Be warned, O gentle reader: this one’s a reminiscence of sorts: rather long, very rambling, and rather personal.
It’s May 13th going on 14th … a time of year that always reminds me of my father, R S Paramasivan, mother Jaya, and the closely related subject of cigarettes.
Dad supported, unsung, the lives of tens of thousands of tobacco farmers across the country during his 50 years of heavy smoking. In these worthy and heady efforts he was joined enthusiastically by brother Bala and yours truly once we had entered our teens. Bala started early as Dad had – at the age of 15 or thereabouts; I took my first puff when nearly 16. Dad initially smoked Wills Gold Flake (it came in a tin of 50 cigarettes till the early 1960s), and later switched to Wills Filter. Bala and I smoked Charminar till well after we started earning our own money; Charminar, to the discerning smoker, was not merely the most affordable but among the best of cigarettes the great and benevolent Goddess Nicotine had ever wrapped herself in for the benefit of humankind.
Initially, both Bala and I made feeble efforts to hide our smoking habits from the parents: but both of us received, in turn, the same gentle but stern admonishment from Dad: to smoke without embarrassment or concealment. By way of example Dad cited his own lesson from 1942; he was sitting in the woodshed at the old ancestral home in Coimbatore, puffing away at a Players’ cigarette filched from his elder brother Markand, thinking himself safe from the gaze of his father (my grandfather or thatha, a formidable old judge with fearsome temper), when to his horror he heard the tap-tap of the old man’s walking stick on the gravel outside the shed. Dad was about to stamp out his cigarette when he heard thatha’s dry voice: “For heaven’s sake, if you must pollute your innards, don’t hide in there…smoke outside here in the fresh air. Besides, you might set fire to the house by smoking in there!”
There was this little ritual that both Bala and I went through on the occasion of our respective 16th birthdays. In both cases, the venue was that renowned shrine of generally ethylated spiritual activity, the Shillong Club. I still recall how Dad solemnly pulled out his pack of Wills, offered me a cigarette, and then lit it for me with the murmured words: “Henceforth, it is not for this coal to call the kettle black. Be open, unashamed, in whatever you indulge in, and bear the pain it brings honestly. A vice is vice only when hidden. To hide it is to admit you are ashamed of it.”
And what did mother Jaya think of all this, you might ask? Well…quite understandably she didn’t approve of Dad’s smoking, or of our smoking either. Right from when we were kids she called Dad ‘chimney’ in various languages at various decibels, and accused him of ‘setting a bad example to the children’; she severely criticized Dad, and later Bala and me too, for ruining our health and blowing away all our money in smoke. Her disapproval of our smoking waxed and waned throughout her life; she was utterly delighted when Dad finally quit smoking in 1990 (he was 63 then).
But in her valiant efforts at getting us all to quit smoking, Mom faced a rather unique hurdle, one that Bala and I first became aware of when Bala was around nine and I, seven. We noticed that, ever so often, in the middle of perfectly innocuous conversation, Mom would murmur: “Leave me the eltee, Raj”. …Or sometimes Dad would casually remark: “I’ve left the eltee, Jaya…” or something like that.
Eltee? What in heck was ‘eltee’?
We asked Mom and Dad what eltee was, of course: several times, on several occasions. We never got a straight answer from either of them: we were kids, our queries were deflected by them with the ease all adults have in dealing with inquisitive kids. But they had not reckoned with our shrewd cunning, brought up as we were on a diet of mystery and detective stories written by the likes of Enid Blyton and Arthur Conan Doyle. We observed their movements closely; we sought temporal and spatial patterns in their usage of the term ‘eltee’; we noticed ‘eltee’ was used most frequently in the mornings, when Dad was about to leave for office. And finally, we discerned a distinct sequence of repetitive actions: as soon as Mom called out to Dad to “leave the eltee”, Dad would duck into the bathroom and out again, and then Mom would hurry toward the bathroom…
And thus it came to pass that upon a fateful day, even as the faint echoes of Mom’s ‘leave the eltee’ reverberated off the pinewood rafters, Bala jumped up and overtook Mom as she sped towards the bathroom—and he emerged triumphantly waving a lit cigarette, chased by a frantic and indignant Mom. “Eltee!” Bala yelled. “Eltee’s actually LT! LT means ‘last three’, it means last three puffs…Dad left the last three puffs for Mom. Mom’s a smoker!”
