By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Mystique And Mannerisms Of The Dedicated Smoker

Talking in the preceding posts about my serious-yet-lively conversation in 1995 with the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India about tobacco exports and cigarette brands, I couldn't help recalling a hilarious essay I had written in THE HINDU more than 50 years ago, about the mystique and self-conscious mannerisms of the dedicated smoker.

Those were days when smoking, in the perception of well-educated and imaginative young men in India, was a stylish symbol of sophistication, and not a sinister, disaster-bound obsession -- and it was still possible to take a light-hearted view of things.

This essay was inspired not only by personal experience but also by powerful international literary and cinematic impressions   Therefore its perspective had a universal dimension, although its field of vision was restricted to the well-to-do sections of society and completely overlooked the widespread fashion of women's smoking in the Western world.

And of course, like most humorous essays cast in the classical mold, this one had its fair share of grains of truth as well as exaggeration :-


Sunday Magazine


The smoker sees the world through a cloud -- of his own making.  It's a blue and beautiful cloud, though, with a very thick silver lining to it.  He can look forward to pleasures which the non-smoking population knows nothing about.  Like the cosmonaut orbiting the earth in space, he looks at the world with a different perspective.  Like the spaceman, he faces dangers which can be disastrous.  But the smoker is courageous too, in his own way, and is prepared to pay the price of his adventure.

The smoker is a much-reproached individual.  People everywhere seem to be bent on thwarting his fundamental right to smoke.  Trains, restaurants, street-cars, there's hardly a place where he's given a free hand. Placards everywhere admonish him with a pitiless 'No!'.  Managements of cinema houses and concert halls, in particular, take an unholy delight in suppressing the poor smoker.  They're convinced that his sole purpose in life is to set fire to their property, and/or undermine the health of their patrons.  The smoker has to be shown his place, and the meekest usher manages to do so without meeting with any resistance.

Doctors, however, aren't so successful, presumably because they lack the support of the police.  The smoker is fed up with the spineless way in which he has to put up with the tyranny of law and order, and in his own house he would brook no opposition, not even his wife's.  He vehemently resents the interference of his critical friends.  But the smoker knows only too well that his case is weak.  The more addicted he is to his habit, the more clearly he can see it -- that's no doubt why the most outspoken advocate of smoking is not your determined puffer, but the one who likes to call himself a moderate smoker.

The latter does indeed go out of his way to establish the virtues of his cult.  Without any provocation he'll volunteer the information that smoking is good for the digestion, and that it perceptibly improves the appetite.  It's a tonic for tired nerves, a tranquilizer for a troubled mind. As for its evil effects, why, isn't moderation itself a sufficient guarantee against them?  The moderate smoker is ostentatiously proud of his own moderation.  He's quite sure he will never become an addict himself.  He sneers loftily at the diffident non-smoker, who, though tempted, is reluctant to touch a cigarette for fear of its becoming an obsession.  This frame of mind lasts as long as he manages to remain moderate.

The addict, by contrast, is rather subdued in his approach, and more or less on the defensive.  True, he might flare up if someone tried to hurt his feelings, but he rarely starts an argument himself.  He's all for peaceful co-existence.  So long as you don't force your opinion on him, he's perfectly willing to leave you alone and puff away contentedly at his cigarette chain or his pipe.  He knows life isn't going to be a bed of roses for him ;  and there are times when he wishes tea would smell like tea to him, and food wouldn't taste like fodder.  Often enough he's making an honest if futile attempt to cut down his smoking.  That's why, by and large, he isn't so keen on picking up a quarrel with the opposite camp. 

Not that the advanced smoker is all modesty : oh, no!  Your twentieth-century veteran has none of the rustic simplicity of the pioneer.  He likes to be noticed in company, and he's gleefully aware that he stands out from the rest in any gathering.  He tries to look glamorous in many ways.  He carries a smart tin of fifty cigarettes wherever he goes, and places it prominently in front of him whenever he sits down.  Or else, he keeps pulling out a fanciful cigarette-case or a glittering lighter from his pocket every other minute.  If he affects a pipe, he might make a great to-do about shredding the weed in his palm, and filling the magic bowl.  Back home, this gentleman always has two or three dusty, battered relics on his mantelpiece -- he might never touch them, but he likes to have them on display.  Still more sophisticated is the fellow who rolls his own cigarettes;  apparently he's a perfectionist in his own eyes, no matter how clumsy he actually is. 

But probably the biggest exhibitionist of them all is the cigar smoker.  He's a self-styled connoisseur who gives himself intolerable airs merely selecting a cigar from a lot already bought and dearly paid for.  Of course, other people draw their own conclusion about his taste!  With the devastating aroma he weaves around himself, he  intimidates not only all honest non-smoking citizens, but his fellow-smokers as well.  However, for all his tough and blustering exterior the cigar man is really a child at heart :  he seems to derive such a divine joy from sucking the cold end of his cigar and chewing it.

One often wonders why there's no National Association of Smokers, seeing that the smoker is so ubiquitous, and has so many grievances.  If there's a local union unique under smokers somewhere, I'm not aware of it.  Assuredly the smoker isn't clan-minded.  The only time he recognizes the brotherhood is when he spots one of them stranded without a match-stick.  Then the universal unwritten code of smokers demands that he should stop and offer his own match-box or lighter, or at least the stub of his lighted cigarette, whether he knows the person or not.  The same code also authorizes the stickless smoker to tap any other smoker on the shoulder and ask for a light -- class, creed or even nationality is no bar.  It's marvelous to see this unique understanding among smokers all over the land, though there's no tribal instinct in them.

Lighting the other man's cigarette is a problem which has baffled the smoker for generations, and doubtless it will continue to vex him for centuries to come.  "Thou shalt light thy neighbor's fag," bids the smoker's gospel, but it's easier bidden than done.  Usually thy neighbor puts out the match himself, with his nervous breathing.  In case he fails, a small gust of wind does it for him.  If he does manage to light his wretched fag, it's seldom before thy hospitable fingers have been duly scorched.  Often, after making several useless attempts to help him, thou hast no choice but to hand thy matches over with a sheepish grin. 

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