The Olfactory as a Metaphor: ReadingSujatha Bhatt’s ‘The Stinking Rose’

Abstract: Sujatha Bhatt’s poetry has this visceral feature which proves that she is a poet of exile and that she feels the binary opposite tug of language and culture. This paper analyses Sujatha Bhatt’s collection of poetry ‘The Stinking Rose’ looking at binary opposites and the tension between cultures, that inform all Bhatt’s poetry, investing it with power and force.Her use of Olfactory images as metaphors are discussed in detail as they play a significant role in bringing her text to life.

Key Words: poetry of exile, longing, olfactory, metaphor, culture, Sujatha Bhatt.

For me, poetry is a place where there are tensions and contradictions in the language and also in the things being discussed. So, yes, I feel that poetry is a place where things can be questioned and examined (Sujatha Bhatt. ‘Interview with Sujatha Bhatt’ PNR)

Duality is central in the poetry of exile, a tension between the longing to belong to the motherland and the need to live and exist with happiness in the land of exile. This is evident also in the use of language – the mother tongue and the tongue of the adopted land. To Sujatha Bhatt, a poet born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, brought up mainly in the United States and now settled in Germany, her journey through continents and cultures have certainly left its mark. Bruce King calls her ‘a permanent exile’, ‘a citizen of the world’, ‘a traveller’ (King 2001: 329, 330) When she moans that she has lost her tongue in ‘Search for My Tongue’, she proves once again that she is a poet of exile and that she feels the binary opposite tug oflanguage and culture that she, as an immigrant Indian poet, feels in an alien culture.

You ask what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you what you would do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one,

the mother tongue

and could not really know the other

the foreign tongue…

The ultimate victory is however that of the mother tongue for contrary to the assumption that the mother tongue would ‘rot and die in (your) mouth’, it grows back:

            …a stump of a shoot

grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,

it ties the other tongue in knots,

the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,

it pushes the other tongue aside.

Everything I think I have forgotten,

I think I’ve lost the mother tongue

it blossoms out of my mouth…

Bhatt is not just bilingual – she is poly lingual for she knows and speaks atleast five languages – Gujarati, English, German, Spanish and French and desires to be fluent in many more.

Each language offers a different perspective on life, a different way of organising the world. I find it tiresome and simplistic when people claim that one language is absolutely ‘better’ than another’ (Bertram)

Binary opposites and the tension between cultures inform all Bhatt’s poetry, investing it with power and force. It draws the reader in, forcing her to participate in the poet’s experience.  Her poems are a field of force, kinetic models, a configuration of energy or vortex of returns and repetitions. Recurrent images are quite the order of the day in Sujatha Bhatt. This article is basically a study of one poem of Bhatt entitled ‘The Stinking Rose’, which is the title poem of the collection The Stinking Rose brought out by Carcanet in 1995. Other poems in the collection also look at the stinking rose or the garlic from various perspectives. In her interview with Bertram, Bhatt says that she consciously avoided writing about her childhood in the collection for she wanted to write about other topics and a different sort of book altogether.  Yet India, if not the poet’s childhood is very much evident in the collection. The Indian perspective is evident in the poem ‘A Brahmin Wants the Cow to Eat Lots of Garlic’. The poet examines the garlic as a taboo food for Brahmins who can only lay claims to have consumed it if the cow that yields him milk, the one wholesome food he can have in plenty, has feasted on garlic.

