Many, many moons ago, when I was about eight years old and lived in a joint family in Calcutta, I was witness to a Cardinal Sin being committed.
I was dashing past an open window in our backyard, in hot pursuit of a kite, when I stopped short: inside the room, my mother and my aunt were taking furtive drags of a cancer stick.
Those days, nobody talked so much about cigarettes KILLING you, the US was Marlboro country, and Wills Filter was made for each other, but the reason why I stopped short was that I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was seeing two women smoke.
“I’ve seen you, I’ve seen you — I’ll go and tell thamma (my grandmother) now,” I screamed wildly, as the two ladies frantically dragged me inside the room, and promised me three things: a bar of chocolate, at least two days of no-slapping, and less pressure to do homework.
“Okay, in that case I won’t tell thamma,” I compromised, but couldn’t stop lecturing: “How can women smoke? It’s not right, doesn’t look right…”
Life, as they say, has a strange way of catching up with you. Some years ago, I picked up smoking though I maintain I’m like Clinton. “I don’t inhale,” I tell whoever gives me spiels on how smoking is Bad For Health.
A few months ago, my mother — who still closet-smokes at least a couple every day — was visiting me, and we were walking down the lovely park in front of my house. (She suspected that I smoked, because she’d start sniffing the air around me each time I emerged out of a ‘smoking experience’ and came anywhere close to her: “I hope you’ve not been smoking… it kills…” she’d mutter darkly, before disappearing into the closet to light up.)
Now, it was time to clear the air, I thought. “I need to buy a packet of smokes,” I announced. “Shall we walk to the shop near the main gate and get it?”
Expectedly, she freaked: “You mean,” she said, “not only do you smoke and are blasé about it, you’re also shameless enough to buy cigarettes over the counter?” Well, yes, obviously, I said in my defence.
It doesn’t look right, she persisted, for a woman to go and buy cigarettes. “You’re saying,” I said hotly, “that it would have been okay if I’d been a man, and not so because I’m a woman?
Besides, it’s my money, so what’s anybody’s problem?” “In our society,” the old girl clung on to her line. “People don’t take kindly to all this — I mean women buying cigarettes and then smoking them.”
Our society has to change, I pointed out, feeling like a principal giving an assembly speech. “And educated people like you should be leading the change, instead of reinstating the gender stereotypes.”
I guess she smoked that into her peace pipe.