My Fight against Nicotine

I started smoking off and on when I was in my teens. I was probably 14 or thereabouts then.  As children growing up in in the NDA, one or the other of our gang would pluck up the courage to buy some and we would sneak away somewhere or the other and take a couple of drags each. I remember a group of us went for an overnight picnic to Sinhgadh  Fort and we spent the whole night finishing a pack. We had contributedt good money to buy it and wasting it was not an option. Everyone’s mouth was sore for days after that.

But sometime after June 1967, when I joined the IIT,  it became a regular feature. I was 16 by then. It became a Must Have before the morning ritual, or else. And after every meal.  And every now and then too.

The beginning of the month meant smoking the Filter Tipped Wills Navy Cut. One tried to curb consumption by smoking less, the idea being to be able to smoke Wills through the month. But a week later it was a WTF, and then a switch to Panama. This was a Non-Filter cigarette and used to come in a 20’s pack, costing just slightly more than a 10’s Wills Pack. The pack was of lighter paper, not as strong as the Wills pack, and many of us bought a plastic cigarette case, designed especially for the Panama pack to protect the cigarettes. Taking out the first cigarette from the pack was a ritual, you needed to open the pack just slightly, then tap on it, and a cigarette would push itself out.  A 20’s packet was supposed to last at least twice as long as a Wills pack, but then the cigarettes would start to get moist in the Bombay humidity, so one smoked more just to avoid this. Economically, you were not any better. Just smoking more.  Every Panama smoker’s shirt pocket would be full of tobacco flakes, and you had to be careful to empty them out before washing it.

And then of course the matches. A matchbox was always considered an unnecessary wasteful expense. I mean you could get a couple of cigarettes with that money, plus you could never find one when you were really wanted to.  As we grew more hip, an investment in a lighter became an important status symbol. Lighters were of all types. The cheapest were the disposable ones,  colored transparent plastic ones which you were expected to throw away after the lighter fuel in them ran out. You could see when it was over.  But we were students, with limited resources and were not going to give up without trying Jugad.  So first we would shake it hard and manage a couple more lights. When that no longer worked,  we would take it to this pan wala who would fix a hypodermic needle to his lighter fuel can, refill it with fuel, and then seal the hole by breaking the needle instead of taking it out, It would work very well for a while, then the sparking flint would wear out, and that was not replaceable.

Eventually, of course, most of graduated to multiple fancy lighters which we either bought or were gifted to us (or in some cases flicked)

Once you start smoking, your attention is automatically drawn to smoking accessories too.   Fancy Ashtrays, Lighters, Cigarette Cases, we all picked up these over time. I remember a Disco called Hell had opened in Bombay, where the Ash Trays were in the shape of a skull. They were heavy, made of metal, not easy to pocket, but still I think a fair quantum of them landed up in our hostels, taken as souvenirs. Remember, those days smoking was not banned anywhere, nor was there any guilt about it.  You could smoke anywhere, on the local trains, on aircrafts, in restaurants. I think the only place you could not was the inside of a cinema hall – though in the lobby it was allowed.

And of course there were time when the cigarettes we smoked contained more than just tobacco.

Most of us still believed that our parents were clueless that we were smoking.  We believed that the post smoke Chiclets and Saunf and mouthwash  had camouflaged our smoke of a few minutes ago quite effectively. How naïve we were. Now we realize that a smoker’s smell precedes him by several meters and he can swear for all he’s worth that he’s not smoked, but he’s not fooling anybody. I guess our parents were just avoiding an unpleasant subject.

Of course there were several colleagues who just would not smoke, however much you provoked them. Really remarkable. But for us, smoking became a second nature. In reality, it had become an addiction, but since there was never the thought that we need to ‘Give it Up’ it just went on.

