“Miss, do you want to see how incense is made?” a small Indian boy asks as I amble through the perfumed streets of Mysore’s Devaraja Market.
The slightest indication of a nod and he skips off into the market’s labyrinthine passages. Inside the organised chaos enclosed in the 120-year-old bazaar, he leads me over lanes scattered with banana leaves, bought up in bulk to be used at weddings and feasts in place of plates; past baskets stuffed with cinnamon sticks, star anises and fragrant cardamom pods; and conical piles of coloured dye powder set out in earthenware dishes, until we arrive at a stall lined with intricate glass perfume bottles.
He sits down and scatters a powder onto the table, adding oil to mix it into a paste. I catch the waft of Mysore’s famous fragrance, sandalwood, a slow growing tree prized for its expensive oil.
He pulls out a bamboo stick and rolls the paste onto the rod, leaving a sticky strip of incense still in need of drying.
“Would you like some chai?” his older brother asks me, before he sends the boy off to on an errand to the stall nearby. “Are you looking for any oils, we have jasmine, lotus, patchouli” and begins decanting drops of intense perfumes across my wrist.
“I’m looking for some sandalwood oil, do you know where I can get some?”
A cautious shadow passes over his face, and I feel like I just asked him if I wanted to buy drugs. He glances around, scanning for authoritative faces in the market as his brother comes back with a paper cup of chai, steaming with the smell of cardamom.
“I have some,” he whispers to me, “I’m not allowed to sell it. The government regulates the sale of the oil, they mark up the price, but I can sell you a small bottle.”
He pulls out a metal thermos from under the desk, twists open the cap and dabs a small drop onto an uncontaminated part of my arm. I take in a sniff – it’s the real thing.
“I’ll take a small bottle,” I say, “I’ll also take some jasmine and lotus.” He smiles and hands me a pad of sticky labels.
“Please can you write the names on here, ” he says, “I can’t read or write. Don’t write the sandalwood,” the last word is whispered.
“Your English is excellent,” I comment as I scribble the oil names, “where did you learn it?”
“Here in the market, I’ve been working here since I was 4 years old. I also speak French, German and Italian.”
I look at his brother, who is still smiling. He can’t be older than 12.
“My family works here, we’ve been working at the market for 100 years,” he says “we sell oil, incense and spices. Would you like to see my brother’s stall?”
I follow him through the maze again, seduced by the heady promise of precious oils, spices, incense and, more…