My first cigarette was a silly curiosity. But when I deliberately started smoking at eighteen, I knew I was up to no good.
If there was one thing that my sister and I were taught well as children, it was to not lie. We continued that as young adults. I can’t recollect us lying. We reported to our parents, every little thing we did. There was no hiding ever. Yeah, very boring indeed.
So the very afternoon I tried smoking, I called up my father to inform him. He said, “Ah. Ok. Hmmm. You were curious. You tried it. Great!… So… don’t make it into a habit.” He handled the delicate situation well.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop me.
I knew he would be upset if I continued smoking. He had tried smoking when he was younger and never took it up because he hated the smell. He told us that story all the time. It would take more than ‘foul smell’ to stop ambitious little me, I realised.
I continued smoking that day and thereafter.
I knew my mother would have just yelled and asked me to ‘stop! at once!’. There was simply no incentive to call her and make such a confession. She would later go on to tell me that I can smoke and drink when I start earning my keep, thinking that would offend me enough to stop.
I was unfazed by such ‘archaic ideas’.
A few months later, when my father learnt that I continued to smoke, he called to say, "Son, I got to know that you are hiding from family and smoking. By doing this you are ruining two things: your health and the strength of your character. Ruin only one, if you must. Please don’t hide and smoke. Hold your head high and smoke in the open.”
I felt ashamed. But I was enjoying the new addiction. Also, these early seeds of guilt and reason would grow within, making me question my choice to smoke, every once in a while.
My grandmother, whose house I lived in from age 18 to 21, was not pleased one bit. Understandably so. She had seen her brother, her husband and her sons smoke heavily, all her life. The last thing she wanted was her first grandson to start a habit that could make him die young.
Before you ask, women don’t smoke in middle class Indian households like mine, because the men don’t allow it. In homes that happen to be vegetarian, women don’t eat meat, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol and don’t have affairs. Yes, one leads to the other. The men know this too well, because they do it in that order. We let the women drink sometimes, so we can later ask in disbelief in an argument, “Our family and patriarchal?!” Since women who drink must be enjoying the greatest freedoms of life (so long as they don't drink more than the men who permit them their tipple).
Take myself for instance, at twenty I would be annoyed if my then girlfriend smoked. I would tell her “Women are the epitome of perfection.” I'll let that sink in. “I made it into a habit, so please… you don’t.” I’m going out in the fire to save lives, so you don’t have to. I was a precocious youngster. Thanks.
It took my dad asking me “who told you only women have taken the theka (contract) to be ‘shining examples’?” And I instantly got it. I was a ‘daddy’s boy’. It took daddy to explain everything to me. Anything daddy said, I nodded readily in agreement.
Except when he asked me to stop smoking.
The other family members who lived with my grandma, didn’t know what to do with my smoking self. They tried ‘corrective methods’ that had been tried on them when they were young and it achieved the same results: I did whatever the heck I wanted to. Why they took it upon themselves to do anything about my smoking or my life—when they had been teenage-pregnancy-in-90s-India style reckless and were smokers at that—is the real big question of my early 20s.
My friends redeemed me. I wasted all my time on them. It was great. I got into theatre and television, thanks to my family. I got into a band, thanks to my college. My friends were everything to me.
And everybody smoked. I probably smoked the most in every friend circle. I was doing 20-25 cigarettes a day, on busy days.
When my grandmother expressed concern to an uncle that I had taken to smoking, he casually said, “It is stupid to smoke, especially for a singer”. He was a smoker himself. I was a smoker and a singer. I didn’t like how that felt. ‘Stupid? Yuck. I wasn’t ‘stupid’! Or was I?’ No one had described the habit like that until then.
Reason, the only chance at quitting.
Another relative to whom my mother complained about my smoking, said to her, “Suji, in my entire life, I know of only three people who have quit smoking. The only thing that can stop Sumeru"– he said to her face, in front of me– "is a heart attack”. That was a bolt out of the blue in our cosy living room with plastic chairs. He had survived one himself and quit smoking. I had no choice but to believe him.
That didn't mean I stopped.
My father, who was a thousand kilometres away, continued to register his protest and refused to watch my serials— “I can’t stand to see your blackened lips on screen, son.” That affected me. He would courier newspaper articles and magazine cut-outs on the ill effects of smoking. He would write me heartfelt letters.
I felt guilty. I smoked another one.
I was so busy acting, performing cover music with my band and living it up, that I forgot to attend college. I got shortage-of-attendance. One particular exam, my best friend and I had not studied—no clue about an entire chunk of the syllabus. We refused to be briefed quickly by a classmate, right before the exam. We decided that we would, instead, spend the fifteen minutes well… and went to have a smoke. It was a crucial exam and we didn’t know that. We failed in it.
We both lost an academic year. Poof. One year gone.
The hazards of smoking are one too many to recount.