Poor Mom; we never let her forget that. She was only an occasional smoker compared to us three chimneys, and she quit altogether by the early 1980s…but we gleefully reminded her of her fondness for the nicotine vapours every time she gave us a bhashan about smoking too much…
But now, back to Dad. The year was 1977. Mom and Dad had shifted to Assam’s new capital, Dispur (Guwahati); I, a college student in Shillong, was home studying for my BSc finals. Bala had become a banker, and was furiously puffing away somewhere in southern India: Cochin, I think. Upon a day, word came from Delhi that Mom’s father (my maternal thatha) was very ill. So Mom at once left for Delhi, for what was expected to be at least a month’s stay. She didn’t have to worry about how Dad and I would manage in her absence—thanks to her training all three madmen in her family could cook and keep the house reasonably clean and running. But Dad was smoking about 60 cigarettes daily, and developed a cough so racking that it worried Mom no end. At her urging, he promised her he would try and give up smoking altogether while she was away.
The day after Mom left, Dad ambled into my room. “I want to try and keep my promise to Jaya about giving up smoking,” he murmured, almost shyly. “Will you consider joining me in a gentleman’s agreement?” Of course, I agreed to hear him out. As we walked to the drawing room, he spelled out his proposal. It was simple and ingenious.
First, he announced that he wanted to quit smoking from the following morning. “You can help me in my resolve if you too quit smoking for about a week,” he added hesitantly. “Because the initial one week of nicotine abstinence is the hardest part, especially when surrounded by the glorious fragrance of tobacco. I know it’s being unfair on you, so don’t hesitate to refuse…”
“No, no, of course not, Dad!” I broke in. “I mean, yes! I’ll quit too…no problem!” I meant it too; after all, I too wanted Dad to get better.
“Good, good, thanks!” Dad went on. He reached into his pocket and produced the ever-present Wills packet. He opened it to show that it had precisely eight cigarettes left in it. “This is my last stock,” Dad whispered. He placed the pack almost reverently on the mantel-piece, laid a matchbox next to it, and then, with a sigh, went on: “Now then…as friends who trust one another totally, let us agree on this: if either one of us weakens in our resolve, if either one of us is overcome by the urge to smoke, let us not be ashamed of our weakness. Let us, instead, bravely and honestly, without needless guilt or anxiety for the other, help ourselves to a cigarette from this very pack. Every morning henceforth, each of us shall silently, independently, check the contents of the pack. That way, if either of us finds that the number of cigarettes is less than eight, the one will know that the other has given in…yet we will have only empathy and understanding, and our efforts to quit will continue.”
And so our project began.
I can only tell of my own experience. It was pure, unadulterated hell. Even after six years’ smoking, the agony was almost unendurable, of not having my after-coffee smoke in the morning, then the after-breakfast one, then the elevenses one, the noon one…I will spare you the hideous details. I will say this in all honesty: the only thing that kept me from charging into the drawing room and chain-smoking all eight cigarettes in that Wills pack on the very first day, as soon as Dad left for work, was the realization that Dad must be going through the same agonies as I was, but multiplied a hundred-fold.
And so I stuck to my resolve. And so did Dad. Two, three, four days we stayed off the damned cigarettes. Dad was an early riser; our deal was, he made breakfast and I made lunch, and we made dinner together. I rose usually around 7.30, sat with him over coffee and breakfast, and then he left for work…after which I checked the pack to ensure there were still eight cigarettes left in it. There were…there always were! A stage came when I used to hope, pray I would find only seven cigarettes, just so that I could tell myself, ha! Dad’s given in, so I might as well give in and smoke one too…but no, Dad was resolute.
