Tag Archives: opinion

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!

Being a better human – Two stories – Part 1

Strange Title?

My first post in over 2 years, and I pick a topic that looks like a parody of the name of a well-known charity? Actually, this is a phrase I used recently in a post on Facebook expressing my opinion on the outcome of the trial of Salman Khan in connection with the hit-and-run case of 2002. For some reason, the phrase seemed to resonate with a lot of my friends who commented on this post. It is, incidentally a fundamental value I live by, something I include, exemplify and repeat in my day-to-day parenting efforts. This post, however, is an elaboration of my stance on this entire issue, and is coloured by multiple personal experiences, and a few intense, passionate conversations I have had recently with people on this subject, conversations that succeeded in expanding my viewpoint on the intertwined concepts of justice, guilt, conscience and social responsibility.

Some accused me of taking a holier-than-thou stance on this issue. “What would you do?” they asked me, if I was in a similar situation. That line of questioning touched a raw nerve, because I have been in a similar situation, they just didn’t know it. It is a story that I still get nightmares about, a story I have always wanted to tell, if only to get this load off my chest. But it is a story that I have never told, simply because to relive some parts of it is still painful. I decided yesterday, though that this story must be told, because it was on the 21st of May, 9 years ago, that this happened… an accident that changed my life, and a few others as well.

A normal summer weekend

As a typical Bombay DINK couple, married for 5 years, we enjoyed the freedom to enjoy our weekends doing nothing, but this weekend was a little different. My mother wanted to treat wifey to an early birthday lunch and we took off driving the 10 km stretch on the Eastern Express Highway from Mulund to Chembur, looking forward to a sumptuous Mangalorean lunch, one we eventually never got to eat.

It is usually a route I like driving, with no traffic or lights for a clear 8 km. We turned on the radio, and the air conditioning – since it was a typically hot, humid May morning – hummed along to our favourite tunes and chugged along heading to our destination, my parents’ house, a few calm minutes away. Life was good… maybe too good to stay that way for long.

At the only traffic light on this route, at Amar Mahal flyover, which I had to drive below to get to my folks’ place less than a kilometre away, I was first off the green light. Picking up speed as I turned right onto Tilak Nagar main road, I was doing about 45kmph as I merged into the road, which at the intersection, was covered with interlocking paver blocks, a relatively new obsession with Bombay road-repair crews at the time. The problem with paver blocks is that at the point at which it meets an asphalt road, the blocks tend to settle lower over time and create a ledge between the two different surfaces, a ledge that can occasionally become an inch or two high, running all the way across the road, surprising drivers who are jolted by not being able to see what they just hit. Something like an abrupt invisible speed-bump with different grip coefficients on either side. When I merged right into the main road, I looked out for any traffic merging from the left, which was a free left turn, and out of the corner of my eye saw a fairly common sight on Indian roads – a rickety motorcycle carrying two adults, two children and zero helmets, riding at roughly the same speed as I was. This rider, who I was to get intimately acquainted with soon, decided he was going fast enough to overtake me, and like millions of other Indian bikers, did so from my left. I stuck to the right-most lane due to mostly lack of choice, and took my foot off the throttle to create some distance between me and the biker family who had switched into the lane right in front of me, with inches between their rear wheel and my front fender. What happened next was a scene that I remember vividly, and in my memory it is almost like it occurred in hyper slow motion.

…and the world went topsy turvy

He hit the edge of the asphalt road at a slight angle with his front wheel since he was still veering right after having overtaken me from the left. He abruptly hit the brakes, surprised by the jolt, and his rear wheel locked exactly as it passed over the edge, and went out from under them. This happened about 3 or 4 metres in front of me, and I watched as the man and his 6 year old son, fell off to the left of the sliding bike, and the lady sitting sideways with her 9 year old daughter on her lap fell backwards onto her back and head on the right of the motorcycle, right in front of me. I had stomped on the brakes and pulled my handbrake the moment the bike went into the slide, but at 50kmph, and with only 3 or 4 meters between me and the scattering of bike and bodies in front of me, only one outcome was guaranteed – I was going to hit them, hard.

My tires squealed as my car skidded towards them, veering slightly to the right. The last thing I saw before impact was the lady and her daughter sliding on the road with the motorcycle spinning alongside. Then, a sickening thump and the front of my car went airborne for a bit, my front right wheel ending up on the concrete divider. The soft crunches I felt through the steering told me what I did not want to know, that there was no chance they could have survived that. Maybe if I’d hit them, or even run over their limbs, they had a chance but not with the car jumping and landing right on top of them. Feeling sick to the stomach, I stepped out onto the divider, where promptly a couple of bystanders decided to start throwing punches at me, and tugged on my collar saying the typical “Dekh ke nahi chala sakta?”, “Bevda hai kya?” tirade that the idle bystander usually engages in, before getting into lynch-mob mode – the only excitement that a lot of the mob-members would have had in years, the shield of anonymity covering any moral need to do the right thing, the delivery of instant justice taking highest priority. In the few seconds this went on, before I threw them off to look under the car, not one person was interested in the “presumed dead” victims. Then when I started screaming that I wanted help so I could take them to hospital, several people ran to assist, most of them men who worked in the shops alongside the road. I saw a foot moving under the car, realised the lady was alive. I watched, with utter disbelief, as my wife stood on the other side of the car and helped the little girl crawl out from under the car, with just a scratch on her forehead. Then a score of people got around the car and literally lifted the back of the car off the ground, and a couple of others dragged the battered woman out from under the car. Some folks pulled out the bike, and then we understood the miraculous way in which the bike got in between the car and the woman and her daughter,  my front wheels jumping up and across the two of them and landing on the other side. The girl ended up flat on the ground – unharmed, and the lady found her lower body pinned between the transmission under-section  of the car and the bike. Now that everybody was out, I noticed that the woman was bleeding and pretty much battered, but still conscious and mumbling. At this point, I looked at my car and noticed it was damaged in a hundred places, my rear bumper broken and dangling, several fluids leaking from random places, and my front right wheel was bent. Again, the lynch-mob leaders assembled and started baying for our blood. A couple of the shopkeepers who had seen what had happened started telling me, that they knew it wasn’t my fault, but because I was driving a 4-wheeler, everybody would assume I was the villain and a “public dhulai” was predicted. In not so subtle a manner, several people asked me to leave some money for an auto-rickshaw to take them to the nearest hospital, and just get the hell out of there before things got worse. One educated dude even started a tirade in English, “These drunk bastards you know… I don’t know where they get their driving license from, no value for public safety… we should put them in jail”.

