Maverick Life


Reading again — Alka Joshi’s ‘The Perfumist of Paris’, understanding divine power of self

Reading again — Alka Joshi’s ‘The Perfumist of Paris’, understanding divine power of self
‘The Perfumist of Paris’, by Alka Joshi. (Photo: Supplied)

‘The Perfumist of Paris’, published in 2023, is more than a reflection on women’s role in society. It is also a contemplation on life, the preciousness of it, and the opportunities in it for the decadent, the erotic, the beautiful.

Alka Joshi’s The Perfumist of Paris is the third in a trilogy, following The Henna Artist (published in 2020, to be made into a Netflix series) and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (2021).

In The Henna Artist, the readers meet Radha and her sister, Lakshmi, two young girls in India who are disowned by their mother and forced to move out of their home. Radha and Lakshmi are teenagers struggling to make ends meet. When Radha meets a boy from a rich family and falls in love with him, she assumes that they will marry. But when she discovers that she is pregnant, her boyfriend’s family sends him abroad, leaving Radha heartbroken and with no choice but to give up the baby for adoption.

The Perfumist of Paris picks up the story.

Radha has married a French man and is living in Paris with him and their two young daughters. While their life is a happy one, Radha is still haunted by the son that she gave up for adoption, a secret that she keeps from Pierre.

The Perfumist of Paris is an absorbing read, transporting us to the 1970s and the world of perfume-making — a form of art, involving complex and lengthy processes that seek to give expression to ideas and emotions through the power of scent.

When Radha first came to France, a friend’s grandfather offered her a job at a parfumerie and she was immediately drawn to the world of fragrances, taking her babies with her as she learnt the art. Radha gains a position soon after in the laboratory at The House of Yves, where the master perfumer sees her potential for designing unique scents based on the requirements of elite clients.

Radha’s promotion to master perfumer comes with a condition. If she wants the position, she needs to be able to capture one specific client’s demand: to create the essence of a painting exhibited at the Jeu de Paume.

The painting is Edouard Manet’s “Olympia”.

At the heart of the book is the tension that women encounter when trying to reach the proverbial glass ceiling whilst still confirming to the social gender norms that require them to prioritise their husbands and children.

Radha has an innate talent for researching and identifying signature scents that are able to convey intricate messages and feelings. She knows that she has the skill, the determination and the discipline to make it happen, and all she needs is the support of those around her.

The Perfumist of Paris is about love and marriage and how to navigate one’s way when relationships come into conflict that tests their foundations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Storytelling with scent: A journey of beauty and luxury perfume

Pierre is enveloped in his own career and expects Radha’s support, but he is torn between making her happy and relegating her to the gendered role of wife and mother.

The book deals with this in a nuanced way — as much as Radha wants to have the right to focus on her career, she is torn between juggling the demands of her work and home lives, especially so when she feels that she lets her children down.

The book speaks to this theme in simple but elegant language —- in a way that any working woman with a family can attest to — it is astute in its portrayal of the concomitant exhaustion, conflict, and dropping of balls — of what we lose and gain in our efforts to straddle the paths of motherhood and a career.

It brings to the fore the associated judgement, the narrow paradigms and the pressure that society places on women to conform. The story is set in the 1970s when these challenges were more accentuated and the book is a trip down memory lane of what the world was before feminism helped change social norms.

The Perfumist of Paris is also a contemplation on life, the preciousness of it, and the opportunities in it for the decadent, the erotic, the beautiful. The sensory world of scent and fragrance jumps off the page: Clove, cardamom, jasmine, juniper berry… The book brings to the fore the beauty of seeing the world through a sense of scent.

The story travels between France and India and is rich in its depiction of landscape. The juxtaposition of the socio-cultural nuances in France and India in the 1970s makes for compelling reading, especially so when thinking about both landscapes through the power of smell.

Many of the descriptions of landscape are evoked through the sense of scent, such as when Radha is “surrounded by the smell of coconut hair oil, sweet betelnut paan, diesel exhaust from the planes and the overpowering scent of sweat, anticipation and happiness at being united with loves ones”.

The Perfumist of Paris is also about journeys and building a home in a foreign land, an experience that can be at once subliminal and overtly racist. It is about the intersection of our work and home lives, about navigating relationships with those around us, letting new people into our circle and trying to discover whether we should close the circle on others. Mostly, it is about finding ourselves when we are lost. DM


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