So he can drink

the garlic-rich milk…

To the uninitiated in Hinduism, it is believed that garlic and other members of the genus Alliumincluding shallots and onions have sprung from the minute droplets of blood that had fallen to the earth from the blood of the only two immortal asurasof Hindu mythology, Rahu and Ketu. The legend goes that when the ocean of milk was churned and the amrith, thenectar of immortality was recovered, the devas went back on their pact with the asuras and wouldn’t share, for making the demons immortal would compound the ills of the world. However one wily demon put on the guise of a deva and drank the amrith. Lord Vishnu, who was dispensing the amrith, realized what had happened and cut his head off with the sudarshan chakra but as he had already consumed the drink of immortality, he was indestructible and continues to plague mankind as dual entities. While his head was cut off a few drops of blood fell on the earth and sprouted as the genus of Allium, the garlic, onion and shallots. As traditional Hindus eat only what is offered to God and what subsequently is considered prasad, there is a clear division between varieties of food which corresponds also to the three gunas. Thus there is Sathwic, Rajaswic and Tamasic food. Onion and garlic are considered non Sathwic because it stems from the asura’s blood fit only to be eaten by demons and are taboo for Brahmins and Jains. Onions and garlic are considered undesirable by ancient Indian theories of medicine as well as by yogic and spiritual beliefs. They were considered to cause mental and physical dullness, have sedative or soporific properties and stimulate bile and heat.

            In another of the poems in the collection, ‘Garlic in War and Peace’, the poet examines how garlic is used as an antiseptic in times of war.  

            …they dabbed garlic paste

over each wound –

such endless wincing

and endless those white cotton bandages…

The stench of pus and garlic gives way finally to

            …pink skin

shiny as a freshly peeled clove

of garlic…

Ultimately the poem brings together an image of a garden where there are lilies, garlic and roses. Moreover the roses were sprayed with garlic – water for the only war in times of peace was the war against worms.

            The association of the garlic with sex drive is focussed on by the poet in the first part of the poem. The first stanza of the poem is of the use of garlic in peace times, over and above its use as an insecticide. Or rather, the use a particular couple made of it. Their penchant was for green garlic with large purple cloves which they rubbed along their lower backs as ‘a slow cleansing’ ‘a secret bite, their strongest aphrodisiac’. The erotic nature of the first part of the poem was according to Bhatt, not difficult to write.

They were written spontaneously, impulsively with a great need to write them, need to break certain silences surrounding female sexuality – but without any audience in mind… (Bertram)

The East and the West meet in the poem, ‘It has not rained for months’.  The quote with which the poem begins anchors it within the Western tradition, especially medicinal remedies for the authority of Hippocrates is invoked in the use of garlic to test  a woman’s fertility. Yet Eastern nuances in the text begin with the invocation of the heat and dust and dryness of the tropics which is also a metaphor for a waste land of sterility, childlessness and despair. Multiculturalism, as a way of negotiating the everyday reality of the poet, though not a theme, is as clear in the poem as double voiced-ness for, though the poem begins with the objective voice of science, it continues in the subjective voice of a childless woman who is made to keep a pod of garlic inside her. Moreover this act of nurturing the clove of garlic inside her vagina is repeated

            and then Imust keep this clove

of garlic inside where my flesh

has become so raw

that it hurts- It has not rained

for months…

The experiencing ‘I’ suffers dust whipped up by the wind, her throat and chest hurt, she is hot and sticky and cannot breathe. To cap it all ‘he’ comes with his cloves of garlic, his ‘garlicky’ smell, his thorn sharp beard andhis face of stone. He opens her mouth and she is forced to repeat the act of putting the clove inside her flesh. Repetition brings to the fore the pain the woman experience for she longs for the rains or even that she would bleed to ‘soothe the garlic scrubbed cuts…’ The image of the lady watching the crows pick at the stolen seeds and his remorse signify other reasons for her childless state that remain unsaid but scream for attention. The powerful language used to highlight the suffering of the lady as well as her longing for the rain acts also as metaphor for happiness, solace and fruition. 

Bhatt’s poem, ‘The Stinking Rose’, the title poem of the collection, unlike the otherthree poems I mention which are also in the same collection, veers more to the West than the East. The tension within the text is as much between cultures as it is between the fragrance of the rose and the foul smell of the garlic.A lot of Bhatt’s poems have been called ‘strikingly visual’ according to Bertram, a statement to which Bhatt is in total agreement as her answer proves: ‘I’ve always been a visual person and I’ve always been interested in art. I used to paint and draw a lot during my teenage years.’ (Bertram). But the collection,The Stinking Rose, is rich in olfactory images as its name suggests. It beginswith the assertion that the very title encompasses all the poet wants to say about it. The second line specifies that she is referring to cloves of garlic.

