My grandfather was an avid smoker.
He was a stickler for cleanliness and discipline. He often sat in the veranda of his, modest yet stylish, pitched roof bungalow; puffing away cigarettes, as he entertained guests evening after evening.
He was the first person I ever saw smoke.
Although there were other smokers in the house, they rarely smoked in the open. Needless to say the smokers were all men. This was a middle class home in the 90s.
I grew up in his house until the age of six.
Subsequently, I visited his house every summer vacation as a young boy. On rare occasions, he would interrupt my playing on the street and send me to fetch him his Gold Flake carton of 200 cigarettes from the mom-and-pop round the corner. This – sending a child to get cigarettes – was not considered inappropriate. Not by him or me or my mother.
It was a different time. The innocence of it is almost endearing.
But even then I knew something was odd about it.
So like most people of my generation, I grew up with the idea that smoking was both normal as well as taboo.
My grandfather had the entire upper floor to himself on his 2400 sq. ft. plot; while his wife, children and grandchildren lived on the ground floor.
Whenever I got the chance, I tried playing upstairs. He was unpredictable and could bark at you if you pranced around for more than what his eyes could handle. You had to spread it out, if you wanted more time there. It almost felt like a different house.
I was always fascinated by the numerous shelves he had that were filled with collectibles carefully curated from his travels around the world, and memorabilia he received from friends.
I could spend hours peering at them. His cigar pipes, hip flasks, ash trays, ivory toys and other knick-knacks. None of it felt decadent. There was an odd charm to it that men of his generation brought.
I was particularly intrigued by an antique Chinese musical cigarette holder. When you lifted the cap it played a hideous tune. I loved it.
Years later on a summer afternoon in 2001, when I had all of the upstairs to myself, I pulled out a cigarette from this contraption.
I then walked over to his squeaky clean bathroom, lit the cigarette and tried smoking it. It was disgusting. I kept smiling as I looked at myself in the mirror, pretending to be an old and grown up 20 year old.
I was 14. This was the first cigarette I ever smoked.
No one found out. And I was not very afraid either. This would turn out to be a false start. I didn't start smoking until much much later.
Two years after this, my grandfather passed away from a heart attack.
He was 75.
Maybe it had nothing to do with his love for inhaling fumes of burnt tobacco.
Maybe it did.