With a cigarette in my hand…


…is how I spent a large part of the last 2 decades. It is also a sentence that was part of a song that played on television in the 90s. It went… “With a cigarette in my hand, I felt like a man”, and was intended to help people quit smoking, hah! While smoking the roughly 73000 cigarettes I must have smoked in my life, I also had immense opportunity to reflect on the thought processes of most smokers. I made the following observations (and broad sweeping generalizations!):

  • Most smokers would tell you that they intend to quit.
  • Soon.
  • Any day now.
  • Most smokers would tell you it is easy to quit; they’ve done it so many times already.
  • Most smokers would tell you that they completely understand that it will kill them. But they would also remind you that life has a 100% mortality rate… everybody dies.
  • Most smokers will also be pedantic about the number of carcinogenic chemicals that constitute cigarette smoke and will probably enthusiastically discuss the ill-effects with their friendly neighbourhood cardiologist… over a smoke.
  • Most smokers would tell you that the gory pictorials on cigarette packaging has only increased their tolerance for disturbing imagery, and the dire but completely useless voice in the movies that drones “Smoking is injurious to health…” is the part where everybody checks their phones for messages before the movie resumes.
  • Most smokers would know exactly how much money they would save if they quit smoking, and exactly what they would buy with that money.
  • Most smokers will never quit.

Way back when, probably some 18 years ago, a well-spoken elderly gentleman accosted me regularly at a bus stop in Sion, where I would be smoking a little way away waiting for the bus, and we would have a conversation that went like…

Him – Hello, can I ask you a question, why do you smoke?

Me – Hmm… never really thought about it.

Him – I’m curious, I ask smokers this question.  You should think about it.

Me – OK, I smoke because I like it.

Him – Does it taste nice?

Me – Kind of…

Him – What does it taste like?

Me – Errr… like something burnt.

Him – How would something like that taste nice?

Me – I don’t know, it smells nice…

Him – No, it doesn’t. I can smell it from here.

Me – I feel better when I smoke.

Him – So how do you feel when you don’t smoke?

Me – I don’t know… not nice.

Him – So why don’t you find a way to feel better that will not kill you?

Me – Because I don’t have anything, or anybody to live long for… (Touché, I thought…) But here’s my bus… good chat, good bye!

Obviously I don’t remember exactly what was spoken, and I paraphrased here and there, but this is pretty much what we said to each other. The next time I saw him there; I ran and caught the wrong bus just to avoid him. But that conversation left me feeling strange… like if I’d carried on talking with him, I would have gotten some kind of closure, some kind of answer. I wouldn’t know then, that it would take me another 18 years to get there… but my curiosity made me seek him out the next time. However, he would always reset to the beginning of the conversation, and not remember that we had already spoken before… it was like a movie that stopped before the end, and always started from the beginning again, only to stop at exactly the same spot, in a weird kind of endless loop…  I never saw the old man again after that, but always remembered that little exchange.

Over time, I became a collector. A collector of reasons (excuses) – for why I could not/don’t need to quit smoking. Talk to a smoker and you’ll hear some or all of this.

  • It helps me think.
  • My job/social circle requires me to be around people who smoke.
  • I can’t go to the loo without smoking.
  • I smoke only when I drink.
  • I can quit any day.
  • I need willpower to quit, and right now my life is too stressful and is taking all of my willpower.
  • I exercise.
  • I don’t smoke too many.
  • I will put on a lot of weight if I quit.
  • My father/neighbour/friend smoked all his life and lived to be a hundred.
  • Who wants to live long?
  • I need a smoke…

Truth is, I had a hundred reasons not to quit, but apparently not even one good reason why I should. This is because I didn’t realize the true answer to the first question the old man asked me so long ago, until recently… the reason I smoked, was because I was addicted to it. My body craved the experience and the chemicals from time to time, and deluded my brain into thinking it was an enjoyable experience. Stark reality was that I was a slave to the habit. For a long time, my biggest fear was running out of smokes and not being able to get them or having to spend a night without being able to smoke. This made me hoard cigarettes, and consequently crave them even more.

Originally, I got hooked when I was dealing with a particularly vulnerable phase in my teens. During this phase, having to cope with anxiety was a challenge, and smoking (along with the social experience with co-smokers) helped me tackle it better. It is only now that I know how tightly it grips you. It is probably one of the strongest addictions in existence. Any smoker will vouch for that, and I kept telling myself and everybody else that I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the experience of de-addiction. There are medical/assistive options like patches, gums and lozenges, hypnosis and even medication that could help, but these assume that you are addicted only to the nicotine. But I assure you, willpower is highly overrated as a factor that helps you quit. At least for somebody like me, I don’t believe ordering myself not to smoke would have worked… My parents, teachers and former bosses will tell you that I am not very good at taking instructions, even from myself!

