In For a Sniff, In For a Durian

Maybe my guardian angel was taking a day off. Or maybe she just has a sense of humour. I see no other reason why my eyes – and nose – should have fallen on the pile of durian just outside the Singapore supermarket.

The supermarket was my last stop on what had been a very hasty and, for me, focussed shopping expedition a mere five hours before my flight would take off for Delhi. The committed shopper in me stood outraged. There I was, in the ‘biggest shopping mall’ in the world, and I hadn’t bought anything!

That was why as my friend pointed significantly at her watch, I pleaded, ‘A few chocolates’, and found myself in the choc aisle, grabbing candy hamburgers and jelly worms by the bagful. The duty-free might have more connoisseur chocolates, but the son is the kind who goes to Geneva and, after an exciting week of eating snails, rosti and fondue, demands to be taken to the nearest McDonald’s. He would not consider handmade Swiss chocolates a suitable substitute for marshmallows with chocolate and strawberry jelly centres.

As I stepped out of the cash counter, my nostrils encountered a smell. ‘That’s durian,’ said the friend, recognising my sniff-ful air. ‘It’s quite an experience.’ That was when I slipped, for I am a self-confessed sucker for new experiences of the taste-bud variety. But I had only four hours in which to go home, pack my bag and reach the airport. ‘I’ll take a box,’ I said, offering the vendor a crumpled ten-dollar bill.

This is where you need a bit of natural history. It is tough being a durian in Singapore. The fruit is particular to the region, but considered delicacy or taboo, depending on how your nostrils react to it. For the durian’s smell is its most outstanding feature – it is pungent, a bit like an overflowing drain or rotten eggs. And it clings. Look at a durian, and the world will know you’ve looked.

The durian looks as exotic as it smells. It resembles everyone’s favourite Martian fantasy. It’s cream, like a coconut, on the inside, and green, also like a coconut, on the outside, but then the durian goes all out to make a display of itself. It has uncannily Martian-like spikes sticking out of it all over. It was the sight of the spikes that made me opt for the cut and packaged version. I was not, of course, to know that it would be my undoing.

Rushing into the airport, a good hour late, I was stopped for the mandatory tape around check-in baggage. The girl sniffed. ‘Are you carrying any… well, fruit?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I declared. After all, the durian was in my cabin bag.

She let me go and I joined my group in the boarding line. My bag passed through the x-ray, but it did not pass the smell test. ‘Who’s carrying fruit?’ asked the official. ‘I am,’ I declared. ‘It’s only a very small pack of durian.’ He looked aghast, ready to faint, and put my bag back through the x-ray. ‘Madam, I am afraid, we will have to ask you to take it out.’

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘no problem. But it is only a small pack, and I am dying to try the stuff. If you could see your way to letting me…’

‘Please sit where I can see you,’ he said, whipping out a large handkerchief and swathing his nose in it. Not smell you, went unsaid. Though, I assure you, it wasn’t that bad. It had to be a male thing, for the girl next to him looked definitely more sympathetic.

My group was already beginning to snicker, and the snickers grew to guffaws as a veritable drama proceeded to unfold before us. A major conference was called behind the counter to discuss the durian problem. At least five airline staffers darted from corner to corner, conferring with other staff. Hurried notes were exchanged. Three times, I was called to verify that I was indeed carrying durian. To the last, a slip of a lad – I could not believe he was of employable age – I said blithely, ‘Oh please let me keep it. I’m taking it for my family,’ knowing full well that the said family would probably put the durian – and me – into the rubbish bin at first sniff.

‘Aw cawfawm,’ he said very seriously, his head bobbing up and down to every ‘w’ note. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Please confirm that I won’t have to throw ten dollars into the garbage.’

But I was wrong. The airline’s problem was not whether or not to allow my durian and me into the plane, it was how to get my durian offloaded without, well, raising a stink! That’s why they were refusing to let me open my bag and show them the durian.

Finally, they faced the inevitable, and a girl came and asked me to throw my durian into the trash can. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I love durian too, but the smell, you see, our other passengers. You should have sealed it in some bubble wrap and put it into your check-in baggage. It’s not really allowed, but no one would know.’

Well, so much for honesty. The last thing I saw of Singapore was my little carton of durian, perched forlornly on the garbage can. The smell, however, I carried with me into a smoggy New Delhi night. And no one could stop me.

First published in The Financial Express in 2000.

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