I have always considered Pran, the great Hindi film actor, as the person who ushered me into the world of smoking. Not physically, of course, but in a figurative way. At least it was one of his impressive screen images embedded in my mind that prompted me to light a cigarette and be at the very wrong end of it, not once or twice but continuously for nearly three decades.
It was during my college days in the early 1960s that Pran came into my life through the classic Bimal Roy film Madhumati. More than the beauty of Vijayantimala, the histrionic talents of Dilip Kumar or the comic pranks of Johnny Walker, what attracted me to the film, which I saw whenever it was screened at Thiruvananthapuram those days, was the perfect villain Raja Ugra Narayan, assayed by Pran in his inimitable style.
The first appearance of Ugra Narayan in the film itself was truly amazing. What a remarkable entry! We don’t see him at first but from the darkened corner behind a pillar comes a series of smoke rings, each of them gradually expanding till vanishing in the air at about the center of the theatre screen. Then slowly Ugra Narayan would emerge from the shadows, impeccably attired in keeping with his aristocratic station, but grim, grave and sinister looking.
The image of the smoke rings he lets out never left me. I was so fascinated by it that I very much wanted to smoke a cigarette and create smoke rings of my own. But being a student I thought I would be doing something gravely wrong if I started smoking, breaching the trust reposed in me by my parents. So I deferred my urge till another day.
And that day came with my first salary as a college lecturer in 1966. Along with the things I bought for my parents, I also bought for me a packet of Charminar cigarettes, the strongest and cheapest available cigarette in the market then, costing just two paise per piece or twenty paise for a packet of ten.
I soon realized that smoking cigarettes is one thing and show smoking to create spectacular smoke rings is quite another. In the privacy of my room I lighted a cigarette containing roasted tobacco (Charminar in those days was the only cigarette using roasted tobacco) and inhaled the acrid, aromatic smoke. What came out was a non-stop raucous cough for several minutes, leaving me bleary eyed for long.
But undeterred I persisted with my effort and before the night was out I succeeded in creating my own first, tentative smoke ring, not as perfect as those crafted by Pran, but quite satisfactory for a neophyte like me fuming through the nostrils.
How good it would have been if I had thrown away that cigarette packet with the rest of the cigarettes, now that I had fulfilled my desire to create smoke rings like Pran did! But no, I did not do such a thing at all because at the bottom of my heart I not only wanted to equal Pran but, if possible, excel him.
So I carried cigarette packets with me during the next few days also, continuing with my experiments, complimenting myself every time I succeeded. My supreme satisfaction came when I mastered the art to such perfection that I could create not only smoke rings in quick succession but make two rings to merge at some distance to form the figure 8 and then continue to expand like the ‘widening gyre’ of W B Yeats.
I was immensely pleased with my smoky accomplishments, but unfortunately by that time I had become addicted to smoking, a condition I regretted all along but had no way of abandoning.
I do not know when in those early days I became what is generally described as a ‘chain smoker,’ puffing out cigarettes one after another. My great embarrassment came when my father discovered that I was a heavy smoker.
There was a petty shop right opposite to my house from where I used to buy my cigarettes. I maintained sort of an ‘account’ there, making payments once a month. The elderly man selling cigarettes obviously did not approve of my heavy smoking. One day when my father went there to buy something, the shop vendor told him that my account that month was as high as Rs 70, which meant that my monthly consumption was an unbelievable 350 packets of Charminar, at the rate of 20 paise per packet.
Father was shocked but did not scold me as he should have. He only advised me to cut down on the number saying heavy smoking would seriously impair my health. Perhaps he could not ask me to give up the bad habit altogether, as he too was a smoker, not of cigarettes but of beedi. Before his retirement from government service he used to keep a tin of Berkeley cigarettes on top of his sideboard table just as a show piece, while his desk drawers had several packets of his favorite beedi.
The only opposition to my smoking came from my elder brother, a police officer. He would always come down heavily on me for smoking too much. And whenever he did so my counter argument was that my smoking had the tacit approval of my father.
What I had in mind was an interesting episode in my life that I always kept fresh. One day father and myself were going to meet someone and on the way he gave me some money and asked me to buy his favorite brand of beedi from a road- side shop. Then, as an afterthought, he said: Ninakkum Vangicho (buy for yourself too). If this was not approval what else was, I used to ask my brother.