Nearly 8 years ago, I made two promises to the woman I love… a woman who I first met when I was smoking two packs a day, and despite not approving of the habit, never made purely emotional demands of me to quit smoking. These promises were voluntary, and I suspect also intended to buy me some time. I promised her, when our little princess was born, that I would never smoke in her presence. And secondly and more importantly, if (and when) our daughter brought up the topic of me smoking, and even hinted that I should quit, I would quit… no questions asked.

So, an innocuous comment from our six year old in the middle of June last year, while we walked through a cloud of second-hand smoke blown by a couple of kids hiding out in our apartment parking lot changed my life. She was surprisingly scathing in her opinion of people who made other people suffer because of their smoking, in the typically innocent and endearing way in which a six year old complains about the world around her. And then she said… “But you don’t smoke any more, do you, Papa?”

And through this little conversation, my baby unintentionally called me out on my promise, and I kept it! Wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as difficult as I told myself it would be, all these years. Almost exactly one year ago, on the 24th of June, 2014, I quit smoking. I like to think I’m over it, but we will see how that goes. How exactly I managed it, and the various changes that I went through deserves its own blog post, especially if it might help others do the same. However long story short – I can smell again, my mouth doesn’t taste like an ashtray, and my lungs are clear for the first time in twenty years. I’m not sure if all of the damage I did to myself can be reversed, and as a matter of fact I know some of it is definitely permanent. The colour of my gums, and the yellowed fingernail on each of my index fingers (I was an ambidextrous smoker) are reminders to my chosen method of slow suicide. But for the moment, I owe my wife and kid a husband and father who is not trying to kill himself, and that, dear reader, is as simple a motivation as that.

I know it’s actually not as corny as this, but it makes for a far better story when I imagine that perhaps the message that old man was trying to get through my thick head at that bus stop 18 years ago was… anything’s possible when you have somebody to do it for!

Being a better human – Two stories – Part 2

Keep Walking!

That smile… it’s tantalizing.. you can’t tell for sure if it’s there or not. But you could feel it in his eyes, the crinkle around the edges, the sparkle in them. It could light up a room, instant therapy for the blues. He could listen for hours, to your happiness, to your sorrow, to your rants, and would never patronize, never advice… but would empathize better than anyone I knew. He would make you feel like he could instantly share in anything you felt, and make it his own.

We called him Walker, and he was one of the nicest guys I knew. Intensely emotional, he was very passionate about family, love and work – in that order. I knew him as a charming colleague I met at a tough job, when both of us were going through a tough time at work. He had a disarming way of dealing with difficult people and situations, and was super-calm when walking through fire, always smiling. Four colleagues who exited one company when it folded up due to management sucking it dry and leaving it’s employees in the lurch, bonded over that tragedy in such a way that we ended up friends for life. Four colleagues who I nicknamed FEW KIDS, an anagram formed from our initials, four colleagues who got together again at what looked like a dream reboot to our careers, but one that also went downhill quite quickly, for the second time. Four friends, 3 of whom had our anniversaries on successive days, not the same year though. Happy or sad, we drank together, nearly every night… always ending up singing the same songs, and sometimes with people from other tables in the pubs and bars we crawled out of. That was his magic, he could get into an argument with somebody, and before the night was out, you would catch them drunk, hugging each other like lifelong friends without even exchanging names. But you would remember him… he was that kind of person. His stories about his father, his mother, his love for his wife and his children, ranged from hilarious to tear-jerking, but there was no drama, no exaggeration in them. Just the sincere truth… the truth of a man for whom family meant everything… absolutely everything. I remember thinking more than once, that when I had kids, I wanted to be “this” kind of father, and I have no shame in admitting I am that kind of parent today. I learnt from him how to be your wife’s lover and friend forever, how to be your kid’s superhero – the picture-perfect family guy – not the movie-hero kind, but the one you want to be in real life. I remember a guy stopping his vehicle in the middle of the road late at night in Pune so he could walk up to him, and ask him if he could touch his feet. This, because he refused to accept fees from the guy for his airline flight crew training course months ago, due to his difficult financial situation. And when he could afford to pay back the fees, Walker asked him to pay it forward and help anybody else he felt like helping. I was amazed, this dude was a rockstar! I didn’t think this kind of thing happened to normal people. We used to teasingly use the slogan “Keep Walking” with him, because he believed in it, and lived up to his name, always smiling!