 In the first two stanzas, Bhatt invokes two literary allusions to two different literary genres – poetry and drama. The garlic is described as shining pearls still warm from a woman’s neckand instantly recalls to life Carol Ann Duffy’s poem,Warming Her Pearls and at the same time affectsa link between the texture and the appearance of the pearls and the peeled garlic. The second allusion is of course to Shakespeare, specifically Romeo and Juliet where Juliet dismissed the significance of a name. The poet states that her stand is clearly the opposite. Bhatt’s contention is that the name ‘stinking rose’ is evocative for it conjures up an image of the garlic that is subtly exotic and alluring:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet…

But that which we call garlic

smells sweeter, more

vulnerable, even delicate

if we call it The Stinking Rose.

In line thirteen, the poet specifies that she is talking about roses, smells and the art of naming.

Everything is in that name for garlic

Roses and smells

and the art of naming…

The thirteenth line, thus, returns the reader to the very first line of her poem, only in this line she states what she meant by ‘everything’. 

In line nine, before she goes on to explore the nuances of naming, the poet wonders if the reader is aware that garlic is often planted near coral coloured roses, presumably to force the rose petals to give out a stronger perfume. The garlic and the rose are placed in close quarters not only in the garden but also on the table for if the roses are on the table to enhance its attractiveness; the garlic is in the salad to increase its flavour. The poet goeson to say:

This garlic will sing to your heart

To your slippery muscles – will keep your nipples andyour legs

from sleeping

In a sudden volte face, the poet calls the garlic, fragrant. In a starkly synesthetic image the poet states that, ‘they noted it reeked under the microscope’ nor is it the first time she uses the device of synaesthesia in the poem. In line 6 of the poem she describes the smell of garlic as ‘a round smell’ and goes on to query:

Are you hungry?

 Does it burn through your ears?  

The second stanza of the poem is of the poet’s seemingly disagreeable task of peeling the garlic:

            My fingernail nudges and nicks

the smell open…

But, in the last stanzaof the poem, it is ‘his’ fingers that are tired after peeling and crushing the garlic. The total spectrum of smells –the fragrance of the roses, the round smell of the stinking roseand ‘her’ very own smell come together and seemto reach out from the text itself.

            The stylistic competence of Bhatt is evident in how the various images and beliefs that is associated with the garlic are brought together. The image of the blood ‘fragrant with garlic’ alludes to the belief that the smell of garlic repels reptiles and vampires and which is  as much apart offolkbelief as it is of Gothic literature. Binary opposites and tension between cultures is as evident as is thetension between the literary elements of the poem and its non-literary registers, especially in the use of the pronouns in the poem. It begins with the perceiving, observing, objective ‘I’ who states that

Everything I want to say is

in that name…

The speaker seems to be the poet herself. In the second stanza of the poem, in line five, ‘My fingernail nudges and nicks the smell open…’, also affirms that the speaker is the poet who is peeling the garlic but in the last stanza of the poem, in line 32, it is ‘his’ fingers that are ‘tired after peeling and crushing’ the stinking rose. The last two lines of the poem also bring in the third person feminine:

            Still in the middle of the night his fingernail

            nudges and nicks her very own smell,

her prism open— 

In the distance between the first person singular and the third person singular is the second person ‘you’ in interrogatives like ‘Are you hungry?’ (Line7)‘’Does it burn through your ears?’(Line 8) or addresseslisteners as ‘You who dined with us tonight’ (Line26)‘your slippery muscles’ Line28) ‘your heart’ (Line 27) ‘your nipples and your legs’ (Line28). The third person plural plays its own role too for the ‘they’ in line thirty one, refers to someone tantalized by the smell and who is intrigued enough to examine it under a microscope, recalling the Victorian men in Duffy’s Warming her Pearls, who were intrigued by the intangible fragrance of the lady, for the smell of the servant girl who warmed the pearls for her adored lady underlay the fragrance of the lady.

