Do you remember when you had your first shot at trying to smoke a cigarette? Most probably, most of us had tried out in school on the sly, during lunch break. Mine was no different. I smoked my first cigarette in my boarding school in my tenth standard. I still remember a bunch of us sneaking into one of the staff quarters. Pradipda, who was one of the hostel staffers, and whom we treated more as a friend, arranged for the cigarettes for us. Considering the strict discipline (which made many of us lifelong rebels) followed by the Ramakrishna Mission schools, it would be blasphemous even to think that something like that could ever happen. But it did happen and we coughed our way to adulthood.
I don’t remember smoking another cigarette in a while. My next serious attempt at smoking was in Uttarpara where I was studying for twelfth standard. My father had rented a room for me and used to visit me either every week or every fortnight, depending on the time he could take out from his business. When he left, sometimes he forgot to take his cigarette packet back with him. Very often I would find a cigarette or two in those packets. That’s how I took to smoking again. But I hardly bought cigarettes from shops and mostly used my father’s leftovers. There was something erotic about that experience, like moments of stolen desires. My father never suspected anything and never enquired about the packets he left behind. The thrill and loneliness of living in an unknown city and a spirit of adolescent rebellion (which unfortunately hasn’t left me still) made smoking quite enjoyable. Smoking, as an act of rebellion and thrill, hadn’t yet become the mundane act that it is now.
Once in college, I started smoking regularly. The thrill gradually made way to a routine addiction, especially in moments of heart-break and study-related stress. For a while, I tried the Charminar cigarette without filter, a trademark in Bengal those days among the hardcore smokers and the leftist type. However, my leftist leaning would soon make way for my bourgeois values and I would seek out the solace of Wills Filter, one of the most expensive Indian cigarettes those days. For a while, I tried out the Capstain pouch and rolled my own cigarettes. I became quite adept at holding the loose tobacco between my thumb and forefinger, gently placing it in the transparent paper leaf, rolling it, and glue the edge of the rolled leaf with spittle. There was something very macho about the caress of tobacco and leaf. Not unlike caressing the neck of a new girlfriend found and lost in college.
Over the years, the initial thrill of smoking, like illicit love affairs, has evaporated. When it becomes an addiction, it becomes a drab, routine act. A few times, I have quit too. Once for a girlfriend who stayed with me for a very brief period. To be fair to the lady, she never asked me to quit. It was my gallantry borne out of romance that made me do it. But then, if love is not gallant, what else it is! However, every time I quit, I came back to it like a lost lover.
I decided to write this piece not to recount my own experiences of smoking but to narrate the stunning experiences of my friend who is visiting from Leiden University. Today while we were returning from Times Square, we lit our cigarettes – his was from Tunisia, a country he visited recently, and mine was the regular Marlboro Lights.
While talking about smoking, he dropped a bombshell. He started smoking in his second standard in school, when he was barely 7-8 years of age and quit in his sixth standard! Could you believe it? Yes, he started in the second standard and quit in the sixth standard.
His father regularly sent him to buy bidis (Indian leaf rolled cigarette) and that is how he started buying extra packets. In the evening, when he was entrusted with grazing the goats in his village in Kerala, he would take the bidis and smoke them in seclusion. It went on for a while, until one of the neighbors saw him smoking and reported to his mother. Despite his mother giving him a good thrashing, it only made him determined to smoke more. This went on until the sixth standard, when a teacher caught him smoking and gently persuaded him to give up. He resumed smoking in his MA days.
When I listened to my friend’s story, I simply didn’t know how to react. What must have he been thinking while smoking at such an early age? Did he have the same feeling of eroticism that I experienced with my first puffs? Our circumstances had been vastly different. He was grazing cattle in a village while I was trying to beat boredom in a city and indulge in cheap thrills.
However, like the first girlfriend, the memory of the first puffs always makes me look back very fondly, even in the dreariest of times.