The act of lighting an incense stick with a cigarette lighter, or a match, completes in the blink of an eye. But it’s a delicate balancing act: immerse the incense in the flame for too short, it will not ignite; too long, it will burn out quickly. Failure to grasp the sweet spot indicates distraction. Only when smoke comes out of the glowing ember, and a waft of soothing aroma fills the room, does my anxiety quiet.
I need to light an incense especially when I’m agitated, or on rainy days. I also tend to immerse my flat in the aroma of fragrant wood before a friend comes to visit, or just before I start work. When travelling, I’d always bring along a few incense sticks – just to have something familiar as I chart unknown territories. Life goes on without incense, but the presence of its aroma certainly makes everything better. The box that keeps my incense sticks has accumulated myriads of smells – and accompanying feelings of joy, calm, or weary. When emotions come flooding in, that’s the smell that I think of – a mixture of all things.
As time goes on, my favourite remains the enduring smell of sandalwood. One of the oldest incense materials, sandalwood has been widely used in religious rituals. My family is not religious, but my love of sandalwood stems from memories of staying with our relatives: waking up to rings of smoke in a very still morning, dust shining in the sunlight. Someone had lit an incense and left me alone in the ancient house – alone to enjoy the ensuing calm and warmth of solitude. That was the first time I experienced a profound smell, though the word “profound” was beyond my vocabulary then.
Years later, countless moments of spirituality like this have been lost to the remembrance of things past. Each morning has since been dictated by the rhythm of my departure for work. Occasionally, a waft of fragrant sandalwood fills my nostrils. I chase the smell to the corner of the stairs, where half an incense stick is burning in the crack in the wall. Like a memory, someone has lit an incense – and gone.