By the time we left IIT, we were in our early 20’s. Qualified adults with  jobs (read money) too. Some of us like me were living at home with our parents.  Free roof, free food, not to mention the emotional security that goes with it. Fortunately, my parents were broad minded enough to understand that it was not going to be a good idea to lay down rules about smoking in the house. I would respectfully refrain from smoking in their presence but they were certainly aware that I was smoking. I remember an incident when I was sitting in my room after dinner and having a smoke when my dad walked in looking for something. I made a pretense of extinguishing the cigarette out of due respect and he said, “Don’t bother. The whole house is stinking with smoke, so what are you trying to achieve?”  He finished what he had come for and left. Next morning he told me very calmly, it’s not that we are pleased with your smoking, it’s a bad and dangerous habit and you should stop. However, you are a sensible adult now and it is for you yourself to decide. We are not going to put any emotional pressure. And as for smoking in my presence, I really don’t care. Makes no difference to me.  My mind went. Wow, now I don’t even have to worry about that, nor do I have to care about neighbors complaining to my dad that they saw me smoking. Life is good.  Having said that, let me clarify that Dad and I were very close, and I would never do anything to disrespect him. It was good to know that he too did not care for false pretenses, as I didn’t either.

I was at home only for about a year. Then in 1975,  flew the nest. A change of job took me to Bombay. Staying away from my parents, even though Poona was just 4 hours away,  was not pleasant. Fortunately, my Chachi and Chacha offered me the support that I needed. I literally gate crashed into their small apartment in Wadala and parked myself there as it was my birth right. It was already overcrowded, but they still made me feel more than welcome.. I stayed with them off and on for close to two years. At times I would move to a PG Accommodation but would find it so lonely and upsetting that I would soon move back. Then I would often be travelling out of town to Ratlam for extended periods on Company work, as our new steel plant was getting ready there.  I remember how I would just have to smoke in their toilet, there was no other way things were going to ‘move’.  They hated that but never said anything. I cannot imagine how they tolerated my inconsiderate and mean behavior in this regard. I never would have been able to put up with someone like that.

In 1977, it was decided by the powers that be that it was time I got married. I had nothing to say, so it was all arranged. Just before our engagement, Tiny and I went out for a coffee together, just us, no chaperons. Over cold coffee, Tiny asked me two questions – Do you drink, well I really didn’t so I said ‘Occasionally’ which turned out to be an acceptable response. Do you smoke? And I  said NO. It really wasn’t too much of a lie as I had seriously cut down smoking to just one or two cigarettes a day, and was sure I would stop completely by the time wedding day came. So it was all settled, we exchanged rings and the wedding was fixed for three or four months later. Enough time, I felt, and I will surely stop smoking before that.

Well the months passed pretty fast, and I still wasn’t completely off.  I wasn’t smoking excessively but I wasn’t completely off either. We got married and I was still smoking. Naturally, it didn’t take too long for somebody with whom you’re going to be at close quarters to figure that out.   But we sorted the issue out, as newlyweds usually do, and came to some understanding, I had in any case cut down drastically. In fact we would often go out together for dinner sometimes and I would buy a cigarette, an expensive one like 555 or something, and smoke it.  That was allowed.

Soon after that, in 1981, we moved to Nigeria. No respite from smoking there either, With fancy expensive brands (and only those) staring you in the face, the question did not arise. It was like a child in a chocolate shop. And so it continued for the next 15 years,  the entire time that we were in Nigeria. It was acceptable, it was cool, it was allowed everywhere – even on planes – and people in India loved us for the Duty Free Cigarettes that we would bring in abundance. But it started to show. Bad throat, long lasting coughs, nicotine stained  finger nails, yet  the thought of stopping still did not occur. In 1995 – I had been smoking for  over25 years now, we moved out from Nigeria, briefly to Singapore and then to India. It was around this time that there was some awakening about the hazards of smoking, public awareness was rising, and smoking was being banned in many places. Even then, these were just inconveniences o be adjusted to, and there was no plan to stop.

In 1997, we moved to Ghana. It was some time after we moved here that I began to feel I need to stop smoking. I was getting close to 50, and felt I need to make an effort. All my friends were also talking in the same language – Must Stop.  Anyway, one fine morning I just decided to quit. No more cigarettes. I actually managed to stay without smoking for a couple of weeks and was mighty pleased with myself.  Then there was somewhere that we had to go and I was with friends with whom we used to smoke together. I thought it would be smug on my part to tell them that I’ve successfully stopped smoking while they haven’t, so I did not decline when one of them offered me a cigarette. For Old Times sake, for old friends sake, I thought,  and it’s really not so tough stopping, I’ve done it once, now I’ll do it again starting tomorrow.

That tomorrow did not come for a very long time.

