Everyone has their own reasons for giving up smoking but this was mine: I believed myself to be a free, even rebellious spirit, unwilling and unprepared to accept anyone else’s authority over me. After a few years of smoking, unfortunately, this was simply no longer true. The cigarette was quite definitely in charge. Every so often, it would will me to find a stick, light it up and quench the physical need for whatever it was that it pumped into my system. Freudian impulses of suckling, nicotine cravings, a moment away from the drudgery of everyday work, whatever it was needed frequent attending to. How frequent was frequent anyway? I was going through over two packets of 20s a day. More than 40 cigarettes- in 16 waking hours. Two and a half cigarettes every hour. Assuming that a cigarette burn time is 6 minutes, that is 240 minutes, 4 complete hours given over just to smoking, or one-fourth of all waking time.
I had recurrent coughs. My stamina totally sucked. I had no physical fitness regime to speak of. And I was spending over Rs. 1500 a month on the fag. Let me put this in perspective. My monthly salary back then wasn’t much more than Rs. 10,000 so this was burning a 15% hole in it and actually sapping my autonomy. This is perhaps why they describe smoking as a slavish addiction. You are not in charge. The cig is.
Came December 1992. I had been smoking for ~15 years, having started in 1978 and an Actuarial table would probably have given me a life expectancy of not much more than 60, mostly unhealthy, years unless I was prepared to make serious changes to my life. I knew, intellectually, that this was a habit that just had to go but the beast had affixed itself so firmly to me that ripping it out and discarding it for ever was going to involve enduring a terrible separation.
January 1, 1993 became the big New Year Resolution date. Why? The calendar gives us a man-made punctuation at year’s end, which is why it perhaps becomes psychologically easier to pin events of significance to these moments. Once the day started to loom larger and larger, I remember stepping up my cigarette consumption, saying to myself, here was the month when I would literally smoke myself out for the rest of my life. The 2 packets rose nearly to 3 a day, yes 60 king-sized full strength cigarettes. I would wake up with a cigarette and extinguish the last one of the day only as sleep descended at night.
Then it was December 31, 1992. I lived in Hyderabad those days and had a 9 a.m. flight to Mumbai on January 1, 1993. Before heading out for the party that evening, I got my overnighter packed, the clothes on a hanger and booked a car to airport just to ensure that my anticipated inebriation wouldn’t jeopardise the flight. And then, I smoked. And smoked. And smoked some more. (Needless to say, there was also plenty of C2H5OH involved). As you can imagine, it wasn’t the easiest thing getting up and heading for the airport on January 1 but I firmly tucked a packet of cigarettes into the shirt pocket and I was on my way. Only to discover upon reaching the airport that I had totally lost my voice. Frantic gesticulations later, I was on a plane and en route my parents place in Mumbai. I got home and declared, in a barely audible, seriously hoarse whisper, that my smoking days were over. Finis. Done. “Likely story”, my mom probably said to herself. “I can still see the packet in his pocket”.
Now here is something for the record. Right through June 1993, I would still have a whole carton of cigarettes lying at home. Why? Because it was a simple way of acknowledging that as Matthew 26:41 puts it so well in the Bible, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. I was quite prepared to accept that there would be days when the craving would be so strong that I land up doing something rash and irresponsible just to get at a smoke. This may sound counterintuitive but trust me, it was an incredible help in many moments of weakness when I could tell myself, “Look, if it gets really REALLY bad, you are in good shape. The cigs are in the cupboard”.
I made it widely known across the office, Ad Agencies, Research Agencies, printers, Promotions Agencies , my family and friends; pretty much anyone I was likely to have any social or professional interaction with; that I had given up and expected them to help me through the slog. A small group with which I’d hang out at Black Cadillac, Ten Downing Street and other such distinguished establishments in Secunderabad committed to bacchic pursuits, were obliged to be the close in fielders for the most dangerous moments. We found a way out even there. I would keep an unlit cigarette in the mouth for the typical duration that one lasts. Even the bartenders were in on it, pretending with much flourish to give me a light with an unlit match as I drew out a stick and prepared it for its intended business. Hundreds of filter tips were rendered unusably soggy and many kilogrammes of the finest Virginia and Burley tobaccos available in India circa 1990 never caught fire.
In the meanwhile, appetite came back roaring like you couldn’t begin to imagine. It seemed as if all the four-hours-a-day I was spending on smoking were now taken up with...EATING. Weight gain was swift (and mostly irreversible, as a gander at my generous anatomic proportions that persist to this day will attest to most readily). And not because I had the time. Quite simply, all the taste buds that had suffered the slings and arrows of tar and tobacco for a decade point five, and thereby been deadened into submission, were suddenly firing on all cylinders. Sweets revealed themselves in their curvaceous complexity. Spices were sharply angled. Sour and tangy whipped up astringency. Instead of the unidimensional burn of the chilli, Andhra food revealed itself to be full of endless layers of flavour and taste. I was in gastronomic heaven.
That, I guess, settled the question for me. If giving up the cig meant the opening up of endless vistas of glorious food, I needed no further persuasion. Even wine and spirit was no longer just a simple path to wipe-out. Aesthetic drinking was not merely possible; it became a new reality in the continuing bacchanalia. (My interest in Malt Whisky began within months of de-addiction, and to anyone who aspires to Scottish Malt Whisky, the King of Spirits, shedding the cigarette is not optional; it’s mandatory).
When, half a year into the project, the unlit cigarettes and packets in pockets were no longer crutches to hang on to, the transition was essentially complete. Years later, I would get up in the middle of the night with incredibly vivid dreams of having smoked. Only to wake up relieved that it was nothing but...a bad dream.
I have now been clean longer than the 15 years I smoked and, delight of delights, can pick up an occasional Havana that some kindly soul might slip my way, without the fear of reverting to the bad old days. But it took me over 10 years of staying away before I could find the nerve. This, I have to say, is the life. To be able to pick up a great, tasteful smoke, twice or thrice a year and relish its delights with just a cloud of smoke, not worry, overhead!