That same smile, on this balmy May afternoon almost exactly 7 years ago. I still couldn’t guess if that smile was there or not… I wanted to find out from the sparkle in his eyes, but his eyes were closed. His face was beatific, even with all those gory scars, lying in his casket, dead. Those eyes would never open again, I would never know about that smile again. The feeling of immense sadness that was threatening to envelop me since the moment several hours and several hundred kilometres ago, when I first heard about his passing, now took over completely. But somehow I still wasn’t crying, not until I walked past him to the two smaller caskets beside him, holding what was most precious to him, his two children, also dead. Then, when I saw those faces – and there is nothing more painful than to see death in a child’s face – I needed something to hold on to, to stay on my feet. The next few hours went by in a blur, with most of us wondering how something like this had come to pass, as we watched the most devoted father, husband and son we knew, and one of our most treasured friends, being buried along with his two lovely children. I remember not even being able to face his widowed wife that evening, running away from that scene like running would wake me up, but this wasn’t a nightmare. It was real life, at its cruelest, in its most horrifying manifestation -violent death. A reality that was caused by one man… a man called Shyam Ugale.

A “normal” evening

On their way back to Pune from Kolhapur after attending an event, the Walker family of four, and four other relatives – a cousin, her father-in-law and two daughters had stopped at a well known highway restaurant for dinner. One of those classic highway restaurants with a smallish wall separating a garden from the road. Waiting outside the restaurant, most members of the family were standing in and around the garden, when an out of control truck crashed right through the wall into the garden and mowed them all down. Five of them were run over, and most of them died instantly of fatal external and internal injuries. The vehicle did not stop until it hit the building, the driver was grabbed by the crowd, and despite the inescapable smell and obvious influence of alcohol, managed to escape when the crowd moved in to handle the five bloodied bodies lying around. Somehow, with the help of the owner of the restaurant and other nearby establishments, they managed to get them to hospital, where five of them were declared dead and one comatose. The wife and mother, who was a few metres away when all this happened, could do nothing but watch everything and everybody that mattered to her crumble and die before her eyes.

The driver, Shyam Ugale, after sleeping his alcohol off, “surrendered” two days later. With some help, a story of falling asleep at the wheel was agreed upon and spun together, and eventually hardly even warming a prison bench, Mr. Ugale went home to live happily with his family, where he hopefully still wakes up in a cold sweat every once in a while, thinking about the lives he destroyed. How many such Shyams continue to prowl the roads today, would you know? I don’t… what I do know is there are hundreds of hit-and-run killings every month, and all those killers are still behind the wheels driving all around us. Feel safe now? Yes, I know… and that is why I have an opinion about it.

It still hurts to have a friend snatched away like that, but I can’t even imagine what that woman went through every day since that night after her entire family was taken from her, right before her eyes. Can you?

So in our anger at all the unpunished murderers driving happily around, let’s all come together and crucify Salman Khan, shall we? Oh, you’ve moved on to Maggi, you say, I must be slowing down… my apologies. Must be age catching up on me…

What would you do?

A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago…

“What would you do if you had to go to court accused of drunk driving and negligence behind the wheel, adding up to culpable homicide not amounting to murder? What would you do in this country, where the ordinary citizen may spend years waiting for the case to go to trial, and then decades to reach judgement… when you could hire an “accused” and some “witnesses” for a few lakhs, who would happily stand in for you and go through the motions, since nobody will go to prison anyway… when you could pay off the police to “settle the matter”?”

What would you do? Really…

I personally know at least two people who have been in this situation and will never see the inside of a courtroom… Is that fair? I don’t know, but it shakes my faith in my pre-conceived notions around natural justice. And this is why my opinion and my judgement on the American Express bakery accident case is not, and will never be black and white.

Life isn’t black and white. Life is, and is always going to be a shade of grey. So, although it’s nice to jump on the “desktop activist” bandwagon and take a side in the online shaming process, until the next cause comes along, I will desist, thank you. Because like I said in the beginning, I will continue to strive towards being a better human being. And one of the ways I intend to do this, is by not judging a fellow human absolutely or impulsively, irrespective of the hurt, or the sadness that comes along with it. But I will never forget…

As a dear friend would say, drive carefully, and keep walking!