Back Off Chennai, Let a Lady Smoke in Peace


Back Off Chennai, Let a Lady Smoke in Peace

Illustration: Shruti Yatam / Arré

On a humid, mosquito-ridden evening in Chennai, Meenakshi offers me a cigarette from a pack of blacks. I wrinkle my nose and call her an elitist. She laughs and calls my preference for lights absurd. We sit at a posh, overpriced café in Chennai, where we go not for the coffee or the food or the ambience. We come here solely to be able to smoke, free of the judgment and disapproving looks of Chennai peeps.

I met Meenakshi two months ago when she was fighting the rain from her soaked chair and needed another table to sit at. We’ve never known each other, but we struck a kinship exchanging stories of publicly smoking in a conservative city. She and I have squeezed ourselves into flimsy chairs and swallowed our indignation at having to pay ₹200 for a cup of coffee. ₹200 to enjoy a little guilty pleasure. ₹200, the price you pay to smoke a ₹16 cigarette.

When Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, elegantly poised in a white sundress on a slab outside a New York restaurant, was photographed sharing a smoke with Ranbir Kapoor, sanskaari Twitter went berserk. “How dare she!” was the common sentiment. Meenakshi and I went berserk for different reasons: “How did she?”

Chennai prides itself on being the city that is in perpetual limbo between tradition and modernity – but it skews in favour of men. Chennai men can curse, fart, and say whatever they want and get away with it. For women, however, the diktat is, “Karpulavala irrakaunum, latchanama irrukanum” (Look beautiful and be a virgin), as an old hag in my family used to put it.

Tamil women, in comparison to other metropolises, have had the most problems with dress codes in colleges and writing or talking about sexuality. We probably have the loudest, most impassioned TV debates on Western culture ruining “our women.” Benign sexism rules Chennai: We are viewed as delicate creatures that need protection. Not that chauvinism doesn’t exist in other Indian cities, but nowhere else have I felt so bludgeoned by this sense of belonging.

In Chennai, I am an object, malleable and surrendering – definitely not the kind of object that smokes.

A few weeks ago, I was returning from an awfully long reporting recce at a government hospital, and needed a smoke. Dressed down in “decent” clothes, my hair in a bun, and without a trace of jewellery or makeup, I stopped at Devi Cool Bar for a pack. I made sure a man wasn’t next to me and whispered my request for “one pack lights with matchbox.” I fully expected the counter guy’s gobsmacked stare.

“For you or for your friend?” he asked, pointing at a man I didn’t know, hadn’t spoken to, and who had too much gel in his hair.

I played along. “Yes.”

He watched me as I sat on the bench opposite the counter and lit one. His eyes widened. “Your friend?” he asked.

“I don’t know who the heck he is,” I said, in clear Tamil, “I just wanted the cigarettes without you asking me a hundred questions.”

He shuddered when I spoke Tamil. “I thought only North Indian girls smoke? Our good Tamil girls never smoke,” he said, dabbing the sweat on his forehead.

“Well, I’m a bad Tamil girl,” I said.

Chennai isn’t the only place where cigarettes are held up as evidence of “promiscuity” and are – bizarrely – used to excuse away rape. The Punjab & Haryana High Court, for instance, cited a survivor’s preference for “Classics” to grant bail to her attackers. I can almost hear what must have been going through the judges’ heads as they wrote the judgment: Cigarettes = Must be a slut = Probably not rape.

This is far more pronounced in Chennai. My Uber driver recently drew the same conclusion. I’d made the awful mistake of stopping at a petty shop in an Uber to pick up cigarettes. Suddenly, my ratings dropped by nine points. I asked another driver about this, whose honesty I really appreciate. “They think you’re a slut. Don’t try to challenge them like this again. Too much for their brains,” he told me.

After this incident, I did a little bit of asking around to understand how exactly men articulate their ideas about women who smoke. These usually range from “bad for women’s health because they are weaker than men,” to “easy sluts whom you can take to bed but not to your home.” The one that took the prize for me was: “We don’t like it when women breathe in the fumes from their chullas or woodfire stoves. They have to do it because they have to cook for the family. But here you are, smoking of your own volition. It’s a man’s thing. Know your place. We have saved you with LPG stoves.” Probably the most eloquent sexist friend I’ve had.

But there is a silver lining to this dire situation. Wherever I go, I make female friends united by a love for the cancer stick. On another assignment in Bilgiriranga, a tribal village on the border of Karnataka, I signalled for a pair of scissors to the woman owner of the hotel. She misunderstood my outstretched fingers for a cigarette, smiled, and promptly offered me a pack, free of charge. I was completely gobsmacked, but I took it and smoked two. The other women from the tribe joined me, to smoke and swap stories.

One of us told a tribal woman that she was surprised that they smoked. The woman replied, “For us in Bilgiriranga, it is culture. We love seeing the man’s jaw drop,” she said, letting out a puff.

I hope I can carry that sentiment with me the next time I have to smoke in my home city. It’s a place I still love, for its soul and coffee and the excellent cultural festivals. But I can’t stand the death stare I get every time I light up. The lung cancer will be mine alone – so back off a little, won’t you, Chennai?