I think my wishy washy attitude made quitting the second time around too difficult. This time, I was not ready to believe that I really needed to quit. I felt I just needed to curtail. Now in Ghana, for an expatriate, to buy just one cigarette at a time is not easy.  Its full packets that are sold at the supermarket. So I would buy a packet, and decide I’m going to smoke only one or at most two in a day. But then we’d go out, friends, dinners, and the count would be lost. But on regular days I did manage to keep it down.

The times when Tiny would travel to India – for about two months every year- were the worst. Nothing better to do, on Sundays especially, so I would buy a pack intending to smoke just one or two with my beer.  I would do that and after reaching out for about the fourth, would decide that I need to pitch the packet out. I would stand in the balcony of our apartment and throw the packet, trying to get it across the wall. It would always fall short.  An hour later, when the urge would strike again, I would run down, retrieve the packet, come home have a couple of more and the want to pitch it out again. This time,  I would crush and squeeze the packet so that the cigarettes would get broken. Yet, again when the urge would hit, I would be down, looking to see if there was any large enough piece that I could smoke at least partially. I know this sounds pathetic, but perhaps you will understand how strong the urge is.

After a while, again a routine set in. No packs at home, in fact no more full packs to be bought unless we were going out with friends to Ryan’s Pub or Dynasty for a meal together.  Tiny disliked my bumming cigarettes more than she disliked my smoking. Either you carry your own pack or you don’t smoke. Many times I made an effort to leave the pack on the restaurant table, or on my chair, but inevitably, the waiter would come running after us before we reached our car Sir, this is yours, you left this on the table. Shit.

Then I found a small shop from where I could buy loose cigarettes. It was like 50 meters from my office and was like a sell everything store, including shots of the local brew in vodka sized glasses. I’m sure they sold harder stuff too, but I never did ask. The cigarette packets would be on the counter, in a dish, you picked the brand you wanted (Rothmans, 555 or Benson & Hedges – they all cost the same) took a cigarette and put in a coin in the dish to pay for it. No interaction was required, unless the packet was empty.  But a suited booted expatriate doing the rounds of this kind of place every day obviously attracted eyeballs.  A drill was put into place. I would go for a short walk from my office every evening at exactly 4:30pm, pick up one cigarette from there with a coin and then smoke it while walking back. Everybody in the office knew where I was returning from, red eyed and stinking, and they would all exchange glances. But eventually, the whole street got used to it and it was routine.  I didn’t care.

There was a drug addict who used to hang around at that shop, matted hair, not bathed in days, always with his palm out looking for a handout. Because my routine was more or less fixed, he would wait for me every day and want some money.  We kind of struck a deal, when I would buy my cigarette, I would pay for one more, for him.  Sometimes I would buy him a packet of biscuits, and he would be happy. One day, I think he missed meeting me at that shop and came after me to my office wanting his handout. Of course, the security did not allow him in, there was a bit of a scene outside, I came out gave him some coins and he was on his way. I think the fact that he had been stopped from entering the shop got him pretty upset. Then for a long time he disappeared, I never really asked after him. Then one fine day, he comes into the Sony Centre, clean shirt, nice trousers and shoes, hair properly combed. He took some money out from his pocket and said he wanted to buy a Radio Cassette Recorder. He had no idea which one to buy, I think he was only trying to make a point that now he had made it into the respectable lot. How all this happened, who paid for his de-addiction and gave him a job at which he was successful, I never found out. But I think it did put into my head that if he can give up his addiction, I too must.

I think it was shortly after that that I decided; now it’s time to get really serious about giving up once again. And  I stopped. A couple of months later we were in India and at a lunch party somewhere. I remember, all my smoking friends and some cousins were also there. Booze and cigarettes were flowing; again I didn’t want to make a scene, so I did join them for a cigarette or two. But this time I had decided I’m not falling back into the rut again. And that, as far as I can recall, is the last time I smoked. It’s been close to ten years since, and now I’m past that. I don’t expect to pick up a cigarette ever again. My nose is now sharper, I can tell a smoker from a long distance. I feel sorry, genuinely sorry for those who still haven’t stopped.  I don’t feel smug about having stopped, just grateful that I was able to.  It’s not easy at all and I empathize with them. Unfortunately, there’s nothing anybody else can do to help them. It’s something that they have to do completely on their own.