complex. The funeral ritual is quite elaborate with the quantity and type of various woods strictly proscribed by caste and gotra. (I have seen entire pyres of sandalwood.) A traditional pyre takes about 500-600 kilos of wood and about 6 hours to burn. Traditional rituals also include cracking the burning skull open with a long stick to free the soul from its earthly existence. Acrid wood smoke and the waxy aldehydes of burnt fat are the scents I associate most with these cremations. Actually, that’s the scent that reeks in the background of all of South Asia, constantly there despite the heady florals of kewra, jasmine, and rose attars, stale urine (both animal and human). and the overwhelming stench of diesel and petrol exhaust.
    Hiding death is a big part of Western culture. From indoor abattoirs where we do our butchering to highly decorative caskets, we like our death hidden from sight, discreetly packaged, and tucked away. I guess Western culture is too steeped in humanism to deal with its own mortality.
    On Delhi belly: Never had it in the 12 years I have lived in Nepal and India. On my honeymoon, my husband and I went to all the top-rated restaurants on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur trip we took. They were all expensive and mediocre to awful. I can easily tell you that you will find much better Indian food outside of India. If you choose to eat out in India you are much better off seeking a working-class neighborhood and looking for the most crowded restaurant at lunchtime. Also, use common sense and avoid any & all street food. We eat at home 99.999% of the time. This is why I have become quite the accomplished Indian chef myself!

    • Wow.

      A lot to take in here.

      Have you witnessed these funeral rites many times ? You make it all sound horrifying and electrifying at the same time. The sandalwood !

      I’d like to know more about what you mean concerning humanism.

    • Regarding abattoirs etc, I have found it impossible to discuss animal rights, vegetarianism etc here as the concept is completely alienating to my students. The vast majority have never considered any of it before, and lessons then become odd.

      It is UTTERLY hidden away, and then decorated with cute animal designs, as if the slaughtered creatures were delighted by their fate.

      • I have witnessed many Hindu and Buddhist funerals. Most Hindus can’t afford to have their loved ones transported to Varanasi or Pashupatinath so they are cremated on the bank of a local river or stream. I live on the road down to the ghats of the Gandaki river where most bodies are cremated from my town.
        I think we Westerners are so fascinated with the Hindu funerary rites because the cultural difference is so stark. I think that is why so many Westerners claim a spiritual awakening when visiting Varanasi, death is on full display and being treated as a part of life. Contrast that with our Western practices of hiding all signs and symbols of death, almost viewing death as a personal failure. I am referring to humanism as a Western philosophy based on the value and agency of human beings as opposed to Eastern religious philosophies based on the transcendent and or the supernatural. While humanism as an ideology in the West gives us a culture that espouses reason, ethics, and social and economic justice, it doesn’t deal well with death.
        Animal rights are a hard sell in Asia. I believe this is because animals are still considered possessions in most Asian cultures much like a car or a pair of shoes.

      • This is fascinating to read.

      • Don’t know if I fancy being set on fire by the riverside or not.

  3. emmawoolf

    I am going to sound terribly trite after this post (where to start?) and the comments that follow. This is a superlative piece of writing, N. As usual, you have strayed far from perfume and your piece all the better for it. But for what it’s worth, as former church singer but also an agnostic, I’ve taken part and witnessed some moving funerals, where people were – I believe – truly remembered and honoured. (Good food and alcohol at the wake afterwards helps!) Weddings don’t have to be in church to be beautiful – ours wasn’t! And…please don’t let worries about food dissuade you from visiting a country as beautiful as India. I have only been once, to Mumbai, and for work, but I absolutely loved it and would return in a flash (magari!). Take probiotics beforehand and do what the locals tell you to do – where to go – and what to eat – and you’ll be fine.

    • Probiotics : good idea. I would love to.

      There is just something about D seemingly dead on the floor that has made us scaredy-cats. We had actually bought our tickets to go to Myanmar in 2019, all booked and ready to go, but then when we were at the infectious disease clinic for advice on vaccines etc the second she started talking about a dengue fever outbreak in Yangon and how all it took was one mosquito bite, I saw d blanching and within half an hour we had pussied out.

      Your wedding was lovely : perfect. You could just roam about that lovely place : J- weddings are happy occasions of course but every minute is accounted for and I detest foie gras in the very depths of my being

  4. Robin

    This is just so bloody brilliant, Neil. I think it’s one of your best entries. So much is here. Thank you.

    I have wanted to visit India since I was a teenager. I can’t imagine any other place that would be as overwhelming. The intensity of everything: every sense bombarded, the brain in overdrive taking it all in, or trying to. And the contrast with that and all the rich history and underlying human spirituality.

