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A Puff

PRERNA HANS

Walking from the school bus stop, I was dreading to return home as I knew what
was waiting there for me. No one. My parents would be off to work and would come
in the late hours and I would be my only company.
That afternoon I decided to take a detour and not take the street that led to my
house but instead walked a path I had occasionally been to. A little off the main
road there was a local bazaar, in the vicinity of my house, filled with shops, big and
small, some concrete while others were makeshift stalls that carried all kinds of
items that one could possibly need yet they did not carry anything beguiling
enough to pique my interest. At the long end of a back alley, almost hidden from the
gaze of the commoners, stood a frail stall of a cigarette shop selling cigarettes and
other miscellaneous items. Red stains of ‘gutka’ were grafitied on the walls around
creating an abstract. Packets of tobacco, cigarette boxes, namkeens and the likes
hung from the roof hanger installed in the front of the shop.
It was frequented by men, of all ages: young as ten, middle-aged and older men,
who rode their motorcycles or walked to pay their daily homage often multiple
times a day. There were rarely, if ever, female visitors to the shop. I paid no heed to
it and just figured that it was the nature of things that men smoked and women
didn't or at least not in public at that back alley stall. It seemed like an axiom of
society: like we need air to breathe. It was a sight to see. Men, from different walks
of life, some in business formals returning or going to their day jobs while others in
their weekend casuals who may have no hurry to reach a destination, congregate in
that place for an activity that was the only thing common amongst them.
I was, as one would suppose, an unexpected and eccentric oddity that looked
misplaced. It disturbed their little bubble of equilibrium and their sense of normalcy.
My fears and qualms soon tempered when I discovered that another element that
binds this rather odd group together was silence. Mutual silence. Unbreakable
silence. It was an unspoken convention similar to other laws of nature. I went to the
shop, at a rather unusual hour of a lazy afternoon, and asked for a cigarette. The
shopkeeper, a small middle-aged man, wearing his regular undervest and dhoti with
a receding hairline smelling of a strange mix of sweat and tobacco, sitting atop the
counter of his stall like a maharaja on a palanquin. His eyes scrutinised mine
inspecting me from head to toe, reaffirming what he had heard and within a few
seconds of intense scrutiny, with no concern of my age or sex, he broke the silence,
“Which one?” It was an easy getaway, I smirked with smugness.
I said whichever is best. I was handed over a pack of Marlboro Gold Original. A
pack was too much for a beginner, I contemplated, but decided to keep it for future
use. I gave him the quoted price as written on the back of the packet but he
seemed dissatisfied with his bounty and asked for a commision, asking for an
amount almost double the price of the cigarette pack. I was appalled by the lack of
justice and economic exploitation. However, a lightning of reality soon struck me as
I became cognizant of my present position, justice was the last thing I had to be
concerned with, so I decided to buy his silence and walk away into obscurity.
Farther away from the shop, on the other end of that back alley, I had my first puff.
Unaccustomed to smoking, I mimicked the more advanced ones, inhaling and
exhaling smoke. It took a little while to grow familiar with the hotness of the ashes,
carefully dropping them off without letting them fall on my skin. One time, I even
choked on my own breath while smoking. The hot air around me was infused with
tobacco and the rising smoke gave the air a burnt feel, it felt hot and heavy on my
lungs. Nauseating and at the same time leaving me gasping for more. My head
became lighter as my lungs became heavier with smoke. The experience was
almost meditative. Inhale and exhale. While I enjoyed smoking, it left a bad aftertaste
in my mouth that lingered for long. Besides the cigarettes, I had also become
a regular customer of mouth-freshners. You can’t have one without the other. It was
like bread and butter. I intended not to make it a habit and only puffed occasionally.
I kept true to my promise for a year.
At one of those usual occasional visits to pay homage to my guilty pleasure, a year
after I had first started; I was standing there buying a pack of cigarettes, this time
Goldflake Kings, paying a little over the price to keep my secret safe when the
shadow of a dainty man just a few feet taller than me walked down the alley. I was
remotely unconcerned since that shop has many customers visiting throughout the
day and I had nothing to worry about. It was not just my secret but ours to keep.
However, as that figure came too close casting a shadow on me, the contours and
crevices of his face and body became clear and no longer unrecognizable. I
recognised my father standing in front of me. I froze. A pang of emotions enveloped
me. He looked at my small, corpulent yellow-stained fingers with scabs under my
nail beds trying to hold the cigarette form, and soon after my hands began to shake
and tremble. I was visibly frightened. More so fear, I felt ashamed. Never once
before had I felt guilty or ashamed of what I was doing. If at all, I felt hubristic to be
able to get away with it.
His ever so distant eyes and sombre countenance, almost expressionless,
suffocated and nauseated me more than the cigarette smoke. As I stood there
surrounded by ringlets of smoke, my guilt slowly started to disappear, I became
numb against the mechanical chatter of the people and the street nearby. He
looked away and turned to leave after finishing his usual business at the shop:
buying a pack of cigarettes. I wanted him to turn back and chastise me. To punish
me for my misbehaviour. Even to hit me. But he kept his silence. The unbreakable
silence of the place. He kept the unspoken pact. His silence felt like a thousand
needles piercing my skin and bustling under waiting to poke out. I would have
preferred being reprimanded as silence was worse.
Something died that day besides my habit of smoking.


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