Remember learning about the 5 senses at a young age? The idea of having sensory experiences seems painfully obvious to us now as adults, but it must've been revolutionary at the time when we learned how everything we experience is dictated by a framework of senses detailing not what the experience is, but how it is perceived.
What's even more enlightening is realizing how these senses can (unconsciously) bring us back almost instantaneously to certain memories, specific instances, events where a particular sense was worth remembering. We often gloss over those sensory details during an experience, but somehow our brain can link these unconscious stimuli to current experiences.
When I see my elementary school, I remember simpler times of scampering around on the playground with friends. When I hear Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," I'm reminded of the time I listened to that legendary song on a bus with a teammate after a cross-country race.
What we don't often consider, though, is how the other three senses achieve the same nostalgic effect. For as much as sight and hearing are the dominant senses that we're aware of, taste, smell, and touch are sometimes more powerful in reminding us of prior events. After a few weeks, I've gotten used to eating in a dining hall for most of my meals. There's a fairly wide variety of options to choose from, and every now and then I'm surprised by some of the more flavorful special options the dining halls cook. It's rarely a home run and can often taste bland, but dining hall food gets the job done.
This acceptance is thrown out of my tiny dorm window the minute I pop open something my Mom cooked and brought over. You know that scene in Ratatouille when Anton Ego, the food critic who's portrayed as cold and unemotional, eats the rats' signature meal and sheds a tear as he flashes back to his childhood when he ate the same meal cooked by his mother? I experience a downplayed version of that scene every time I eat Indian food. Growing up in an Indian household, I was spoiled with all the savory smells of Gujarati cuisine. There's a cabinet back at home filled with exotic spices and grains from India, and I always loved it whenever my Mom asked me to grab some random cooking ingredient since I'd get to bask in the smells again. I never realized how much I took the India-smell for granted and how different that would be in college.
When I warm up Indian food in my dorm's microwave, smelling the seasoning in the shaak (essentially what most people call curry) takes me back to countless moments of sitting at the dinner table with my mom, my brother, and other aunts and uncles, staring at the simmering shaak while waiting for my Dad to get back from a late night at the store. Taking a bite of the rich vegetables cooked with just the right amount of spice and perhaps a little too much oil reminds me of how my brother and I would laugh and struggle to keep the food down when my Dad would tell funny stories about his day at work or of his childhood. Feeling the burning heat of the food feels like the many slaps on the hands I'd get as I was scolded for eating too quickly and not letting the food cool down. Each of these senses – smell, taste, and touch – aren't always the ones we think about or even use the most, but they are unconsciously making memories and sending us back to those very same moments.
But the senses also makes these memories seem the more distant, remote, and fleeting as they become fuzzier, less clear. They flag memories, but they don't allow you to replicate them; you can only remember the experience and never return to it. The process of remembering is never quite the same.
As much as I still enjoy Indian food, the feeling is tainted because the people I normally would enjoy the food with just aren't there. I'm normally sitting in my dorm, alone, late at night, with the pressures of social and academic obligations weighing down on me. When I feel heat now, there's nobody but myself to scold me when I eat scalding shaak. When I take a bite, there aren't any funny stories to share. And no matter how long I wait and smell the spices, Dad won't be back from the store.