“The first cigarette is like first love. Both use the lips to explore, leave a heart burn and very rarely get to a conclusion”
I looked at the lit end of the cigarette for a brief moment before taking another drag. The ruby burnt bright and the paper ebbed in. The stashed smoke escaped in whimpers when between my fingers and as a gust from my lips. The fume rose against the backdrop of the dark winter night and stood awhile watching me before losing its form in the fog. Shadows born from the hazy ember light from a street lamp, played sluggishly on the dilapidated wall of the nearly empty bus stand as I stood waiting for the last bus.
Too much had happened during the day, way too much for my liking. My head whirled with the happenings of the day. A day which began like any other, without a warning, without a background score to it had done plenty by the time it decided to take my leave.
I tried to distance myself from my thoughts and looked around for something else to hold my attention. There were a few film posters looking down, a couple of pharmacy ads, some public health messages, a call urging people not to spit on the sidewalk and a big red hoarding reminding its readers that ‘Smoking Kills’. I took another puff and smiled.
Not much there I thought. I had another half an hour to while away before the bus would arrive; probably more going by the fog that was beginning to thicken up. I knew of a tea stall across the road. I usually took the last bus back from work and the situation I was in today, was not something that I had not seen before. The buses often plied past their scheduled time and passengers usually waited on the stand or sauntered the road till they arrived.
I sucked the last drop out of my companion and flicked the butt to a side. A cup of tea at this hour would be good, I spoke to myself. Also I had run out of cigarettes and fancied my chances of finding a pack with the vendor across the road. I flung the bag over my shoulder and crossed the road.
A small bulb hanging by a grimy electric wire fought bravely to light up the little corner of the shop. An old movie song played on a radio that was held together by rubber bands. A man with a muffler wrapped around his ears stood by the stove on which a kettle sat exhaling steam out of its spout.
As our eyes met, I pointed to the kettle and held my fore finger to signal for a cup of tea and asked him if he had any cigarettes.
“Which brand?” he questioned.
“Anything would do. Which ones do you have?” I questioned back.
His hand went under a small drawer in the table on which the stove was kept and brought back two different packs.
“How much”? I picked up a pack randomly and enquired as he poured the tea from the kettle into a cheap china cup.
“43 Sir, 40/- and 3/-” He answered.
I put a 50/- note on the counter, took my change and sipping on the sugary tea, settled on the wooden bench that lay there by the side of the road.
I opened the packet and lit up another cigarette. A cup of tea and a smoke, I believed, could co-exist in harmony and serve as loyal associates to anyone who wanted to enjoy solitude without feeling alone. The smoke blends in with the milky beverage over the tongue and goes gradually down the throat, only to find a way back into the world through the nostrils. Once released, it waits a bit, as if paying gratitude to the smoker for liberating it back in cosmos where it could lose its being and be a part of the universe.
The question why do people smoke has no definite answers. The nicotine is addictive no doubt but then your mouth reeked of tobacco stench and definitely almost everybody who indulged himself carried one or the other mouth-freshener.
Personally I liked the thought of holding fire between my fingers. Fire, a dangerous force, a dominant element in the history and evolution of mankind, a power pure and worthy to please divinity in form of candles and lamps, a weapon and a tool to clear forests, hunt ferocious beasts and light up the night – tamed at the finger tips of man.
Ayn Rand wrote in one of her famous novels “I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone thinking and watching the smoke of a cigarette. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
Sure it kills, but then people who don’t smoke die too. Don’t they? Anyway, it wasn’t really the right time to put an effort into running a debate with myself on what smoking brings and takes away. No matter how much I strived to distract myself from the thoughts of the day gone by, my mind played on the reel over and over again.
——————————— 6 HOURS AGO ————————————
I had opted to have my lunch out of office and had gone to a nearby café I regularly visited. No longer than I had finished eating, I saw her come in through the glass door. I did not know if she was in the same city and seeing her there sure took me by surprise. For a while I was stupefied and did not know what to do. She was carrying a folder in her arms and a bag over her shoulders, much like the college days – our college days. She hadn’t changed much except for the spectacles she was wearing now. She rested the stuff she was carrying on a chair and settled in on another at a table right opposite mine. It was then that our eyes met and time stopped for a brief moment.
I thought a sigh escaped her lips at the same time it left mine. I did not know if I actually saw a brief hint of smile at the corner of her lips. Years had passed since I last saw her smile. I waited for what seemed like eternity to sense if she actually acknowledged my existence in her vicinity. She smiled and I got up from my table and walked over to her.
“Hi”. It was all I could muster.
She looked at me with lost eyes. Without waiting for an answer, I pulled a chair and sat down. She tried to avoid my gaze for a while and then suddenly looked up and asked “So how have you been?”