Sometimes, late at night, I crept up to the Wills pack and sniffed it…but I didn’t dare open it.
The sixth day dawned, bleak, dismal, hopeless, tobacco-less. Both Dad and I looked drawn, hollow-eyed…yet we bravely assured each other that our appetites had increased, we were sleeping better, even breathing more deeply. Dad left for work; around noon, I rose from my books and was chopping vegetables for lunch when Dad charged into the house. “I have to go to Shillong!” he roared. “North Eastern Council meeting…I don’t know how I’ll get through the wretched thing without smoking, these damned Delhi-wallahs drone on and on for hours…and I detest that circuit house food…I only hope I can be back for dinner by tomorrow night…”
In ten minutes he had packed a suitcase and left. I was alone.
I was alone…all alone! For a night and two days, at least. Alone, with the allure of eight Wills cigarettes permeating the house like some siren’s perfume filling my nostrils…
I shook off the cowardly temptation angrily and returned to my chopping vegetables. The rest of the day passed in a haze; I pottered in the little vegetable patch in the backyard, observed interesting hunting spiders and warrior ants, lunched without tasting anything, and spent the afternoon staring at my physics book and comprehending nothing. As dusk deepened into night, I sipped my coffee and knew I’d reached the end of my tether.
It was the work of an instant to slip on my Keds and stride towards the little beedi-cigarette kiosk about 200 metres away. I bought a packet of Charminar, smoked two immediately, and smoked the third over a second cup of coffee on the verandah back home. I was careful to empty the ashtray into the bin…it wouldn’t do for Dad to know that I’d succumbed to temptation. I felt bad about breaking my agreement with Dad and not smoking a Wills as we had agreed to do; but told myself that I was doing it for his good…Dad was being so brave about trying to quit, he must soldier on! By bedtime, I had convinced myself that I would throw away the remaining Charminars the next morning; having given up for five whole days, had I not proved that I could give up any time?
Of course, I didn’t throw away the Charminars the next day. I held at bay the wolves of temptation till about 3 p.m, when I snatched the Charminar packet, grabbed a matchbox from the kitchen and went and stood out in the garden near the picket gate. With trembling, feverish fingers I drew out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled…
Ah, the ecstasy of being filled my mind, all was well with the world again, music resonated from the Cosmos…
So utterly transported was I on the nicotine fumes that the arrival of Dad’s office car caught me completely unawares. Too late, I saw Dad step out of the car and walk rapidly toward me, his eyes fixed on the half-smoked cigarette. I was about to drop it and stamp it out when Dad yelled: “No! Don’t waste it!” The next instant he grabbed the half-smoked cigarette from my fingers and stood there, puffing away and recounting to me, in short broken phrases between puffs, what had happened in Shillong. “Bloody meeting started at 9 in the morning… Raj Bhawan, Governor sitting next to me puffing away…Home Secretary was there…also chain smoking…insufferable speeches…terrible coffee…by 10.30 I knew was finished. I asked a bearer to get me three packs of Wills…I’d smoked 10 by the time the damned meeting ended…”
Thus ended the gentleman’s agreement Dad and I had, on giving up smoking. However, our bonds of trust and faith were only reinforced by our shared trauma. And Dad did cut down on his smoking thereafter—to about 30 a day, which was quite something, and of some small consolation to Mom.
Now all this happened in 1977; so well might you ask, O patient reader: what in heck has any of this to do with May 13th going on 14th?
Well…bear with me just a while longer, we’re nearly there….
We now race through the following years and decades, to 2001. Dad and I were living together in Delhi, where he and Mom had settled after his retirement in 1986.
