We don’t deny that cigarettes are bad for our health. But the ban on public smoking has created tight – and useful – cliques of rebel nicotine addicts.
There's a cold wind blowing through the station. He rubs his hands and reaches into his pocket for his cigarettes. He can’t, however, find a light. The platform is deserted, save for an unknown woman. He walks up to her and asks: "Maachis hai, kya?"
No, she doesn’t light his cigarette. But she does light a fire in his heart that consumes him for the rest of his life. The description above is of a scene from Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. The man was Shah Rukh Khan. The woman was Manisha Koirala. And thus began a romance that was almost as fateful as an affair with a cigarette. To tweak the slogan of a popular coffee chain: A lot can happen over a cigarette.
Every fume has a silver lining
We all know that smoking in public places has been banned; that smokers have been driven out of the main herd of humanity into designated places where their carbon emissions can’t hurt anyone but themselves. Non-smokers are happy with this situation; smokers themselves have not been pleased. But smokers have found a silver lining in the fumes above their heads in their designated smoking areas.
That gleam of silver? Well, apart from saving non-smokers from a passive, painful and slow death, the public smoking ban has given birth to a community – a happy little smokers’ club. "It began as an us-against-them sort of feeling when the public smoking ban first came into effect," says 35-yearold banking executive Narendra Khanna. "Us being smokers of course, and them being the people who pushed us out – non-smokers. So when we were pushed out and met other people like us, naturally we had a lot to talk about. By now, our comfort zones are the smoking areas. We don’t complain any more. We just like being members of the same club."
This club is like all other clubs. Members hang out, party, converse, meet interesting people and network or smirt (smoke and flirt) with them. And just like any club, members make non-members feel like they’re being left out – of something fun or important.
"When 10 people step out for a smoke and two are left behind, they would probably wish that they were also out there," says Ranjit D’Souza, who works with a film company in Mumbai.
Ladies and gentlemen… the water cooler has left the building
At work, you would obviously know some of your colleagues well. But chances are that these people are only in your own department. On a smoking break, however, you get to know everyone in your firm better – all the smokers, of course, but even the non-smokers in other departments, because you get to hear about them from other people.
That’s 25-year-old Shruti Sinha’s experience, based on what happened when she went down to the parking lot for a smoke. “I’d just joined an ad agency. It was my first corporate job, I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “But after I’d been seen downstairs with a cigarette a couple of times, my colleagues began inviting me to join them when they went down.”
A few months later Sinha quit the cancer stick, but by then the smokers’ community was in her blood. “My colleagues still asked me to join them downstairs, but I avoided it since I didn’t want to be tempted to smoke again,” she says. “Then I realised I was missing all the gossip, so now I accompany them and drink tea instead.”
Office gossip is not the only siren call. Since smokers have to leave the office, a smoking break works out to be a very effective break (the kind, ironically, that doctors always recommend) from work for people who would otherwise be indoors in artificial light, hunched over a keyboard all day.
“A smoke break is refreshing. Not because of the nicotine, but because I get some minutes away from what I’m doing and I return fresh,” says 26-year-old Ankur Balan who works with a public relations firm and is in front of his computer for hours. “I mean, literally, my eyes don’t hurt as much as they would otherwise do.”
There are networking opportunities too. Ask Ranjit D’Souza. He moved to Mumbai from Goa to work in the film industry four years ago, and didn’t know anyone in the city except for a couple of people. “My organisation has an office in a building where there are lots of other companies,” he says. “There is a common smoking area, and there I met lots of people from different backgrounds. Within weeks, I knew so much more than I might otherwise have known if I did not smoke.”
Worst places in the world to light up
• Colombo, Sri Lanka
• New York, USA
• South Africa
• Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Come on baby, light my fire
You know how, when you go to a pub and you try and start a conversation with a stranger of the opposite sex, you get some very funny looks? That’s normal here in India – talking to strangers of the opposite sex, particularly at bars, has always been associated with pick-ups. Not nice. But being out on the street or in a fume-filled smoking area when you want a nicotine rush has turned that on its head. Because in these places, strangers already have something in common. They are all awful, evil people who smoke. Pariahs, forced to hang out with other pariahs. So the amount of conversation that can take place following a "May I borrow a light?" or "May I bum a cigarette?" is astounding.
If it wasn’t for the smoke break, 23-year-old Neyonika Lahiri, who works in an advertising agency, would never have met her boyfriend. "We were standing at the same spot and smoking, and we got talking. That small talk led to a twoyear relationship," says Lahiri. Lahiri eventually broke up with her boyfriend, but cigarettes brought together a couple who’ve been married 14 years (so far).
Best places in the world to take a puff
• Amsterdam, Netherlands
• Tokyo, Japan
• London, UK
They met at a non-alcoholic, vegetarian, no-smoking birthday party. Humpy (name changed) was dying for a smoke. He asked Alivya to join him outside. Over a cigarette it was revealed that they shared a passion for music and that Humpy found women who smoked sexy. Whenever they ran into each other, they shared a cigarette. “I got to know the kind of man Humpy is during these sessions,” says Alivya. “ For instance, if ash fell on the floor, he would pick it up and put it into the ashtray. I liked that.” After dating for a few years, they decided to get married. “After the temple wedding, as we were driving out, Humpy saw a paanwala and suddenly pressed the brakes. Turning to me, he said: ‘I’ll be back in a Zippo!’” recalls Alivya. “Clearly, it was a matches made in heaven… cough, cough, cough!”
Butt the hour is near...
If you watch English entertainment channels, you probably know this episode of Friends by heart. Rachel has a new job and finds that she never knows what’s going on at work, ever. That’s because her boss and her colleagues are always outside, smoking, and that’s where all important things are discussed. So Rachel must smoke or she’ll never get anywhere. That’s a somewhat misleading story, because America – like other countries around the world – is getting tougher and tougher on smoking and smokers. Smokers in the US are increasingly being ostracised. “Smoking in India is easy. For one, it’s still seen as cool, and for another, there isn’t yet a very strong anti-smoking lobby,” says marketing executive Niranjan Gupta who spent 18 months in New York working on his MBA. “In the States, however, it doesn’t matter if you are a good looking person, or an Ivy League student, or an all-round nice guy. People will consciously stay away from you if you smoke.” We haven’t reached that stage here in India, and given out chalta hai attitude, who knows if we ever will. So members of the smokers’ clubs are pretty pleased with themselves right now. They’ve got something to share that other people haven’t got. Never mind if it’s incipient cancer.
Lead Photo: Styling Rovina Kot
Photo: Ronjoy Gogoi
This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.
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