Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times. Mark Twain
How times have changed. Not all that long ago, actually it was a long time ago in the 70s, when I first started working in an advertising agency in Calcutta, smoking was all the rage. I’ll come to drinking in a while. At the ad agency, pretty much everybody, men and women, lit up a Wills Filter or a Charminar or, if you belonged to the higher echelons of the corporate ladder, India Kings would be the order of the day. Those privileged few who returned after a trip to the United States, United Kingdom or any other part of the world, flashed a duty-free carton each of Dunhill, Marlboro or Benson & Hedges, courtesy Indian Customs’ munificence. A pack or two was all it took to grease the palms of some of the customs officials to chalk a tick mark on your bulging suitcase, enabling it to pass unhindered through the green channel. If you were an inverted snob, as some of our creative writers and designers at the agency were, even the humble rolled up beedi was in the mix. For the more discerning, a pouch of Prince Henry scented tobacco (peeping out of a shirt pocket) was also part of the smoker’s paraphernalia. Pipe or cigar smokers were sighted, though rarely, but there were the odd big shots who sported them with much ostentation.
I am not certain if the poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling was a male chauvinist of the porcine persuasion, but he is ‘credited’ with the quote, ‘A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke,’ whatever that was supposed to mean. Speaking of women, in the late 60s in America, Virginia Slims launched an eponymous brand of elegantly slim cigarettes, with the women’s lib inspired catchphrase, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’ All in all, there was so much smoke swirling around the office you would have been hard pressed to see the person standing in front of you. All right, so I am exaggerating a trifle here, but put it down to literary hyperbole to drive home a point.
This was a phenomenon that was not unique to our organization. The whole of corporate Calcutta, or for that matter corporate India and possibly the world, was lighting up like there was no tomorrow. To employ celebrated British author Nancy Mitford’s coinage, very au courant during the 60s and 70s, smoking was U and an abstaining non -smoker was, well, non-U. In other words, if you smoked you were ‘with it’ while the non-smokers were out of the charmed inner circle. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand,’ was a famous cigarette ad slogan in the UK. Here in India Wills’ ‘Made for Each Other’ swept the honours boards in the popularity charts. When you consider the fact that one of India’s largest advertisers of the day, ITC Ltd., market leaders in branded cigarettes was headquartered in Calcutta, the biggest client for some of the leading ad agencies at the time, one smoked the company’s brands almost out of a sense of bounden duty. If ITC told you to jump you asked, ‘how high?’
In sharp contrast, in my own family circle, smoking was considered not just an abhorrent habit, but calculated to shorten your life by at least a third. Medical science strongly supported that view. More to the point, the filthy habit was seen as the worst kind of moral turpitude. Smoking was placed on par with immorality of the highest, or do I mean lowest, order. Debauchery might have just about pipped smoking to the post, as far as scraping the bottom of the morality barrel was concerned, but not by much. My father would view anyone seen with a cigarette dangling from his lips like something the cat had brought in. If it happened to be a woman puffing away, she was a gone case, banished to everlasting perdition. Even if he had to reluctantly tolerate a smoker in his midst, say at an official party, if the showoff smoker had the temerity to blow smoke rings in the air, that spelt the end of their relationship. Since my pater was still in service when I started my career in advertising, I would dread the day he would decide to casually walk into the agency to see ‘how his son was faring.’ That is, of course, if he could have floundered through all the smoke and found my cubicle in our ‘den of vice.’ Fortunately, that day never arrived and he retired soon after and settled down in pious Madras.
Speaking for myself, I was not a great fan of the habit. However, on the specious reasoning that one had to keep up with the Joneses, one would puff the odd fag now and then in a spirit of camaraderie, just to show there was no ill feeling. As I was a bachelor at the time and living with my parents, a couple of strong mint chewing gums on returning home provided rigorous exercise to my dentures, in the hope that any residual evidence of tobacco odour would have been obliterated. I think it worked, else my mother would have thrown an apoplectic fit and my father would have had to manage anger and depression (my mother’s) at the same time.
A quick word about drinking. Alcohol, I mean. Much as my folks would not have been patting me approvingly on the back for downing a couple of beers or something even stronger, the lack of overt visual unsightliness while drinking, unlike smoking, did not seem to greatly bother them. Gin and water would look just like a plain, odourless glass of water. An uncle of mine was overly partial to this innocuous looking, but lethal, potion. Kindly bear in mind that we are talking about someone, that’s me, who had just broken out of his teens, in his early twenties, stepping out into the big, bad world where vice and sin stalked the innocent lamb at every corner. Or so it was perceived. Another uncle of mine, who did not wish to utter the word beer within his wife’s earshot, would invite me to go out with him for a spot of ‘malt and yeast.’ By the same logic, chewing paan with treated tobacco and shaved betel nuts, was considered kosher. Subterfuge was the order of the day. My father was an occasional, social imbiber. He sedulously stored a bottle of Chivas Regal in his cupboard for what I believe was at least twenty-five years! Whether that gave it an extra vintage halo or not, I could not say. What little was consumed of it was usually by our next-door neighbour, who would pop round once in a while to down a convivial peg or two, much to my mother’s chagrin.
At some stage, I found even casual smoking provided little joy and much discomfort, and the world had started talking aggressively about the ills of the habit. Advertisements of tobacco and related products were banned and even cigarette packs carried ghastly visuals of skeletal bodies at terminal stages of cancer or lung disease. Ad agencies were going bankrupt. International airports were fitted out with special booths for smokers to congregate, shoulder-to-shoulder and smoke their hearts, or lungs, out to kingdom come. In fact, it’s been a complete turnaround. Mitford’s U and non-U appellation has been totally reversed. Smokers are now almost treated like pariahs (outcasts). In offices, they need to step out of the premises if they desperately need a drag. Thankfully, the little I myself indulged in the habit, after a fashion in the 70s, I gave up soon thereafter. You wouldn’t catch me touching a fag with the proverbial bargepole. Hardly anyone I know smokes nowadays, barring an occasional gasper or two at a party where alcohol is flowing freely. Somehow, even those who puff on a ciggy infrequently are tempted to light up when they are involved in some serious elbow-bending with a glass of single malt or Bloody Mary.
As for drinking, as I had suggested earlier, if you are an alcoholic beyond repair you don’t belong to the land of the living. Abandon hope. However, a glass of beer, a goblet of wine (red or white), or even something stronger in strict moderation, comes under the definition of social drinking, and not too many eyebrows will be raised. Assuming, of course, that you are an adult and know how to hold a drink. This hocus-pocus of ‘my doctor told me two large pegs a day does wonders for my heart,’ is just that, absolute balderdash. The problem is that most doctors lead tension-filled, hectic professional lives, and feel the need to let their hair down once in a while, and who can blame them? Have a civilized drink or two by all means, but don’t justify it by pretending it’s great for health. Only a loony doctor will ever actually say that. Let’s face it. At the end of the day, there will always be smokers in our midst, but at least they cannot say they were not warned of the consequences.
I’ll raise a small peg to that!