Sunday, September 09, 2001

My uncle used to smoke beedis in the loo.

We were six of us – all students, all precocious – living together in his house.

Every morning, there would be a scramble among us to beat the other five to the loo immediately after our uncle had used it.

We didn’t have synchronised bowels. It was just that the loo was the safest sanctuary for all of us to catch a few puffs on the Putthuseth beedis we had pilfered from uncle’s packets.

The telltale reek of beedi, we knew, would be blamed on uncle, in case an elder had to use it after we had.

Once in, we were faced with the second problem. How do you light a match without the entire house hearing it? Simple, empty the bucket and run water at full throttle into it and strike the match at the same time.

We were all inventive, without an exception; our inventiveness born out of a necessity to do the forbidden.

I was the youngest of the lot. So I had to be extra discreet. For, I had to hide my peccadilloes even from the other five, two of who were my elder brothers.

I would cycle miles; walk the loneliest roads back from school; suffer frowns and, often, a chiding from avuncular shopkeepers just to get my fix.

When I had no other option, I would pull out my ace: threaten to rat on my brothers if I wasn’t allowed a drag. They would grudgingly oblige, with a warning that it was the last time. It never was.

Outside the gate of our house, was Gopanna’s shop. He was our friend, philosopher, guide, and co-conspirator, plying us with beedis, Mintis and unsolicited advice. A shelf divided his shop front with a storeroom at the back. It was in that dank, dark corner in the back of his shop that our smoking really flourished.

In college, where smoking was prohibited, our problems were of a different kind. We didn’t carry match boxes on us. Unlike, cigarettes and beedis, they were too conspicuous, noisy, and were likely to be forgotten in shirt or trouser pockets. Initially, we solved the problem by leaving a match box on the window sill of the college WC. Till, one day, they mysteriously started disappearing.

To solve that problem, we hit upon an ingenious idea. Instead of leaving them on the sill, we would toss the contents of the match box upwards to the ceiling. And there, the sticks would hang, tenuously, from the uncleared cobwebs. Now all we had to do was master the art of lighting match sticks without a box, using just the floor for friction.

Needless to say, we were in business within three days.

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