The Phantoms of Our Sweet Past

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The Phantoms of Our Sweet Past

Illustration: Akshita Monga

B

ombay in the ’90s was a whole different playground. The roads weren’t as fucked, the people weren’t as fucked, the quality of life wasn’t as fucked. In short, the Bombay of the ’90s was a better version of the beast we call Mumbai that would serve adequately as the premise of many bad Delhi vs Mumbai jokes.

Circa 1995, I was living smack dab in the middle of a Parel devoid of skyscrapers and office-goers. The only Indiabulls around pulled sugarcane, watermelons, and PDS kerosene below the balcony of our first-floor home. On my lips, hung a solitary Phantom cigarette.

I would spend all my spare time in that balcony, with a box of Phantom cigarettes in my pocket, aping my father, who’d stand in the balcony puffing away a Chota Gold Flake, every evening after work. He probably felt like the master of all he surveyed, the Mufasa to my Simba. So in typical “monkey see, monkey do” fashion, standing at the balcony with a Phantom cigarette clutched between my teeth became my thing. I was a chain-smoker before I smoked my first cigarette, the vanilla scent lingering on my finger tips, the minty fresh coolness a permanent fixture on my lips. I’d wager this is the underlying reason for my current choice of cigarettes, Classic Ice Burst. I wonder what Sigmund Freud would say about my oral fixation at five.

Part of the reason I was hooked onto these sweet treats was their easy availability. The friendly neighbourhood paanwallah outside my school stocked them in a large, glass jar, the kind you now see at hipster cafés, holding oatmeal cookies and low-GI fudge squares. Back in the day, they held all sorts of vibrant sugar-boiled confectionery, right from the orange candy, that did its best to look like an orange segment but failed, rolls of Poppins, and tons of Kismi Toffees, and Coffy Bite. Along the back wall of the pint-sized shop was an arsenal of Panama, Charms, Gold Flake, and Charminar. The bhaiyya at the galla knew fully well that today’s Phantom sucker would eventually bloom into a Panama puffer. The “no cigarette shops within 500 metres of schools” rule didn’t exist back then, a time when children were tough and parents tougher, unlike the snowflakes of today.

I still remember my Sunday ritual: Buying packets of Phantom from Anna’s paan tapri, below my house, every time my dad sent me to fetch real cigarettes. I felt like a big boy each time he handed me the packet. I proceeded to tap out one, just like my dad, and take a fake puff, pulling in a draw of mint-scented air.

Phantom cigarettes, Peppy, and Hum Paanch faded from public memory sometime during the mid-2000s when we all grew up.

And if Anna ran out of my favourite sugary sticks, I rushed to the bakery around the corner. Loaded with these treats, the bakery was the bastion of the salt-and-pepper-haired, sedreh-wearing Parsi uncles, with an acumen for business and an equal affinity for the words “Darling” and “Behnchod”.

“Behnchod, dikra, cigarette ne lut laagi jassey (You’ll get addicted to cigarettes),” they would laugh and tell me. The Parsi uncles proved prophetic.

***

Phantom cigarettes, Peppy, and Hum Paanch faded from public memory sometime during the mid-2000s when we all grew up. The time for childish things had passed, and now the red on the end of a cigarette inflicted actual burns instead of a smallish red dot. I didn’t need to pretend any longer, now that I could get my hands on the real deal. So I put all my memories of Phantom into the same box as my “Healthy Baby Contest” certificate, embarrassing fancy-dress photos, and other childish proclivities. But I kept the key handy, often wondering where have these sweet little fags that gave you the satisfaction of smoking without the stigma of cancer disappeared?

The answer lies in a tiny factory in Pimpri, Pune, where among other things Harnik General Foods Pvt Ltd makes instant foods and confectionery products. Their caramel custard mix is great when you’re jonesing for crème brûlée’s poor cousin, but lack the motivation, skill, or patience to wrangle one up from scratch. Their list of confectionery including lesser-known sweets such as Crème-Zon, a take on the heart-shaped Corazon candy, no longer occupies the pride of place in the solid glass barnis at Anna’s paan tapri. The younger generation of the Harnik family now runs the establishment, aware of the rich legacy of the family patriarch, N L Hingorani.

But there is a sweet end to this little story. Hardcore Phantom aficionados can order Phantom Cigarettes by the case, and have it delivered at your doorstep. Amazon lists a carton of 24 packs, plus a Harnik Phantom T-shirt for 550 bucks plus delivery, which I ordered recently. I realised that it’s one of those impulse purchases that has you excited about for a minute, before reality sets in, and it becomes just another waste of your increasingly disposable income.

Just like its namesake aka The Ghost Who Walks – who, by the way, has also been forgotten by Hollywood – Phantom cigarettes also exist solely to beat the brooding that surfaces once we realise how old we have grown. How long it has actually been since we were kids, pretend-puffing on Phantom. The ghosts of our past may come back to haunt us, but the phantoms of our past will always be there to remind us of sweeter times.

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