It is OK to smoke. Yes, you read that right. If you have started pondering over this stupefying declaration, the right side of your brain is functioning well. So raise a toast to yourself.
However, before anyone decides to disprove this statement, I urge them to finish reading this piece of literature (if it can be called that).
Going by the Supreme Court's not so recent, and much violated, smoking ban in public places, I am supposed to get nothing but clean, fresh air every time I step out. And therein lay the paradox.
I decide to wake up early one day and venture out. However, I realise that I need milk for my morning coffee and head for the nearest shop. “Mornings are ideal to get some fresh air and rejuvenate the respiratory system....” I remember telling myself as I open the door, when cigarette smoke hits my nostrills. I crane my neck to see the offender; it’s my neighbour, his head surrounded by a haze of smoke, just as a halo around a god. Not only has he risen earlier, he is fellating his cigarette vigorously like there is no tomorrow. I smile at the metaphor, but realise, much to my horror, that I have become, rather unwittingly, a passive smoker. Immediately, a plethora of images rush into my mind – cancer, nicotine, an emaciated patient on his death-bed fitted with numerous plastic tubes connecting to electronic contraptions... I make an effort to hold my breath as long as I cross him. He gives me a polite smile; I run away from him as if he is the last survivor of the great bubonic plague of London.
If ever there was a moment when I wished that I had a gas mask that one of the Terminators or Robocops had, it was when I reached the grocery store, which had a tobacconist next to it – and a sizeable crowd of Marlboro Men at its entrance. A cigarette smog pervades the store. The storekeeper is busy, oblivious to the perils of smoking. I suppress my urge to warn him and place my order. I try holding my breath in vain, and end up breathing in gasps, just as someone would do while drowning. The shopkeeper gives me an incredulous look, and either thinks that I am trying to impersonate James Watt’s steam locomotive. I realise that the more I try to hold my breath, the more cigarette smoke I am inhaling. “Grin and breathe it,” I say to myself as I exit the store, panting like a Terrier-hound. As I return home, my neighbour is billowing smoke like a chimney with his pipe; it seems he has been waiting for me to strike a conversation. I give him a weak smile and rush in, while making a mental note to Google for breath control exercises.
As I leave, I am thankful that my neighbour isn’t around, so I take a deep breath and hurry to the bus stop, where I am handed a practical lesson on purchasing power: three men are smoking – the first who seemed to be a blue-collar worker, was sucking a beedi; the second, who seemed to be a government employee, was sporting a cigarette; and the third, attired in a suit and well-polished shoes, gently tapping the ash off his Havana. The bus, as expected, does not arrive at all; I hail an autorickshaw and board it. No sooner does the rickshaw gather speed, does its driver light up, fuelling my agony. I tell him in my politest tone that I am suffering from a chronic respiratory disease, wherein my lungs would get deflated like a cycle tyre over a nail if I were to inhale tobacco smoke. He gives me an incredulous look and stubs the cigarette.
My happiness, though, was destined to be short-lived; I had not counted on the conundrum that is our traffic signals, where vehicular emissions, both permitted and outlawed, pervade as mist would at a Himalayan hill station. Two cars pull up on either side of my auto at a traffic signal where I am waiting, and as if by clockwork, their drivers, a man and a woman, roll down the windows, and, as you may have guessed by now, light up. Talk about gender equality! My auto driver mockingly asks whether he need call an ambulance. I gnash my teeth.
I head to the nearest theatre, where a cursory glance would present a strong case for smoking being made our national pastime. Everyone – the man at the counter, the security guard, the ones who have purchased tickets as well as those waiting patiently for the queue to move forward, and even the movie poster, has in possession of one of the multitudinous avatars of tobacco. Move over socialism, who says India isn’t an egalitarian society?
Meanwhile, I enter the queue and start practising my breath control exercises.
The movie starts and so does my nightmare. Had anybody said that this theatre was the blueprint for Hitler’s infamous gas chambers employed during his ethnic cleansing, I would have willingly believed them. In the darkness, all I can see, apart from the screen, is an ocean of orange-coloured tips of lit cigarettes, resembling flower buds. I felt the joke was on me, a la Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, with everyone around fuelling my agony. I chafe, I squirm, my eyes turn watery, my neighbour starts puffing away; I decide to let off some steam and ask him to stub out his beedi. He does so reluctantly, cursing me under his breath. I get the feeling that I may start floating in air, given all the hot air that is regurgitating from my system... only to enter it again. The door keeper, who has just dropped a cigarette butt to the floor and stamping it vigorously with his foot, looks at me as if he has spotted the dodo, as I walk out of the theatre barely fifteen minutes after show commences.
Its noon, I head to the nearest coffee shop, a dull headache clouding my thoughts as if in a hallucination. A signboard says that the smoking and non-smoking sections are clearly demarcated; my mind by now is conditioned only to expect the worst. True to word, the ‘demarcation’ is a misnomer, it could have supplanted the Berlin Wall in the USSR era to promote bonhomie, so gaping were its gaps near the ceiling and bottom. I walk out before the bearer comes to take my order.
Walking back home, I observe that public smokers are India’s omnipresent phenomenon, and not open drains or nasty traffic snarls. Recollecting the day’s events, I estimate that I may have passively smoked at least three dozen cigarettes without having to pay for even one. Hence the humble recommendation to the reader to reach out for that pack of 555 or Marlboro or the wide variety of products from our-own navaratna ITC. Be it the Basic Instinct Sharon Stone pose or The Godfather Marlon Brando style, at least the smoker wouldn't run low on the 'cool' quotient.
Cancer? Who gives it a rat's ass?