A little while after I started my Swedish classes in Stockholm, an Indian woman, probably in her mid to late twenties, also signed on to the course. I’ve changed her name here to Advika primarily because what I’m about to relate is embarrassing to her, but also because it’s been about three years and I’m not sure if I actually remember her real name. We never had any contact outside of class and we only shared the same space for a month or so.
Advika was short, slim and pretty, with the long, thick black hair many Indian women have. Her eyes, bright and intelligent, were her best feature. She dressed in clothing that came straight from the late eighties, early nineties: brightly patterned woolen jerseys and mom jeans. Around us lots of young Swedish women were wearing pretty much the same outfit – but in an ironic, retro manner.
Advika wasn’t a hipster and she wasn’t wearing her clothing ironically.
Of all the people I’ve met in my life, Advika was one of the least confident. She never looked you in the eye and she seemed incapable of small talk with the other students – from all over the world – in the class. This was partly due to her poor English and even poorer Swedish but it also seemed to be a character trait. When she did speak it was in a mousy voice that you would struggle to understand. To call her socially awkward and solitary would be an understatement.
I could be wrong but as I understood it, Advika had moved to Sweden because her husband had gotten a job in one of the IT or telecommunications companies in Stockholm. There were a few other Indian women in the classes I attended who were in the same position as her. They were all highly qualified and had put their own careers on hold for the time being.
The first time I talked to Advika was about curry leaves. I was trying to recreate a particular Durban-style curry but I was having difficulty locating all the necessary ingredients in Stockholm. She didn’t give me any new leads on where to procure fresh curry leaves or cinnamon bark but after that first brief conversation we began greeting each other every now and then. She would also approach me whenever she had a question related to our course work, since I had a few weeks’ advantage over her. These were always stilted, drawn-out encounters.
One day, a short while after Advika had begun the course, I noticed something new about her as she passed me on her way to her seat. She had a really bad smell emanating from her; it was so bad that it was slightly nauseating. I couldn’t quite identify it but it was like a mix of body odour from not showering a few days, burned old food and sickness.
I did my best to not register any reaction, but around me a few students were having trouble doing the same. Some of the younger students were actually pinching their noses or waving their hands in front of their faces. Others were whispering and looking in Advika’s direction.
Thankfully the rest of the lesson passed without incident and Advika seemed oblivious of the reactions around her. It happened again the next day, the day after, and continued into the next week. The same pungent, unpleasant odour hanging over her like a cloud of flies.
Each time she sat down in class, people would groan and try to move seats so that they weren’t in her vicinity. Again Advika didn’t seem to notice any of this, or if she did, she did a good job of hiding it.
Some of the students went to our teacher and asked him to have a chat with her about her hygiene and the smell but he flat out refused to do anything. I guess he felt just as awkward about the situation.
Advika was all people could talk about during breaks.
One student, a guy from Belarus, informed me that Advika smelt bad because Indian people cook a lot of curry and curry stinks. I don’t think he knew that I was a South African Indian and basically cooked and ate curry every other day. He also said that Chinese people smelt just as bad. After he left, I googled Belarusian cuisine; it was a quick read.
Another student, whom I had a good rapport with, approached me and asked me to speak to her since he had seen me talk to her a few times. I said I would think about it, but in truth I had no intention of broaching the topic with Advika. That week I was leaving Stockholm to spend some time in South Africa. But even if I wasn’t leaving, I honestly didn’t know how I would have begun that conversation. All these years later, I still feel embarrassed thinking about the possibility.
The last lesson before I left for South Africa I sat directly behind Advika. It was winter and the windows of the classroom were shut. The smell coming from her was overwhelming but it had stopped bothering me for a while.
While the teacher was talking about conjugating verbs I closed my eyes and I began visualising the odour as a kind of force-field around her, a physical manifestation of her alienation in this new city, this new country, this new continent; a manifestation of her social awkwardness, her shyness, her language difficulties.
The force-field was opaque and seemed impenetrable. I couldn’t make out what she was doing in there, in her bubble. Was she daydreaming like me? Of what? India? Family and friends? The career she had put on hold?
I wondered if she was getting enough oxygen inside her force-field. Was she able to breath?
I opened my eyes and stared at the back of Advika’s head for a long time, at the deep, pure blackness of her hair and after a while it felt like my eyes were still shut.
The only thing I smelt in those last few minutes of the lesson was not old sweat or old food but an almost unbearable loneliness.
I left for South Africa and when I came back, I moved on to the next level of the course. Advika wasn’t there. I never saw her again.