“Good, I did not know you were here. After you left… “. I left the sentence unfinished.
“Been here only a week, he got transferred here, you know.”
“Hmm” I understood she was referring to her husband.
“I did not expect to see you here.” She said.
“Well, I just work across the street in the blue building that you see behind you. I come here frequently for some lunch.” I paused before adding “What brings you here?”
“Just came in for an interview nearby, had some time at hand so came in for some coffee” She answered.
I had always believed that I would meet her someday. Somewhere along the line I was not able to accept that she would not stand up for me and would succumb to her parent’s wishes. I was willing to reason it out with them, was willing to battle it out too if needed. She, I guess, cared less. After years of being together at college and been committed to each other, suddenly matters like cultural and religious differences became decisive.
I clearly could recall how brief she had been before severing ties with me. “I can’t marry you. My parents have put their foot down and I can’t go beyond their wishes. Please understand. Hope you will.”
My chain of thoughts was broken was by her pointing at the cigarette in my hand. “You haven’t given up smoking yet?”
I looked at her and then the light between my fingers and half-smiled. “Giving up isn’t easy. Is it?”
She probably could trace the scorn and sarcasm in my comment. “Well, it is if you try enough.”
“It comes easy to some people, doesn’t it?” I shifted my gaze from the lit roll of paper to her face.
She studied my expression for a brief moment and then laid back into her chair. “You haven’t come here to fight with me, I suppose. We have met after such a long time, we can least be civic to each other in a public place.”
“Maybe we can go to some place private and battle it out then” I suggested in a sly tone.
Previously it would have meant sneaking into a friend’s place and sharing some intimate moments, now it was just a sarcastic comment.
She sat there with a wooden expression and let a short sigh escape her lips. “Hmm, you still haven’t gotten over things, it seems. You know, you must keep looking forward, if you want life not to bury you alive. It is actually pointless to discuss this with you now, when we have met after so long. Anyway, tell me how have you been otherwise?”
“Good, how else do I look to you?” I shot back.
“Hmm, you have put on slight weight, baaki toh theek hi lag rahe ho.” She half smiled.
I had nothing to say. I looked at the cigarette, took a final puff, and extinguished it in the ash-tray on the table.
“What will you have?” She asked.
“Oh, nothing! Just had my lunch, saw you come in so came over to say a hello. You tell me, what will you have?” I asked her back.
“Two Espressos, please” she told the waiter who had come over and then just as if to correct herself added, “I hope its fine with you.”
I nodded in consent.
There was a brief uneasy silence before she finally broke it and talked about the weather and the heat in this part of the country, the snow fall in London where she had been with her husband on last vacation, the new US president and almost everything that was trivial and of little consequence to her and me till we finished our coffees and I took care of the bill and it was time to go.
“So do we get to meet again?” I asked her with a hint of anxiety in my voice, I was hoping that I wouldn’t let her see through me and not let her know how much I still wanted her.
She hesitated, looked uneasily at her watch and then to the ground before looking at me and answering. “Do you want to?”
I took a deep breath. All the while that we had been sitting there I wanted to ask her a thousand things. I wanted to accuse her of being unfair to me. I wanted to curse her, question her and spit my mind out. I wanted to break down and wail my pain out. At the simplicity of what she asked I went mute.
I was thinking what to say when she added, “I don’t think we should.” She paused briefly and then continued, “I guess it is only fair to you now that I should spare you from seeing me again. I do realize that I should have stood up for you and not chickened out and left like I did. I am sorry.”
I looked at her face. Her smile was no longer visible and her eyes had begun to well up. It was a difficult moment for me. “Let’s sit for a while more.” I mustered somehow.
“Hmm” She wiped off something from the corner of her left eye and we settled back into the chair.
It was some time before she spoke.
“I don’t know, if something good came out of what happened. My life isn’t mine. I have everything I could have asked for, a caring husband, decent family and a nice house, yet at times I just fail to connect myself to everything. Words jam into my mouth and it is not often that I speak my mind. I have little or no say in decisions about my life, my future, my career, me. It looks like a series of never ending days at times. Everything seems so terribly wrong yet I can not pin point on one thing that I would want changed or different in my life. Maybe one, but then I guess life does not have a rewind button.”
I looked at her face. She was looking at the table as she talked.
“Remember what you said when we were parting ways…” she paused and corrected herself. “When I..” she sighed before talking further…”when I left you….. you had said that life does not give you a second chance. You, you were so right”. She fumbled and stuttered now. I had never seen her like this before. She looked like she would fall apart.
I half smiled before the tinge of pain came back. “It’s been so long now. Forget it. Life did give us a second chance. See, at least we met today out of the blue and had a chance to talk all about it. Life gave us a chance to sit across this table and talk our hearts out. I would otherwise have died bitter thinking about what you did and you probably would have taken some part of this load you carried all the while to your grave. So, what ever happens, happens for the best I guess,” I tried to fake in some optimism into the conversation.