Years later, my daughter, who was then only seven years old, one day made an impassioned plea to me to stop smoking. When I returned home after some purchases in the evening, I found her sulking, almost on the brink of tears. I asked my wife what happened and she said there was a television program on the health hazards of smoking. There were some graphic images of advanced stages of cancer due to smoking. My daughter was terribly upset. When I sat beside her and tried to console her, she burst out weeping, repeatedly saying only ‘Acha, stop smoking, Acha stop smoking.’ I told her I would do as she says. Later when she was calm I said it was indeed a difficult choice. If I continue smoking I may die of cancer. But if I stop smoking I will definitely die of madness, I told her. I jokingly left the choice to her. Even she laughed at that remark and there the matter ended. I continued with my affair with the tobacco.
After getting used to Charminar, made by the Hyderabad-based Vazir Sultan Tobacco Company, for several years, I switched to some other brands like Charms, Goldflake, Scissors etc before finally hitching on to Wills Navy Cut, popularly known as Wills Filter, a brand that India Tobacco Company promoted through an immensely successful advertisement blitzkrieg, the Made for Each Other campaign.
The significance of this campaign, which had few parallels in the advertisement world, was that it brought in women, who were traditionally averse to smoking by their menfolk, as great promoters of the smoking habit. Smoking was projected as the in-thing in society, fashionable, glamorous, and all the concerns about the ill effects of smoking or passive smoking were totally relegated to the ignorable background. The campaign became a nation-wide affair, with much sought after local, regional and national level contests involving young, attractive couples every year, on the lines of the Miss India pageants, for the final selection of the Made for Each Other couple. The happy, smiling faces of the winning couple adorned newspaper and magazine pages and bill boards across the nation. The message conveyed through the advertisements was that just as the husband and wife were perfect match for each other, so was the Filter and Tobacco in the Navy Cut brand.
Whether I was roped in by the ad campaign or not, from the moment I switched to Wills Filter till I finally gave up smoking in 1995, I remained faithful to the brand.
My smoking career thus spanned from 1966 to 1995, a period which also saw a marked increase in the anti-smoking campaign. But the government ban on cigarette advertisements came much later, in 2004. It was still later that graphic images of cancer affected cheeks got embedded on cigarette packets as a visual warning to smokers.
If such graphic warnings had been there on cigarette packets during my heydays of smoking, I would definitely have given up the habit altogether. In my time, I was instead buoyed up by the Made for Each Other kind of advertisements that generally made smoking a gentleman’s habit.
If it was Pran who enticed me into smoking, it was my father, an inveterate smoker himself, who made me give up smoking altogether. The remarkable thing about it is that he was able to pull me out of the habit not when he was alive, but a fortnight after he passed away.
My father died on February 24, 1995, a peaceful passing at the age of 90. Nearly two weeks later, well after two AM on March 8, I was in my study in my home overlooking the Sasthamangalam Junction, reading a magazine. When I picked up a book from the shelf something fell to the ground and I noticed that it was an inland letter from my father, written to me about three years back. It was indeed a touching appeal to me that I had ignored when I received it. But now, in the dead of night a fortnight after his passing, it acquired a new meaning and new significance. The letter, in his stylish handwriting in Malayalam, went on like this:
My Dear Ravi,
Mony came here yesterday and spoke a lot about your current illness, obviously caused by your heavy smoking. Mony puts the entire blame on me as he says you always tell him in a lighter vein that your smoking has my approval. I think you will agree that by saying so you are being unfair to me. True I have not opposed your smoking habit. That does not mean I have approved it either.
You should always be aware of your health problems, including BP. It would be unwise to add to them by a habit that we can dispense with. So give up the smoking habit altogether, for the sake of your health, and for the sake of your family.
You may think that it is absurd on my part to give such an advice when I am myself a heavy smoker. But now I have every right to advise you as I totally stopped smoking several months ago.
I hope you will not disappoint me.
It was with tears in my eyes that I finished reading that letter that I had ignored three years ago. And I felt great remorse in not accepting his advice when he was alive.
There was a new packet of Wills Filter on the table. I picked it up, took out one cigarette, lighted it and took one slow, long puff, my last puff of three decades of smoking. Then I flung that lighted cigarette and the cigarette packet together away through the window with all the force I could muster, in my final act of obeisance to my father.