One afternoon in 2005—when I was in the first year of under-graduation, all of eighteen and feeling inspired to do something nasty—I decided to start smoking. At lunch break, I walked out of my college campus and down the street. I reached a vendor who sold cigarettes on the footpath. The area surrounding my college was littered with such cigarette sellers, as my institution was with boy-men who had just discovered smoking; So there was both, an urge to belong and the ease of access. And neither helped (or both did).
It wasn’t my first cigarette ever. But it would turn out to be the first of thousands.
I paid two rupees fifty paise for a Goldflake King. I am sure the vendor knew this was my first cigarette, because at 18 I looked like a 11 year old. As I gripped the cigarette nervously between my lips, I remember wondering if I should inhale or exhale into the fire of the lighter. I spent so much time in the confusion, the cigarette decided to light itself up. I was relieved.
And thus began my journey into the world of coughing profusely in the dead of the night; drunk driving at 3 am, 8 kilometres away from home for a fag; spitting brown gunk into the sink some mornings and not daring to examine what it was; losing an entire academic year due to a fleeting urge to smoke; and making some of the best memories of my life.
With the cigarette lit, my confident self made its way to a compound wall, away from the busy road. The compound—belonging to an institute where Gandhi himself is said to have taken strolls–was lined up by students like myself. We sat there in clusters, celebrating the start of an addictive future, while the passers by questioned the country’s, as they watched us revel. It wasn't exactly what Gandhi had imagined for us youth.
As I made myself comfortable in a corner and began to smoke, I got giddy—from excitement. Ajun, smiled and nodded from a few metres away, that felt like—oh you smoke too? join the club. But upon further inspection, it had come to his notice that I wasn’t smoking properly, so he immediately withdrew his welcome— “Dude, that’s not how you smoke. You are not even taking it in!” His friends laughed.
I didn’t pay any attention to him. I didn’t have to. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Surely he couldn’t be meaning that I must inhale the smoke all the way into my stomach and lungs, because that would be insanely hazardous! So I was happy containing the smoke in my mouth; cheeks filled, lips sealed, holding my breath and letting go after a few seconds. I did that all day that day.
But those boys had laughed. I didn’t like that.
The same evening, I met a dear friend near his home. I excitedly told him that I had gotten “addicted to smoking” because I had already smoked six cigarettes that day. I invited him to join me to go smoke, because I was “having an urge”. We hopped onto his bike and drove to a spot nearby.
My friend was 20 and I was 18. Clearly he was way more experienced in life. He saw me smoke and told me I was doing it wrong. He was my best friend after all, he wasn’t making fun of me. He asked me to do this—“do everything exactly as you are, and then just swallow your saliva.”
I followed his instructions and coughed my lungs out as my whole life passed in front of me. Dhanush sat there looking on, enjoying his cigarette and laughing. Once my coughing settled and I could breathe, I asked him in utter shock “Is this what smoking is?!” He nodded to say yes and added,“and when you want to mask the cigarette smell, chewing mint doesn’t really help, eat something.”
That lesson was all I needed for the day.
I went back home and found an eerie lane, best suited for such “nefarious activities of street loafers”. I practiced smoking on that lane, every evening for two weeks, only so that I could prove to those boys that I indeed knew how to smoke. Before I knew it, I was hooked.
Those boys had laughed at me, you see.
When there are a million ways to pin the blame, even for your own vice, why blame yourself?
Wish Gandhi hadn't taken those strolls—especially not on this day.