By Ramjaane May. 31, 2018
To quit smoking doesn’t mean taking your lungs off a diet of toxic smoke. In many ways, it feels like ceasing to be who you are.
It was behind a building, in a nondescript lane that was at least four lanes away from home, that I would smoke, looking over my shoulder, scanning the crowd, dreading that a familiar face would spot me. Smoking, as any young smoker will attest, is never about smoking. It is an adventure.
And we all know how this adventure unfolds. It starts with an attempt to appear cool, and goes on to take the shape of a rebellion. In the early days, smoking is about making a statement, then it becomes a social habit, progresses to become a personal one, only to develop into a full-blown addiction.
But the addiction is not to nicotine. At least not at a fundamental level.
Smokers aren’t addicted to the nicotine or the tar or the arsenic or the other 10,000 chemicals that make a cigarette. And even if they are, nicotine is easy to kick. You can overcome the addiction with gum, patches, hypnosis, chat groups, and a little help from your friends. Smoking is about nicotine as much as school is about studying.
No sir, smoking is a place you go to – a place where you do not have to check emails, where nothing is urgent, nobody enters your space, nothing needs to get done right away. Smoking is like being on an island by yourself with your thoughts, your anxieties, dreams, ambitions. It’s while smoking that you make plans to quit your job and start off on your own, to look for a new job, to study further, or to move abroad. It is astonishing how many thoughts you can have and how many issues you can resolve in the duration of one cigarette.
People at parties hold a clutch, a drink, a starter, a conversation. I can hold none of those, so I hold on to a cigarette.
When a man is smoking, he feels safe. Nobody finds the need to fill the silence with some small talk, no random “what’s up” or a forced “how’s it going”. Smokers politely nod and walk past each other, understanding and respecting the other’s space. It’s an unsaid code among smokers – if a person’s lighting up, leave them be. They are in a place where life slows down – a life that’s running too fast finishing chores, tackling briefs, and meeting deadlines.
A cigarette, to me, is punctuation. Sometimes, it’s a comma, it helps me pause. I’ve used it as a semicolon, where I cut off from the world for a while. Some cigarettes are ellipses… they seem to continue into the next one. Of course, well-meaning friends and family have always said cigarettes eventually lead to a full stop.
To an onlooker, my repeated smoke breaks seem like I am standing with the same stick, puffing the same smoke, with the same grimace on my face. But to me, every cigarette serves a purpose. Some serve as a “Do not disturb” sign. Some are stimulants, many a good idea has come to my mind after smoking. Or at least, that is my cognitive bias, to justify the money I spend on cigarettes. Some cigarettes work as sedatives; some are just a plaything – there were so many I lit but did not smoke. I just hold on to one, look at it, and perhaps, before stubbing it, take a hasty drag. Some work as an accessory. People at parties hold a clutch, a drink, a starter, a conversation. I can hold none of those, so I hold on to a cigarette.
A cigarette makes me feel like I belong; it quells my insecurity. Often, I have gone from just standing awkwardly in a corner in a party, to smoking comfortably in a corner, minding my own business. Some cigarettes were celebrations, some were calibrations. Some were accompaniments to a stunning landscape, a great drink, nostalgia – whatever was the main course. Some were just a way to help pass time.
The act of smoking does not a smoker make. Smoking is personality, in equal measure rebellious, callous, casual, self-deprecating, light-hearted, adequately moralistic, not taking life too seriously. “Har fiqr ko dhuen mein udata chala gaya,” as the legendary Dev Anand once sang. To quit smoking doesn’t mean taking your lungs off a diet of toxic smoke. In many ways, it feels like ceasing to be who you are.
It’s been three years since my last cigarette. Do I recommend quitting? Absolutely. Do I regret quitting? No. Because I will always be a smoker.