I had my first smoke when I was eleven. At that age you are not matured enough to know who is your friend and who is your enemy in this world. The world was a lovely cosy place where monsters, such as fathers, sometimes appear out of nowhere to strike terror. You evade the attack and the world smiles at you, especially when you are the opening batsman and the vice captain of your team. Everyone sucks up to you for a place in the team. All are friends, or so I thought.
It never occurred to me that friendship and camaraderie are not for real in this world. In fact, it looked like friends take pleasure in embarrassing their friends and watch the humiliation sitting on the fence.
I have done it too, but in the right spirit of it. I never complained about my fellow friend’s wrongdoing to his parents. All I had to do is to mention in the passing how pleasing it would look if a certain character gets beaten up for killing that duck with his slingshot and how there could be a replacement of his in the next cricket match.
I used to watch, sitting on the fence, absolutely stunned, when that guy used to dance and sing at the tune of the cane.
But there is something in life that you don’t tell anyone, like wetting the bed last night. Or catching a bus to buy three cigarettes from a distant place, far from the preying reformist eye of any self-proclaimed moral guardian, who in our childhood were littered like plastic pouches all across the locality. I must tell you they were absolute horror, a mini version of our fathers, with limited powers.
Only when we reached the age of seventeen or eighteen and assumed the responsibility of keeping in checks the moral character of young kids in the locality, the responsibility gained some respect. The batch before us were crude. They used to box our ears hard and call names if there was some general complaint against our group.
Only when we assumed their roles, was some system and discipline inculcated into that responsibility. We brought absolute discipline by banging the heads against each other of those 10-12 years olds who thought they were too big for their boots.
We had to relinquish the position when we reached college, but the batches after us were lousy to say the least. But yes, when we were kids, those locality big brothers were like menacing vermin.
After successfully procuring three cigarettes from a shop some five kilometers from our locality, we came back and managed to hide our cigarettes and the matchbox in a shoebox and buried it in the grounds of a newly constructed house. And then we, two ten year olds, two elevens, and one twelve, patiently waited for our opportunity to smoke to glory.
We were tired of our half-pants and the half attention given to us by the society and we were desperate to rebel our way to adulthood. Smoking, just makes you that, we were convinced.
It was a Saturday and we all three were down with cramps in various parts of our bodies. As soon as the school gate was closed, our pain disappeared miraculously. At the want of a better thing to do we went for the cricket bat and ball, especially now that our fathers had left for office and we never really cared about mothers except when she was there to narrate like a parrot our deeds to them. We dashed out for the ground, taking a small detour.
Our pockets were heavy with packets of chewing gum which we were sure will get rid of the smell of a cigarette. If that was not enough, we had pudin haras in our pockets – a tactic that was cleverly eavesdropped and espionaged by our team leader (who was also the captain of our cricket team just because he was twelve and stronger and taller than any of us). In fact, he assured us that those mint capsules were enough to get rid of the acrid smell that can expose our adventure. However, the rest of the team protested about its bitter taste and so it was kept in our pocket as the last ditch effort. We were determined to chew the cyanide capsule before giving up our secrets. The plan, as you could see, was elaborate and well thought of.
And so we dug up our ticket to adulthood and were soon amazed to see its transformation. For some unknown reasons, which we figured out should be because of the damned rains and the ensuing moisture, the white cigarettes had turned greenish. Our matchbox too was not in a good shape and we feared it would refuse to light up.
Nevertheless, we tried our best. We tried to light at least twenty sticks but were not in a mood to light up their lives. Some, though, showed some ambition and promise. They gave us hope by showing some hint of fire before giving up. But it was our day under the sun and we managed to light one.
Our captain lit the first cigarette and immediately shot up to stardom in our eyes. We were tiny insignificant pygmies in front of him is what we thought and he believed. It was decided that we should take turns in guarding the approach to the alleyway just in case some curious souls wanted to have a peek in our private lives.
It was also observed that since lighting one matchstick takes twenty to go waste and we have only six left, there is no chance that we can lit the other fags unless we light soon after one is finished.
