"I am here. Come!" Someone whispered. I recognized the voice in an instant. I turned around and saw no one.
"Bega bala, yaan moolu ulley (Come fast, I am here)", he was now whistling into the night.
It was quite dark, even the moon had taken his fortnightly off. Trying to brush off the darkness that enveloped my eyes I searched. A lanky figure stealthily crouched near the main gates of our colossal ancestral house.
Jacky and Jimmy, our mongrels slothfully dozed off on their make-shift gunny bag beds after a hearty dinner. The others at home were resting too. A creaky transistor played Mangalooru Akashavani’s "Korike" (By request) in my uncle’s room; the half an hour weekly program of lilting Kannada music.
The mud smelt fresh and wet from the first cloudburst of the monsoon. The air was rather dense and fresh, I could feel it go down and appease my lungs. I inhaled two more lungfuls- that felt invigorating. The asphalt was cold, a tingling sensation ran up the spine from my bare toes.
As I tip-toed to the gates, the figure stood up all of a sudden, holding a Eucalyptus tree by the pillar for support. The whole tree shook violently, as enormous droplets that were stored in the branches fell noisily to the ground.
"Aye manga, mella ya (Slowly you monkey)", I rebuked him.
We ran out…Two children – One a 12 year old, the other bloke had lasted 13 summers.
Reaching our clandestine place, he fished out two white sticks that he had managed to steal from his chain-smoking father’s packet.
"Indhaa (Here)", take" he said.
My hands were trembling as I took it from him. "Daala podyodchi, (don’t be afraid)", he reassured me as he placed his share on his lips.
Next, he fished out a ‘Ship Brand’ box of match-sticks. Pulling it out with a seasoned ease, he tried to light up. The darned phosphorous end didn’t burn.
"Chandi atthundu, barsadha disetu (It’s wet thanks to the rains)". I looked heavenwards; it was beginning to drizzle lightly.
He struck again, "Abba, pothundu (It’s lit)". He was pleased. I looked around shamefacedly; the whole place seemed to be bright.
"No one will know". He helped me on with the rituals. "Mella Oyipu, drag in the smoke slowly, don’t inhale", he said.
I tried and coughed for a full 30 seconds.
"Ee yenanu kerpa ya (You will have me killed)", he said.
I tried again, it tasted dreadful. But the thrill was intense. I felt like a Man. We sat there huddled against the neighbor’s compound wall, two lit ends turning brighter every few seconds.
After a few tries, I threw it down. He grabbed the butt from the ground, it was squelchy and had the fire had snubbed out.
"Waste maltha manga", it was his turn to chastise me.
After he had finished, he fished out something else; it was a white hard-boiled confectionery. "Minty, no one can smell us now".
…I was free, from a vice I chose myself, from shackles that I had thought I would never be free from….
The mint vaporized in my mouth and I inhaled from my mouth. It felt cool.
This was a ritual – last two months, every Sunday night over the next couple of years. His Dad never complained. We didn’t either.
School days, fetes, Christmas, New Years, Birthday parties during high school days meant more smoke sessions. Adolescence beckoned in all its glory; we were no match for the charm it portrayed. We were hooked for life.
No one at home ever knew, my good grades covered up for any doubts that arose. I remember one nosy aunt of mine complaining to Mom, "Akka, Veena saw his group smoking near Nanking". Mom checked with me, I said it wasn’t me. She believed.
College was fun, casual clothing meant freedom-From the discipline of school uniforms, school bags and all those unwanted things that shackled a sprouting adulthood.
More cigarettes, we were now regulars at the small ‘goodu-angadi’ by the Court. Allowances for bus tickets were saved, ticket less travel was a norm and we blew it up on Gold Flake Kings and Mint.
One Good Friday, my best friend and I were caught red-handed, smoking. I almost blew a puff of smoke into my mom’s face. She slapped me, I said ‘Sorry Mom". She slapped me again.
My best friend tried to take the blame on himself (I love him for this). He got a mouthful from my otherwise tranquil and kind mom. I went back home that night and promised her that I would never smoke again.
The promise lasted a full 12 hours.
