I must have been about 14 when I lit my first cigarette. Well, technically, I didn’t light it myself. I found it half-finished in a wooden ashtray my dad always used when he was sitting in the drawing room (he used a cheap glass ashtray whenever he smoked in the kitchen or in his bedroom).
I vividly remember why I picked up that cigarette. I’d had a bad day at school - the basketball team I was captaining lost a match and I caught the classmate I had a crush on making out with a junior in an empty classroom. The match loss was something I knew I’d get over. But first crushes are hard, especially if you’ve been harbouring those feelings for a long while. And hence I went home particularly disappointed in the day that had been.
Now, the classmate I had a crush on was a smoker. I’d seen him hanging out at the neighbourhood cigarette vendor, blowing puffs of smoke into the air, accompanied by an occasional cough. He would chew on paan as well and he had a loud, throaty laugh that I absolutely adored. Every time I passed by him at that cigarette shop, I wanted to go plant a kiss on those paan-stained lips and shove my tongue down his ashtray for a mouth - because that’s what I’d seen Pamela Anderson do in Baywatch.
I was finding it hard to accept the fact that he was with someone else. I wanted to feel what it would be like to be with him...without really being with him. And that’s when I spotted that half-finished cigarette lying in my dad’s fancy wooden ashtray. Dad wasn’t anywhere around and Mom was working late at school that day. It was the perfect opportunity to sneak a puff. I took the cigarette to the toilet, along with a bottle of perfume I found on Mom’s dresser.
We had an Indian toilet back then, which meant I had to squat fully clothed with that cigarette in one hand and a perfume bottle in the other. It was almost like squatting with weights in a gym, except that in a gym you’re not avoiding being caught red-handed. I took a long, hard drag of the cigarette, just like I’d seen Dad doing it. I let it linger and then breathed out. Although I felt a bit light-headed after the first drag, I didn’t cough or choke. And so I took another long drag. Nothing. Just light-headedness. Wait, had Dad been smoking a cigarette wrong all this while?
The sneaking-into-the-toilet-to-smoke routine continued. My modus operandi remained the same. I’d pick up a cigarette when no one was around, take a matchbox and Mom’s perfume to the toilet, light up and finish the cigarette, and then spray so much perfume in the toilet that it got hard to breathe - leave alone smell anything. Before I knew it, this new obsession completely took me over. I’d realized my crush wasn’t a crush anymore - and, moreover, he was smoking those darn cigarettes all wrong! They cost Rs 3 back in the day and I couldn’t believe he was stupid enough to waste that money to fake-smoke his way home. He was a complete loser. But I felt like a complete badass!
A few years of stolen smokes later, I was filling in college application forms. Dad and I had come to an agreement about my pocket money (which was quite generous by the way) and I was ready to start a new life with new goals. One thing didn’t change, though. Cigarettes had become a part of my life. I wasn’t addicted to them and didn’t particularly feel dependent on them, but there was something about lighting a cigarette that gave me a kick.
I spent most of my pocket money in college on cigarettes. They became the start of my day and the end as well. Armed with more pocket money, I’d confidently walk up to a cigarette vendor and call for the brand I smoked (I had graduated to smoking cigarettes that cost Rs 5 as opposed to the cheap, hard ones my father smoked).
A decade later, I still start my day with a cigarette and end it with one as well. Do I regret picking up that first cigarette? Yes, I do. My skin looks older than most people my age, my mouth feels stale all the time and my smoking habit has caused many an argument with my current boyfriend. Will I ever kick the habit? Probably not. I still get the same kick from smoking I got when I smoked my first cigarette. It still is the start of my day and the very end of it. I know my habit will kill me one day (sooner than all the non-smokers I know, I’m sure) but that’s a chance I am willing to take. It’s my life, my story, I chart it the way I want.
But want to make an appeal to every non-smoker out there. Do not pick up that first cigarette under any circumstance. It will ruin you. And as the years go by, you won’t recognize yourself in the mirror. If you’re willing to take that chance, though, and believe that dying early isn’t a bad deal in life, then by all means, you pick it up. Though I’d still ask you not to.
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