    I do remember being in Spain decades ago, where exactly I can’t remember, sitting outside cracking pistachios and drinking old oloroso with a fellow traveler of about the same age. I forget now where he was from. English was his first language, I recall that. American or English. He’d recently been through India. He looked pale and very thin, not healthy, strung out, which seemed odd, because he was dressed well and it didn’t appear he would have had to really rough it anywhere he went. It just jarred somehow, the contrast, didn’t make sense. Turns out he was sick in India. Couldn’t get out of bed to the bathroom for a couple of days in the middle of it all. Too weak. A nightmare. And he couldn’t have been older than his mid-twenties. He said he’d never been more than mildly ill anywhere else and had traveled for months and months, all over Europe and Asia. The details are a bit hazy and I’m filling in a bit, but the core memory of the conversation remains and it really stuck with me. He understated everything but you could tell he was haunted and found it hard to talk about. But you and I know that all of this is a crapshoot. That we might travel for half a year in India eating street food and only get a stomach rumble once or twice. I think if any country would be worth the risk, it would be that one. No other fascinates me to the same degree.

    • Precisely. And I did worry about overstating the gastric hell aspect as plenty of people have no problems and it is as though I am ‘tarring’ a whole country with one neurotic brush. But this story you share here is similar to the one even the perfume house’s creator talks about ( is it a badge of honour to have got through such an ordeal somehow ?) in the perfume promotional material !’ After a severe case of the shits we sped towards Varanasi’… no, it was rendered more subtly, but I just can’t bear seeing D in that state again: how could eat a single thing and relax ?

      • Robin

        Yes, such a good point. It’s the idea of something horrible happening to our loved ones — or heck, ourselves (not fun, but seeing the other suffer and being helpless is at least as terrible, I think) — hanging over us as a distinct possibility, no matter how slim. It would make each day, each meal, a little fraught, even if it were uneventful. “God, these prawns are a bit weird-tasting. Are they okay, or have they maybe gone off? Does the smell seem odd to you? Yes? No? Could we be eating something that’s going to make us sick as dogs? Are we being just a little paranoid? Hell. Now I’ve lost my appetite!” And having had that experience with D., the dread is greater, feels more real. You already have that memory of it, that visceral experience. It’s a kind of PTSD, truly.

        And we aren’t getting any younger. Could our elderly systems take that punishment and bounce back the same way as we used to?

        Which could also be an argument for going ahead and risking it and experiencing India. You know, you only live once and all that.

        I went and looked for a youtube vid on Varanasi. Whoah. I honestly can’t tell how I would respond to it all if I were there. Would I melt in a pool of my own revolted sensations or be awed and uplifted? It ain’t the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for sure, and I’m not Judi Dench. I think I’ve become more sensitive to the sadness or futility of things, sometimes, the disfunction at the edges, the ugliness or meanness or self-deception or dishonesty, all of that side of humanity — the poverty, the unfairness of life, the struggle and suffering too — not as blithe as I was. I wonder if I’d want to come home early. Maybe that’s just COVID-19 talking, the horror of this last year.

        Maybe a trip would do me good.

      • All of this – yes.

        I know in my case I have retreated into myself this last year – I think most people have to some degree – we are all battered and shellshocked. It will be interesting to see how we all respond to the reopening. This summer could get delirious.

  5. Robin

    And I must add, your description of Varanasi is completely captivating.

    • I was thinking : what would Robin think of this one? as I sprayed it on my hand .

      There are some familiar niche oud tropes in there, but also something more poetic and generous . I think it might be the gurjun : I love Montale’s strange dirty soap Rose Aoud Damascus which shares that note.

    • D said : “ It isn’t my cup of tea, but it is really good. Really interesting”. I found I was tired of it by the end, but the opening is a symphony in clay.

      • Robin

        Well, I do very much like, ” . . . also something more poetic and generous.” And I do love — funny you should mention one of my favourite Montales — Rose Aoud Damascus. And I can see that, like Duncan, I might find it not my cup of tea, but admire it and enjoy it for some limited time before having enough for one day. It’s always worth sniffing something new and interesting.

      • I agree. If you get the chance to smell it -do. Their Narcotico in the base accord smells like a modernized Vol De Nuit brushstroked in oil paints: there is some creaking in the machinery as things settle into place sometimes, but overall this line is quite big and bold – and importantly not hollow or crass.

      • ( I think I might need Damascus again : it is overly insistent but kind of gorgeous, no? Like a big favourite auntie from the Middle East eating dates on the sofa )

      • Robin

        My morning laugh.

  6. Absolutely brilliant piece here!! I don’t know what mezmerised me more, the description of the fragrance, or the description of funerial rites on the banks of the Ganges.
    I have been enthralled with thoughts of India for much of my life, and adore Indian food beyond belief, but have always hesitated to go there. I am sure if I went it would be a profoundly moving experience, one that would probably alter my outlook on life, but like you, I am terrified of the effects an ill stomach would have on my overall costitution. I have had 3 terrible bouts of food poisoning here in the states, whcih were so terrible I was bed ridden for days, I am therefore leary of traveling to certain places.
    We do have many Indian friends, and might take them up on their offer to travel there with them, eventually.
    It is true that death is usually pretty well hidden away in the West, where the deceased is usually well prepared for viewing, so as to not leave a bad memory behind in those present. I have always been fascinated with the funeral pyres along the Ganges, as well as other rivers in India, and the surrounding countries. It seem so much holier to just put the deceased on a funeral pyre and allow their essence to just rise up to the heavens.
    I truly must seek out this scent to experience the creators soul altering experiences there.

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