You do not know me.
But I have a story to share with you. I think it is important for you to know about what happened to me so that it might not happen to you, or to anyone in your family.
My name is Pavan. My story begins in Palakkad, a small city in the south of India. I found my first job here in the electricity department. I was only 20 years old and full of curiosity for what life would give me.
Having grown up in a home where money was tight, my job was my first taste of freedom. It gave me more than just a livelihood, it gave me my identity as a successful young man, and it gave me a new dignity among my childhood friends.
Staying away from my family, I had to learn to cook and wash my own clothes. Many of my colleagues had also moved to Palakkad from other towns and villages. They taught me everything about living alone, from booking gas cylinders to selecting vegetables by feeling them in my palm.
From my colleagues I also picked up an interest in cinema, political debates and cigarettes. Cigarettes? Yes, everyone smoked back then. I have seen ten year-old boys who serve in tea shops smoking.
Everyone knew it was not a good habit, but we thought smoking was considered morally bad as it meant spending money on cigarettes. At that time, it wasn’t so much about health.
Smoking was a status symbol. We smoked for the same reason we wore trousers instead of a dhoti. Everyone who was anyone was wearing trousers now. I didn’t want to be left behind.
I never smoked beedis, it was not suitable for a government official like me to smoke something as cheap as that. We smoked filtered cigarettes.They were called ‘lights’ and we thought it meant that they had less tobacco.
But that was just a marketing lie that we inhaled along with the smoke. Cigarettes with filters were thought to have more ‘ventilation’ so that less tar comes through. They were referred to as ‘smooth’ because you could hardly taste any tobacco.
For some reason, we thought filtered cigarettes were almost harmless; they didn’t have the strong smell of beedis or cigars. They were even smaller in size. We were making the ‘healthier’ choice by smoking these.
We smoked on our tea breaks, we smoked in restaurants, and we smoked at home. Every restaurant table had an ashtray, along with the salt and pepper shakers.
Unlike the manual labourers who smoked beedis, our lips were not black, our teeth were not yellowed, and our fingers were not stained. We took these are signs that we were smoking in a milder, more gentlemanly manner than them.
Are you amused at our foolishness? Are you wondering who can be stupid enough to think that cigarettes of any kind can be a ‘healthier’ option?
Even in this generation we have many young people who think vaping is the ‘healthier option’. Till a couple of years back, coffee shops served hookahs to teenagers. The ignorance has not changed, only the products have.
What started off as a status symbol, became functional. We smoked before work because smoking helped us concentrate. Then we smoked after work because smoking helped us relax.
If we were stressed about family pressures, we smoked to calm down. If there was an argument with a friend, we patched up by sharing a cigarette.
Fancy lighters and ashtrays were popular gift items. Personalised cigarette cases showed you were upper middle class. I once knew a rich man who smoked personalised cigars from Cuba. Each brown cigar had his name on it in silver, and he never smoked anything else. It was a part of his branding; it marked him as better than the rest of us because he could afford such a thing.
Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t spend all our waking hours smoking and fantasising over cigarettes. In fact, we hardly even thought of cigarettes on a daily basis, just as we never actively thought of soap or salt on a daily basis.
I come from a strict, religious family. Ever since I can remember, I started my day with a cold bath and puja. I always offered fresh flowers in my puja, just as I have seen my father and grandfather do. My room smelt of jasmines every morning. When I made my breakfast it smelt of the pure ghee my mother always sent me.
After breakfast it smelt of the ‘milds’ I smoked before leaving for work. This concoction of smells, jasmine, ghee and tobacco is what my clothes smell of even now. In a way, it has become ‘my’ smell.
But why am I telling you all this? Five months back I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Looking back, I realise there were little things that lead up to this moment. We only see the big events; passing an exam, getting a job, getting married, having children etc. We miss the little details that happen in between.
Like they say, the devil is in the details. I’m writing to you so that you might not miss these details. I wish someone had warned me too. Sincerely,
(PS: I will write to you again next week to complete my story.)