Anandi Mishra reflects on the life and times of a habitual smoker, from Delhi to Cardiff
“A cigarette is a breathing space. It makes a parenthesis. The time of a cigarette is a parenthesis, and if it is shared you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.” – John Berger
I stared out the drawing room window, ashes from the cigarette dribbling on the floor, as I turned my back on the rest of the house, guarding my solitude. Smoking for me was always the way out, the way I could postpone a feeling, or bury my face into something else albeit shame-facedly. In 2015, after I got my first job, being able to afford my own cigarettes and sanitary napkins was a marked high that I am yet to experience again in life. They gave me the satisfaction and smugness one felt after knowing that they had a grip on things. My brows would ease, neck muscles relaxed, the tension inside my body melting away into my environs, as the smoke settled inside and I heaved a tobacco-stained sigh of relief. For me, smoking meant instant stress attrition, however momentary and fleeting.
I smoked my first, like any south-east Asian kid would. It was a stolen remnant of my father’s friend’s smoked cigarette from the heavy-cut crystal ashtray. I stood behind the staircase wall at the entrance of the terrace and puffed at it. At the first and last drag of that leftover filter, I balked, almost gagging and swore never to pick the habit up as a grown up. As filthy as the habit was, it came back into my life in my early twenties, this time through a cousin. We would both sneak a few cigarettes onto the terrace garden at night, squat on the concrete floor, and bellow the smoke into the thickly polluted 2013 Delhi air. It was our escape, a marker of a good frazzled time, and something we found immense velvety comfort in. After that I would go to journalism school and be recognised as the girl who smoked about 15-20 cigarettes a day. During a night when there was a power cut in the hostel, as most of us moved to the lawn with our mattresses and pillows, I walked out with just my pack and a lighter. That night I spent quite a few hours on my own, walking around, shaking up the thoughts inside my head. It made me realise that I could finally survive hours of solitude. Moments of joy, heartbreak, exhilaration of any kind soon came to be punctuated by this woollen cerulean vapour trail. After long days at the court, on lonesome nights I remember bathing myself in the coiling smoke. I’d disappear into the bathroom with the pack and headphones, brining myself in the bucolic pleasures of the smoke.
An avid smoker friend once told me, “Smoking is a pause to life, it’s my way of extracting time that was not really assigned to me.” The habit got me used to a new variety of comfort for not just my mind, but also my body and soul. Something that I had not experienced ever before. Especially on rainy or wintery days, when the air would be thick with isolation. Somehow, smoking made my emotions quantifiable. On some days I’d listen to the most recent cheap, fast, remixed Hindi song on full blast in the car or on my earphones as the cigarette smoke framed my profile. Sometimes as a kid when I’d see chain-smoker uncles with dark brown, almost black lips, I’d make a note to myself that I should also smoke so hard and bad that my lips would bear witness to the suffering. Violet or jamuni is how I wanted them to look then. But when I did smoke, they looked shabby, colourless and uncared for.
The fleeting nature of smoking often added to its indulgence for me. It was a way to celebrate several moods and capture the ephemeral geographies of some places and seasons. Winters and monsoons are a universal time when everyone smokes a lot. It was in the lap of Delhi, Pune and Cardiff that I remember feeling an unquenchable urge to smoke. The melancholic vistas of Cardiff, and largely Wales; the prescient visages of Delhi during the long, smoggy, seemingly unending winters; and the damp, buoyant greenery of Pune was license for indulging in a cigarette to put a pause to life as was lived.
In 2015 I was in Cardiff for the spring to complete my master’s thesis on the state of Welsh language cinema. While there, I understood the earned pleasure of hand-rolled cigarettes. By the end of my few months there, I was a hand rolling expert, sharing my wisdom with other students.
As a young cinephile the French habit of breathing in cigarettes and talking while smoking had enamoured me. I, too, wanted to be pictured like Anna Karina, lingering smoke and dust motes hanging in the air, giving my face a handsomely aloof aura. I have to say, I loved the toasty, slightly burnt smell of cigarettes on the men I dated early on. Taking in the way that smell would settle on them; mixed with their heavy, metallic cologne, it would give me a fever dream. In my mind’s eye that was how the perfect man would smell, redolent of the Hindi movies of the 1950s. From an effervescent Dev Anand to the broody Dilip Kumar, they had all created a mythical aura of how a man is complete only with a cigarette dangling inbetween his lips.
