On a balmy Delhi afternoon in 1998, in the heart of the Defence Colony market, a life-altering transaction was in progress, in plain sight.
With a nervous twitch, I concealed the contents of my purchase and returned to my first-floor apartment, to my bedroom, most specifically, to my bathroom, for even my help shouldn’t spot this clandestine guest I’d brought back with me.
Seated, on the pot with my drawers on, I peeled off the cellophane-sque wrapper. It emitted a sound of satisfaction, akin to one we’d learn years on as the familiar aural delight of an ‘unboxing’.
I had no idea at the time, that THIS would become an unboxing I’d ritualistically, yet without thought, be performing for the coming two decades! One last tug at a partial shimmery half-cover and I was in!
As I drew out my first stalk of nicotine, there was guilt mixed in with excitement, mirroring perhaps, the pleasure and poison the contraband itself encompassed. The flame emerged from a single click, the stalk resting cautiously between my school-boy fresh lips, and the tip turned a golden orange. The illicit affair had begun!
Aeons hence, on an unsuspecting, routine examination at an ENT’s clinic in Jaipur, upon my wife’s insistence that the doctor pay heed to my very dull but persistent ache at the base of my neck, sonography revealed, at 7:30 pm, that there were small but multiple tumours, albeit unconfirmed for malignancy, strongly suspected to be Thyroid Cancer.
The cigarette I had smoked earlier that evening at 5:30 pm, as it turned out, would be, my last! And though it was later confirmed to me that smoking and thyroid papillary carcinoma (the type of cancer I have) had no proven connection, the sheer shock had made me end the ‘illicit’ affair. From 1998 to 2019, a shade over two decades in!
One can’t categorize a month and a half’s break-up as ‘long’ after a toxic relationship that endured half my life. Having said that, in the weeks following that ill-fated revelation of yet another life-altering day, October 17, 2019, aside from my cancer being confirmed, undergoing a major total Thyroidectomy surgery (removal of the Thyroid gland), prepping for something called RAI Ablation (that is the removal of residual cancer cells by ingesting radio-active-iodine) and a stint of quarantine before and after my Iodine Uptake Test (to determine in the first place, if the body is absorbing iodine and what dosage of the actual RAI will be required bases residual papillary carcinoma around the neck)
I have also had a significant amount of time to reflect. To introspect. To question. To seek answers, justification, explanation. Not ironically as much to why I have got cancer but rather for why I ever became addicted to smoking! What have I come to realize?
There are no straight answers. That human beings are complex, inexplicable, fallible creatures that are victims of their own demons and deficiencies.
That, on the one hand, we can seem and behave confident, in control, while simultaneously be internally unravelling like an unstoppable row of dominos!
How have I come to realize this? Because despite the fact that I had, until just prior to college starting in Delhi (and hence the smoking), been a reasonably self-assured and accomplished boy at school, having won accolades and responsibility alike; when confronted with the prospect of an alien, unprotected world away from my cocoon of celebration that was a boarding school, I crumbled, came undone.
Gone was that House Captain leading the young men of my house and school on to various victories, and in its place was a tentative, uncertain young adult who did not know if and how to fit in at university. Vanished, the school music captain who performed fearlessly on stage, to packed audiences and won laurels individual and collective; replaced by an apprehensive, somewhat afraid college student who was entirely overwhelmed by the thought of this new present and a wholly unsure future.
It was bound to happen then wasn’t it? A crutch. A bolster. A brace. A cane. But one that provided respite on the inside, on the outside, symbolized, to the foolish (and we all are, that too not just in youth), power, coolness, personality, panache, pizazz. How terribly ironic, though true. The cigarette was the perfect antidote to my growing trophies of insecurities. It became like that adult version of a child’s favourite childhood blanket, with a minor difference. While the extent of one addiction’s damage was a bit of dust, the other’s was, death!
When I look back on these twenty-some years and analyze my addiction in a more nuanced manner, more insights come to light. I had begun to lead a ‘dual’ life. Whenever I was in these ‘public’ situations that made me anxious and I thought, arguably only in my own head, that I must seem ‘cool’, I’d smoke like a proud fireworks display.
So, to my college friends and contemporaries, then to my post-graduate friends and contemporaries in Bombay, subsequently and similarly, through my advertising years in Bombay, right across stints of more studying in the UK and the US, back to working in films and television in Bombay. It was increasingly and relentless.
All this while though, the duality I briefly suggested earlier, was maintained. Almost no one in my family, close or extended, even knew of this chronic addiction of mine. I had and would continue to conceal my heavy-smoking, like a state-secret. I was, as I painfully realized, obviously ashamed of it – duality hence proved!
Yet another agonizing recognition of myself that came to me was my own hypocrisy. You might be surprised to note that through my younger years and tenure at boarding school, I was the staunchest advocate of no-smoking, vehemently lecturing and reprimanding smoker-family-members and friends, and viciously chastising students I caught smoking at school, especially during my house-captaincy!
But, so hideous is human duplicity that on my first visit back to school after graduating, over a Founder’s Day, I promptly stooged a cigarette from a student I had hauled-up when I had caught him smoking while at school!
Ultimately, however, in this labyrinth of regrettable consciousness that I have actively sought in the weeks since the discovery of my cancer and having FINALLY quit smoking; what I have lost the most, more than self-respect, confidence, pride, self-concept, is TIME. Time with myself. Time on this planet. Time with friends and family.
The hours upon hours spent either physically in bathrooms or on balconies smoking, or the cumulative time invested in worrying about, bothering with, and strategizing how, when and where to smoke – it seems like an irreparable, irreplaceable, and absolutely colossal loss. And though I dismiss the suggestion that being an Educator, smoking somehow made me unfit, and disqualified me from being an appropriate mentor, with the fact even being held against me on occasion – I do believe that even with my students, although the classroom was one place I NEVER once craved a cigarette; I ought to have been more honest.
The cigarette and my two-decade addiction then, have come to manifest a metaphor that I feel is the ONLY way of describing this illicit affair – that she was a greedy mistress whom I, the weak, fell prey to, brought into my home, invited into my bed, and then cheated on the entire world, with her, and for her. On her part, nothing was enough for her. She wanted to be hers alone, to be the singularly worshipping, devoted, dedicated, loyal, consummate subject, and she, my absolute ruler, conqueror, empress.
During innumerable points through these twenty-two years, I, either by myself or in coerced conjunction with friends or family, tried to quit. Girlfriends past issued warnings, they didn’t yield any results.
My wife, whom I made, most unfairly, solely responsible for helping me quit, did everything and more, and I kept frustrating her, disappointing her, deceiving her, letting her down. Patches, chewing gums, reducing intake, cold-turkey, every trick, every method, every recommendation, I tried, tested and failed at, miserably, repeatedly. Even the birth of my own daughter, and other marital milestones that had solicited promises of quitting, couldn’t give me the courage to see it through.
Ultimately, after incredible, unimaginable anguish that I caused to my nearest family, it was, the shock of cancer, that made me QUIT! It was ONLY earth-shattering news that thrashed me out of my addictive-stupor, my absentee-life, my unconscious-existence, and made the cigarette and me, part ways.
Have my insecurities also faded along with the smoke from my balcony? Of course not. Have my urges to have a last fling with my recent temptress ceased? Hardly. Would I rather be healthier, stronger, more present, and simply AROUND? Without question!