There was an easy silence before she gathered herself and looked up. “Maybe, maybe you are right after all. Maybe we would have never been happy ourselves. Anyway, it was really good that I ran into you today.”
“Hmmm”, I smiled. “So, when do we meet next? Maybe you should give me your number and I shall call up sometime and we can meet here again for a cup of coffee or something.” I pulled up another cigarette and lit up.
“I don’t know. I still don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s been many years and we have our own roads to travel now. We met at a crossroad and we recognized each other and exchanged courtesies. It would be pointless to go back in time and walk together when we know that there are no common destinations now.” She sounded mechanical. Blunt and practical even while being philosophical, just as ever, I recollected.
“And now will you be taking this cigarette out of your mouth or do you want me to pour a glass of water on your head just like I did that time.” She added, this time with a smile.
My thoughts went back to the time in college when we were sitting in the canteen and she had actually done that. “Well, its different now, I know you would not dare that now, besides, as I said earlier, giving up isn’t easy.”
“And I had said, giving up is easy, if you try hard enough”, She replied. “Anyway, it’s your life, your choice now. I should be on my way now. It was nice meeting you, really. And yes, thanks for the coffee. Let’s see if we get to see each other some time again.”
She picked up her bag, adjusted her glasses and smiled. “Bye. Take care. Drop the fag if you can.” In a swift motion she turned around and walked out, just the way she had come.
I kept looking at the door. It seemed like a dream now. Did I actually meet her or something in my head had conked out. I was in a daze. I sat back on the chair and asked for another coffee. She was right in her own ways and I was definitely less bitter than before.
The rest of the day just whizzed by in the office and it was as usual late when I started off for the bus stand.
———————————— PRESENT HOUR——————————-
My flow of thoughts was broken by the blare of horn of the bus across the road. I dropped the tea cup on the bench, picked up my bag and rushed to the bus. I had hardly set foot inside when the bus started moving. Luckily for me even at that late hour, I did manage to find a seat.
The moment I hurled my bag on the rack above and settled in, I knew the reason for the seat being vacant. Incidentally the window of the rickety roadways bus would not close properly leading a gust of wind to hit the back of the head as one sat. I lifted the collar of my jacket and settled in. My urge for nicotine had returned and I looked around. My eyes spotted a note in red paint in a scratchy handwriting on the other side of the bus. It read “No Smoking”. Right below it, the conductor of the bus lit up a ‘Bidi’. I chuckled to myself.
Maybe the broken window wasn’t as bad totally. It could at least spare a couple of people from my smoke. My thoughts went back to the day gone by again. “What ever happens, happens for the good”…..”Giving up is easy if you try hard enough”….”Drop the fag if you can” ….things and words kept streaming in. I closed my eyes and could see her come inside the café door again. My mind kept adding special effects to her entry. I could see her bring in rays of sun light behind her. Her face was radiant and she looked like an angel. I played the reel over and over again till I could contain no longer. I fumbled in my pockets and found what I was looking for. I took out a cigarette and held it between my lips. I took out the lighter and paused for a second.
What was I doing? Was I trying to replace her thoughts with an outlet of smoke? Was I actually trying to escape myself here? Was it my remedy for her? Nonsense, I said to myself and lit up the cigarette.
Somehow I could not enjoy my smoke the way I normally did. Was she right? Was I just not trying hard enough to give up? Come on, I told myself, what was the big deal about the whole thing? We were there together for a while and it did not work out, no matter what were the reasons. She had a right to decided for herself and she did. She took a decision and moved on. Maybe she has had some regrets about it later but then did life stop at all? The sun did not stop shining and the wind did not stop blowing? It was only me who thought that the world had ended? Maybe I had been mourning the loss a little too longer? I had stopped caring and I had put on weight. I could have easily improved things around, maybe could have changed my job and found myself a better place to settle in and who knows could have met someone better too? The problem perhaps was with me. I had simply stopped caring.
Maybe I had actually given up. I had given up on things that I shouldn’t have and was just holding onto a dead baby for too long.
My head began clearing up. The thoughts of the day were blurring out and I felt at much more ease with myself, something which had not happened for past couple of years. I could perhaps see and appreciate the entire reason for having met her today. I could see through the divine plot. No longer, I wished to look up towards the heavens and cry out why. I was thankful and at peace with my being and my life. I exhaled a smoke of relief.
I looked at the tailing ash on the end of my cigarette between my fingers, gave it a little smile and then flung it outside through the open window of the bus.
The remaining cigarette packet and the lighter in my jacket too followed. I gave up smoking………to begin with.
Himanshu (Feb. 4, 2008)
Completed on March 1, 2009