….I dream about her

in my attic bed, picture her dancing

with tall men, puzzled by my faint persistent scent

beneath her French perfume, her milky stones… (Warming Her Pearls)

Speaking of the poetic voice in her poems, Bhatt says:

…So to some extent, from the beginning, I have a sense of the poem as being ‘other’ from me… I feel connected to more than one voice and each voice is ‘true’ in its own way. No matter how autobiographical a poem is I feel that once it is published, it has a life of its own, separate from mine… (Bertram)

which is perhaps one way of resolving the voices in the poem.

The poem, ‘The Stinking Rose’ is saturated with images and verbal constructs that are sensuous and even covertly sexual. The sexuality becomes evident in specific words (nipples, legs, fingers) and moves on to less physical but more figurative sensuality  in referring to ‘nudging nicking fingers in the middle of the night’(Line 34, 35).

While the only simile in the poem is that which compares the garlic to pearls still warm from a woman’s neck’(Line 4), adjectives abound in the poem. They range from compound words like coral-coloured to those like slippery, fragrant and sticky, used to describe roses, muscles, blood and cloves of crushed garlic. Perhaps it is past participles that are used most effectively in the poem beginning with the title itself – stinking, tasting, reeking, peeling, crushing.

‘The Stinking Rose’ brings into focus the change of attitude that could be affected by merely changing the name. If the use of the word ‘garlic’ only recalls to mind a repulsive breath and a foul smell, very much evident in ‘It has not rained for months’, the use of thephrase the stinking rosemakes it interesting and tantalizing and to quote the poet ‘vulnerable,even delicate’. The self-conscious nature of naming transforming the garlic to the exoticor the unfamiliar is reflected also in the spectrum of olfactory images the poem provides, ranging from fragrance and sweet to the ‘reeking’ discovered under the microscope. Olfactory images in the poem being analysed are different from those used by Bhatt elsewhere, especially in the poem ‘Muliebrity’ where the smell of cow-dung, fresh and dried, pervade the text. Olfactory imagesare certainly used by the poet in great measure to bring her text to life.What is different in ‘The Stinking Rose’ is that the smells that pervade the text are scintillatingly multi- pronged. ‘Her prism’, with its spectrum of sensory experience ranging from colours to unique scents of the woman, is invested with kinetic energy that lies in wait to pull the reader into a vortex of sensory experiences ranging from the overt or the surface level of the poem to its deeper covert levels of the sexual. The naming comes into play with the transformation from ‘I’ to ‘her’ and the entire poem moves to an end which is no ending at all. The final impression the poem leaves the reader is not of separable parts but a coherent whole that resist closure- as its very last word, ‘open’, reiterates.To use Bhatt’s own words:

The structure or the form of the poem and the rhythm, cadence, meter, tone, diction, syntax within the poem all come together with the subject matter. The poem comes out as a piece, as an organic unit, if it’s going to work…

Like the blended identities and the polyphonic voices and like the syncretic way of writing she displays with great effect, Bhatt’s poetry, like most twentieth century poetry is eclectic and draws on various sources and pantheons which coexist with tension in the text and retain its inner harmony.


Bertram, Vicki. “Interview with Sujatha Bhatt”, PN Review. 138. 2001.

Bhatt, Sujatha. The Stinking Rose. Manchester: Carcanet, 1995.

Desai, Pankti. “Multiculturalism in the Poetry of Sujatha Bhatt”,


Duffy, Carol Ann. “Warming Her Pearls,” Selling Manhattan.          Greenwich: Anvil Press, 1987.

King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English.  New Delhi: Oxford            University Press, 2001.

Sandten, Cecile. “Blended Identity: Culture and Language Variation in      Sujatha Bhatt’s “Hole in the Wind”, Connotations: A Journal of     Critical Debate. 10. 1. 2000 -01.

Default image
Hema Nair R

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124