To be honest, the scene playing out around me was such, that the thought crossed my mind that I should get into my car and run, fast. I looked at my wife’s eyes, which have never failed me in moments of indecision, and I saw the same confusion there. But in the fear and confusion, I saw something else… she knew right then that I would do the right thing, even when I didn’t know that myself.  And at that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to run. I asked the people around to help the family into my car. The lady had broken her hip, probably had multiple fractures on her right leg. She needed help, and soon. So we bundled them all in and drove straight to the Emergency Room at Rajawadi Hospital, a couple of kilometres away. It helped that I had been there before and knew exactly where to park, where the stretchers were and where the entrance would be. An unpleasant surprise I still faced, was that there were only interns in the ER, and this was because doctors were on strike that day.

Amidst watching people die all around us, roughly once an hour,  throughout the rest of the day, we did test after test, X-ray after X-ray. We ruled out anything except superficial injuries for the man and his children, and the lady was diagnosed with several simple fractures to her hip and legs, and many minor lacerations and burns. The kids had to be given tetanus shots, and in one heart-breaking moment, I watched the little girl tell her younger brother that it won’t hurt, and hugged him tight. Both me and my wife broke down then, and the tears wouldn’t stop. By this time, my best friend had joined us there, and he helped bring some calm into the desperately chaotic situation.

However, I also had to deal with the police, since standard protocol in most hospitals is that except life-saving primary treatment, formal treatment only begins after the police complete the report and provide clearance for the admission process. After sitting through an hour of very professional and non-confrontational interrogation with the SI in-charge, during which he also sent out a constable to the accident site to get witness statements, he said I was free to go. Luckily, the shopkeepers around the spot corroborated my story, and the police confirmed with the injured man that he was riding with 3 other people without a helmet, and I had nothing to do with his motorcycle originally sliding. Overall, in hindsight, the police were thoroughly professional about it, and I told them so, to which the inspector asked me why I was hanging around. He said something then that turned out to be ominous, “Right now, these people have nobody to talk to. When their relatives show up, they will go after your money and your blood. Go home, sir… you have done your duty by bringing them here.”. I stayed.

Collateral damage

Meanwhile, my friend decided to bring the man’s bike to the hospital so we could hand it over and leave, now that the lady was admitted and her treatment had begun. While riding it in, a dangling front mud-guard caused him to fall off the bike, and he ended up completely tearing a previously damaged ligament on his knee. He still managed to bring the bike to the hospital, and somehow located the man’s phone as well. He didn’t realise it then, but he had done enough damage to his knee to end up in bed longer than anybody else in the accident, and that is a sacrifice that I will never be able to repay. Then the relatives landed up, and the nightmare took a turn for the worse.

It didn’t end there…

Though I didn’t have to, I paid the biker money to take care of the hospital expenses. I did it because I knew he didn’t have enough money at the time, and I realised the relatives weren’t very keen on taking any of the responsibilities. We left after ensuring the kids were in safe hands, and then completely numbed by the experience, finally went to my parents’ house.

The next few days were terrible, with nightmares and memories from the incident flashing back at odd times. I also received a series of calls from several people, ranging in tone from polite reminders to obscenities and threats to life. What all these calls had in common, was that they all claimed to be relatives of the family I had “hit-and-run”, and they demanded I pay a “settlement” to make it go away. It took us a long time to get over it, and we eventually found out that the lady had been taken to an ayurvedic treatment centre in Andhra Pradesh that specialized in fracture recovery. It sounded very unscrupulous, but it was apparently a family decision that she complied with. Much like all the women who choose to sit on the pillion seat of a motorcycle, behind their helmeted husbands, risking their well-being while the man looks for his Fast-and-Furious moment at the next traffic light, weaving in and out of traffic and generally being an asshole, all while the woman gingerly balances her two children who are hanging on to dear life. Familiar scene?

So now you know why I do know what it’s like.

Because I had the chance to run, but chose not to. And this is also why I can take moral high ground, because I had the choice, and did the right thing. And we suffered as a result of my decision. More than me, my wife and my best friend suffered from the consequences of my decision, but they’re still my pillars of strength. Strength to continue trying to be a better human.

Unlike Shyam Ugale. Now, who is Shyam, you ask? He is a murderer, though the Indian legal system had a different opinion/judgement on the man, who today lives happily with his family somewhere in Maharashtra. And why is he important to this story? He is important because, 7 years ago, Shyam killed 5 people, 3 of whom were children, and ran…

…to be continued in part 2