We were back to our ways, smoking away to glory, we had now mastered the art of blowing rings too. I chose to wear my Dad’s shirts to College, those one with the long- dog-ear-collars that droopily hung on my thin frame. They were perfect camouflage for those accidental cigarette sparks that fell on the clothing. Dad was a chain smoker when he was alive, so the holes might have been his you know.
The beginning of the month (all of us were loaded with our piddly allowances) we would be smoking ‘hajaar’ Gold Flake Kings; by mid-month we would split cigarettes, each taking a "dum or a drag" and relaying the burning stick to the guy next. By month end, we had even turned to Beedies; till someone came and flashed a cigarette packet, that his Gulfie Cousin had given him. We now blew foreign smoke rings quite triumphantly.
Out of college, lucky enough to be employed – meant disposable incomes. A decent sum was blown on the sticks. By now I had tried quite a repertoire of smoking tools – Cigars, pipes, hand-rolled scented tobacco and Beedis too. Of course the upgrade from 10’s to a 20’s was imminent. I had a prized collection of lighters, till I forgot them during a job-transfer at a colleagues place. I never got them back.
Smoker’s cough was a part of my persona, quite disgusting to experience it first up every morning. Brushing my teeth had been such an ordeal. I had however kept my teeth clean; a regular visit to the dentist for scaling kept my pearlies white. But my lips were charred beyond redemption.
I smoked on. Met my lady love Glanita, my smoking didn’t stop. We got married; I now didn’t smoke at home. I made up for the lost time during office hours.
At work, I once got an informal prize for smoking titled "The Chimney". It was a unanimous secret ballot from the 200 odd colleagues. I wasn’t quite proud of myself. I decided to stop smoking that very day. Till I had my next cup of Chai.
During those two decades since induction into the smoking brigade, I had tried umpteen times to stop smoking, in vain. I had chided myself for blowing a sizeable amount of my hard earned money on smoking. I now smoked more, in anguish, at my stupidity.
Every time I tried to put an end to this vice, there would be some devil’s incarnate offering me a Cigarette. I finally decided to quit- trying to stop smoking.
That way it saved me from guilt pangs every time I lit cigarettes. The smoker’s lungs had now turned sadistic; I couldn’t speak a few decent sentences without coughing a couple of times. But I smoked at every possible opportunity.
Glanita’s first pregnancy gave me ample reason to stop; she was turning highly sensitive to the smell. I blamed it on her morning sickness. But by now I had reduced my smoking significantly, nature’s design. I was tiring of smoking; I could not smoke a whole cigarette. Our first son’s arrival helped me reduce further. Nature had its own control panels.
A school time batch-mate of mine and a very close friend of the extended family passed away in India. Someone told me he was a smoker and had died of a massive heart attack.
I had now finally decided enough is enough. I threw the whole pack of cigarettes that I had in my pocket.
People told me it would be tough, I had read about withdrawal symptoms, weight gains and many other physiological changes that I would be subject to.
Believe me, I had none.
It was a decision that I had made firmly, never to smoke a cigarette again.
The next few months, my lungs cleared, I had no blocked nose in the morning, no heavy chest, no smoker’s cough. Nothing!
I was free, from a vice I chose myself, from shackles that I had thought I would never be free from.
It’s another cold and windy day. The two of us are seated in our seats overlooking the road. A huge projection TV plays some noisy Arabian music.
Back-gammon players, a few amateur chess players and some other deal with packs of cards as their hubblies bubble by their chairs. The sweet scent of Turkish coffee and tobacco fills the place. Our host Haroun, finds it amusing to find two Indians amidst all the Arabic speaking, cantankerous men.
He pulls out something from his pocket and hands it over to us- these are plastic filters. Another man places two long water filled pipes by our sides and the charcoal on the mildly scented tobacco.
We sip our gahwahs and drag gently as the sheesha bubbles, ever so softly, letting out the flavored smoke into the air.
I must admit though, that we do these hubbly bubbly at times now- just for kicks.
As of now, it’s no more cigarettes, no more alcohol.
This blogspot is dedicated to my wonderful wife Glanita for being such a support always, my mom whom I promised I would stop smoking that Good Friday. Also to my Papa, an inimitable chain-smoker, whose death anniversary quite aptly coincides with the World No Tobacco Day every year.
Author: Amarnath Bantwal- Kuwait