Our captain smoked and gave us a short speech on how to smoke a cigarette. We were supposed to inhale it though we were not sure how one could swallow smoke! And if it is swallowed than how it could come out. So we swallow and try to vomit?
Our captain’s live demonstration was not much of help.
He claimed he had swallowed the smoke and now the billows of those white mini-clouds that we were seeing from his mouth were coming straight up from his stomach. But something in us couldn’t convince us on this Mount Vesuvias theory. One of us challenged him and he had to show the same thing with his mouth open.
And then mount Vesuvias erupted.
We decided, as a starter, it is enough to just smoke and puff it out without inhaling the smoke. No book in the world told us that smokes can be inhaled and if by chance inhaled successfully, surely nothing that goes in the stomach comes out from your mouth unless you are seriously ill. Our captain was just paying the price now, writhing in pain on the ground for playing with nature’s rule. We were warned.
So we dragged and exhaled. Again dragged, kept the smoke for as long as possible (and we all looked funny with our cheeks puffed up like frogs), and the smokes started coming out of our mouths as we started giggling.
We finished our first smoke quite successfully and were satisfied. We felt a gush of new energy in our veins that only adults feel. We were convinced.
Why can’t kids smoke? It is such a lovely thing to do! Why can’t kids have fun after all? We were sure that if we were allowed to smoke before studying, we could all become the first boy in our class. How about smoking before sitting for the exams? It would be a smoking good exam we were sure.
But our captain’s condition was deteriorating. His eyes had turned red and we could hear him muttering something. Our limbs froze. What if he dies? The youngest among us tried to flee but we, the seniors, secured him and threatened with dire consequence like excluding him from the cricket team for the whole season if he blows all up. We were ready to stand by our captain till we had to. If we find he is in a serious condition and could die any moment, we would throw him in the pond. But in no case someone senior should be called for help because this guy would surely expose us off. We figured that soon our respective fathers would reduce us to his state in case the incident gets exposed which we were sure to be if the captain is let free or an outside help is sought.
We poured water on his head – no effect. One of us suggested that some hot water should be poured in instead and we were wondering whether someone should pee on him but he recovered and stood up. He demanded a drag, as all the experience was too much for his nerve. Now he should soothe his frayed nerve with a drag or two. We had none.
The captain left us … angry. His eyes red, earlobes pink, and body shuddering in anger for the meager return he got for all the trouble. He felt cheated.
Ah! In his anger, he forgot to took the chewing gum or the pudin hara capsule. And that was our Achilles’ heel.
The captain betrayed us and soon our entire gang was caught, tortured and persecuted. Some were beaten till they genuinely started crying in pain, some were given extra math problems to solve, some were denied going to the playground for eternity (a week) and some were forbidden from mingling with the bad boys.
The later ones included our captain, my so-called best friend, who, after getting caught by her mother (who had an extra long nose anyway), sang like a canary under the prospect of a burning charcoal getting shoveled down his throat.
You know how Indian mothers are. With her violent gestures and shrill voice, soon it was established that I was the one who made her son smoke and I should be warned. Of course, if I was her son, she would have spanked me so hard for wasting the kids in the locality, it would have served as an example in the annals of history.
My father, ever so watchful to get an opportunity to display his Bengali martial art skills to his son, accepted the suggestion whole-heartedly. Soon I was ordered to get the cane.
Lest I forget to mention this, I was supposed to carry the cane with which I was going to get spanked. I had the choice of picking my own cane from a set of five. I was always given five minutes to decide which cane would grace my bum. ‘Benhur’ was my father’s favourite movie (which was kept off-limit to us for unknown reasons then).
At this point, while carrying my cane, I felt just the same as one Himalayan prince Siddhartha had felt some thousands of years ago.
I realized I had renounced the world. What is the meaning of family afterall? Who is your father? Who are your siblings? In this world there is no friend. Only you are true (and always the mothers are true to you).
I had no wish to live at all under such oppressive rule. What is the use of living when your own father is your greatest tormentor on earth? Why should I not disown him as my father when he is always so eager to part my dear life from my fragile body?
So I decided to run away. I left my home.