A scene from outside a pub in Cardiff comes to mind. It was early in the morning, sun just about to rise that July as I tiredly searched for my friend. Unable to locate her inside, I had stepped outside. And I saw a sea of men and women, haggard and laden, most of them held a cigarette between their index and middle fingers, some hand, some machine rolled. I remember suddenly noticing all their elegant, long, neat fingers. The nails on them, shining. It almost felt like I’d slipped into a reverie. The sultry cigarette tip droning down and floating back up to their pink lips, in a rhythm. When I looked around me, there were beer pints, empty glasses, a forgotten pair of boots, and innumerable lipstick-smeared cigarette butts. I saw the faces of the smokers, searching for my friend, all glowing like orange embers against the gloaming. Time stopped there for a minute, and it felt like an exhibition of the secrecy, flirtatiousness and glamour that had come to define my days of smoking in Cardiff, all spread out as a beatific display on the road.
And then one day, something shifted. Along the turn of the new year in 2018, something moved, and nothing was ever the same. The light-headedness that I came to associate with smoking a cigarette had become elusive. I would be chasing it day in and out, trying different types of cigarettes—more tobacco, more menthol, slender cigarettes, small ones—but I just couldn’t turn the corner. My place of solace, strange comfort, was lost and perhaps, gone forever.
After I kicked the habit, a mechanical realisation dawned upon me. I just never felt like picking it up and taking a drag ever again. Once that I did, a friend shared his cigarette, and I ended up hating the taste all over again. Its inherent malodorous and unhealthy nature took over my senses, making me swear all over again never to pick up the habit. I did struggle with the time that freed up for me in the beginning. I wouldn’t for the life of me know what to do with my hands, the smoking hands’ fingers specifically. My small, pudgy hands, otherwise undemanding of anyone’s attention, became the centre of my care. The cigarette-shaped hole though was reconciled soon. I filled it with lots of chai and a habit of keeping a glass of water by my side. Whenever in office and faced with the temptation of stepping down and lighting one, I would reach out and fill the empty glass with water and drink it slowly. I realised drinking these two plain, but effective liquids calmed, nourished and soothed my anxious nerves more than cigarettes could ever do.
As much as I understand now the ills associated with smoking, not just in Delhi, as a woman, but anywhere, as a person, I remember the jagged, rotten person that I was when I turned to the habit back in 2013. In smoking I had found something beautiful and cracked, which every so often allowed me a quiet insight at some rusty, ignored, mucky corner of life. My searching, expansive mind could contract in the quiet curious places afforded to me during a smoke. It helped me meditate, dissect and internalise problems at hand. I’d sometimes find a corner in one of the several balconies of a pub facing the Hauz Khas lake in South Delhi, and just allow the smoke to envelop my face. From behind the gloaming, a hazy world would rise. It somehow looked better, the endless stream of consciousness conversations with friends, boyfriends, dates, would automatically elevate to a level of the intellectual. It aided me in the universal but philistine pursuits, like a constant I could rely on much better than a lot of human beings.
It’s hard for me to think about smoking without getting sentimental about it, because it afforded to me a reality that I otherwise rarely saw in full relief. I became used to thinking that smoking illuminated truth in a way that ran counter to my non-smoking self which is also why I’m wary of my own sentimentality and impulse to mythologize.
I dwell, and irresponsibly so, on smoking, really because it answered some questions for me, the ones I couldn’t put my finger on even though they addled me for long. This pandemic has brought me back to my knees, with these gloaming questions staring into my eyes all over again, a bit more boldly, a bit more keenly, and I tremble to respond to them, with a little less courage, a little less smoke.
UK: An analysis by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and University College London (UCL), showed that 440,000 people in the UK have used the pandemic and lockdown as an opportunity to quit smoking. It also revealed that the younger lot has kicked the habit at a higher rate than older smokers. People in the 16-29 age group have quit smoking at more than twice the rate of smokers over 50.
India: With approximately 120 million smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), India is home to 12% of the world’s smokers. In India, more than 10 million die each year due to tobacco consumption. According to a 2002 WHO estimate, 70% of adult males in India smoke. Among adult females, the figure is much lower at between 13–15%. About 90% of children under the age of 16 years (standard X) have used some form of tobacco in the past, and 70% are still using tobacco products.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based communications professional and writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 3AM Magazine, Berfrois, The Alipore Post, RejectionLit, Transformations, and has been anthologised in A Garden Among Fires. Find her on Twitter at @anandi010 and on Instagram @ek.chidiya.