Agarbatti, अगरबत्ती in Hindi, is Indian incense. It is the joss stick that smoulders in a student bedsit, a hint of exoticism in drab surroundings, the fragrant clouds that waft out of a shrine or wat and coil lazily upwards into the sunlight. The scent of it drifts along the waterfront of an eastern riverport on a sultry night, overlaying the more pungent smells of the harbour. Smells conjure memories like no other sensation, catapulting you back in time. I remember going into the wardrobe in a relative’s house after they had died and inhaling a mixture of mothballs and tweed and wood polish, and feeling their presence again. I remember a waterfront on a river at night with the moonlight so bright it felt feverish, silhouetting the palm trees and turning the ripples on the water silver, the boats nodding their heads slowly as they pirouetted on their moorings, and the scent of agarbatti drifting along, washing over the scene.

I am not a religious person. I fill out forms for bureaucrats and when it says Religion I write ‘none’. And it’s true, I have no codified or orthodox system of belief. But I have faith, of a sort, not in something external, some higher order (although I acknowledge the limits of my own rationality), but in people, and in something in people. I acknowledge the importance of ritual; of how a gesture can be laden with meaning because of its intent. There is something comforting in the symbolism, in acting out a ritual which has no apparent or immediate tangible effect – putting time and effort and belief into something which does not materially benefit us, does not provide any clear gain. A poor farmer from the mountains spends a few carefully husbanded coins on a garland of flowers to place round the neck of a statue; a poor grandmother buys a few sticks of incense to light at a shrine knowing that it means she cannot eat again that day. It is the importance of belief, a gesture towards depth of feeling which takes precedence.

I went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia once. It was an awful, harrowing place. It appeared deceptively tranquil – a summer scene, a field covered in butterflies, golden in the evening sun. And at the centre stood a tall pagoda, with ornate Khmer layered roofs and glass sides. In the glass was reflected the blueness of the sky and the drifting clouds overhead. And as you drew closer you saw beyond the reflection, and into focus came empty eye sockets that stared at the sky, a tower of skulls, thousands upon thousands, piled on each other, taken out of the fields that I was standing on. I could not take it in, the enormity of what happened here, reconcile it with the sound of children laughing as they played in the village nearby, or the lowing cattle that were going home, throwing up clouds of red dust that caught the rays of the sun and turned golden. Before the pagoda knelt a local woman, selling incense, and as I watched a Khmer family with two young children approached her, bought some incense, lit it at the foot of the pagoda and pressed their hands together in a sompeah, bowing their heads in prayer. I felt inadequate, helpless, unable to process it all – I am not worthy of these dimensions. I felt a hypocrite, intruding on someone’s grief.

I walked to the car park and smoked, trying to get a hold on myself. The family came back, and nodded to me. I took a deep breath, and greeted them. I asked them, forgive me, I am a tourist here, and I want to understand. Why do you light the incense here? The man was youngish, smartly dressed, his small wife beautiful and cradling one child. His English was poor, but softly he said: “We burn to wishing peace. For coming closer. Carrying thinking, and for remembering good, pushing away bad.”
“I understand,” I told him. “And I find it very touching. But would it be correct for me, a barang, foreigner, to do the same?”
“Yes, you can do,” he said, and smiled. “It would be a good thing.”
I thanked them, and watched them leave. Then I went over to the incense seller, feeling embarrassed. She proffered three sticks. “How much?”
“What you like.”
I dug out a fistful of Khmer reals. About $4 worth, and handed them to her. A fortune. Wordlessly she took them, folded them away in her apron, handed me a small plastic lighter and watched as I walked up the steps to the rack, the stubs of the sticks jutting out like ribs, and I saw four of them freshly burning from the man and his family, one for each of them. I placed the incense clumsily in the holder and lit them, then shut my eyes, in front of a tower of skulls, and wished for calmness, tranquility, peace, for anyone who was in torment. Then I turned and walked slowly away.

And that is why I burn agarbatti.