Mom had died in 1996, after a shockingly sudden, mercifully brief, illness. That story is for another time, another place…
In a way, after Mom’s passing, for Dad and I it was like being back in Dispur in those 1977 days – only now we knew Mom wasn’t going to come back. Dad had of course quit smoking many years earlier; but the long-term effects of those smoking decades were steadily, increasingly, becoming manifest. I was working out of home by now, which made it so much easier to spend time with Dad and take care of stuff and do the household things and all. Bala was in Bangalore, but dropped in whenever he could. So all in all, things were going quite smoothly and peacefully…but Dad was growing weaker, the COPD was deep and irreversible, and by May 2001 we knew his end was near. Dad insisted that he be allowed to die without any invasive medical intervention of any kind, just as Mom had insisted in her time. And so, just as Bala and I had given our word to Mom in her time, we gave our word to Dad that we would do all we could to help him pass the way he wished.
And so we come, at last, to the night of May 13th, 2001. I was lying down next to Dad; I’d been sharing his room for nearly a year, for by this time he was so frail that he needed help just shifting position. Also, glaucoma had virtually deprived him of vision, so….anyway, it had been a good day, a quiet, peaceful day like many. Dad had sipped about half of his evening broth, which I thought was all right, and was now fast asleep. We had a little night lamp glowing blue. I had by then become a very light sleeper, alert to his every breath. I was just lying on my back, listening to his breath, and fell into deep, dreamless sleep.
I’m not sure what it was that made me open my eyes…but I sat up with a start when I saw Dad sitting upright, staring straight at me, with a strange, gentle smile visible in the dim blue wash, a smile that softened the deep lines in his face.
“What’s the matter Dad…” I mumbled, struggling to clear the mind. I looked at the alarm clock next to me: it was just after 2 a.m.
“No, no, don’t worry, I’m all right…I’m all right,” he patted my cheek, ruffled my hair like he used to when I was a kid, and then slowly, carefully lay down again. “I awoke from the most extraordinary dream…” he paused and again he smiled.
I stared at him. He lay there and gazed back and his smile grew wider. “Relax, lie down, I’ll tell you about my dream,” he said with a chuckle. It was a long time since I’d heard that chuckle…it was soft, but took me back down the years and decades.
“Do you remember that gentleman’s agreement we had in Dispur… to quit smoking together?”
I was astonished. I nodded, and after a moment I too lay down.
Dad went on, softly. He took a while telling of his dream, pausing for breath every few words, but his voice was eager, clear. “In my dream, it was as though both of us were back there in Dispur, in 1977…although strangely, even in my dream the house we were in was this house, not the Dispur house. In my dream I knew there was that packet of Wills with eight cigarettes in it in the drawing room, lying on the mantel-piece – even though this house doesn’t have a mantel-piece. In my dream I awoke…if that makes sense!” He chuckled. “In my dream I awoke, and saw you sleeping next to me, just as you were a little while ago, right there, next to me. I awoke with this huge craving for a cigarette! I didn’t want to disturb you, so I quietly slipped out of bed and crept across to the drawing room, and I found the Wills packet on the mantel-piece, and I took out a cigarette and was about to light it…when it struck me that the smell of the cigarette might awaken you! So I hesitated, because I knew you were so tired, and I stood there wondering whether I should creep up to the terrace and smoke the cigarette, all the time also feeling bad that you would find out I had given in to temptation and smoked …” He paused and smiled.
“And it was at that moment, when I was wondering whether I should go upstairs and smoke or just get back into bed, that I actually awoke from my dream, and realized where I was, where I am, and I was so amused and amazed by it all, I sat up and looked at you…”
“So that’s why you were grinning!”
“Yes…what a mad dream it was, wasn’t it!”
It was. It was a crazy, wonderful, timeless dream, and I don’t know how long Dad and I stayed awake after that, not talking much yet reminiscing deeply of Shillong and Dispur and Coimbatore times, and smiling a lot and chuckling a little, and I ruffled his hair awhile till he fell asleep, and at some point I too drifted off…
Dad didn’t wake up on the morning of the 14th.
Bala and I are glad he slipped away just as he had in his dream; we know Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Remembering you and Mom with love, Old Man.