Friday, February 17, 2012

Leaves, wrapped in leaves

My grandfather had a very nice garden, tucked away at the back of his house.

I have very fond memories of sitting on his lap and watching the birds and squirrels he would beckon, with peanuts and grains of rice. And then, he would tell me stories of gods and demons, and somehow, the squirrels and the birds would always find their way into the stories. We would sit on a small khatiya, that had coir rope woven into a standard desi pattern of diamonds and triangles. And I remember jumping up and down on the khatiya, when grandpa was not around, since desi khatiyas can always double as trampolines for kids.

I never saw grandpa smoke or drink. In fact, he led a very disciplined life, and lived to be ninety. However, grandpa had one small "vice". Every morning, he would get up at daybreak, and smoke a bidi, before he went to the toilet. And then, even after he had bathed and readied himself for the day, he would smell of it. For quite some time. I remember the faint smell of bidi coming off of grandpa, when I would sit on his lap for story time.

Many years later, in my engineering school, I learned to smoke. I am sure grandpa would not have approved. But then, I learned that as engineers, many times in our lives, we would be expected to pull all-nighters. There would be motors that broke down and turbine blades that needed cajoling, there would be engines that needed their midnight oil and power lines that would snap in two. And so, we were told that we should know how to stay awake at night, so others, who relied on our work, would get to sleep.

We were told that the best way for an engineer to pull an all-nighter, was to smoke cigarettes and drink chai. And with boatloads of assignments our professors would hand out to us, we did pull our all-nighters, and we did smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of chai.

But then, there would be times, specially, at the end of the month, when we would be completely broke. So much so, that we couldn't even buy the cheapest cigarette money could buy.

And then, we discovered bidis.

For the price of an average cigarette, we could buy ten of those. Sure, they stank, and the stink lingered on for hours, but it was a consolation to know that there were tobacco leaves wrapped inside the tendu leaves, that make up the bidi. And, that we could still pull an all-nighter, on a low budget.

I always hated smoking bidis. For some reason, they made me feel broke. Very broke. And, if you are not used to smoking them, you have to re-light them frequently, they don't burn with the same ease that cigarettes do. I had promised myself that once I had a paycheck, I would never ever smoke a bidi again.

Recently, my office had a few renovations done, and the contractor got a gang of workers to come inside and take a few things apart. Most of the workers were from remote villages, and some of them were members of the same family. An old man, who looked like he could barely walk, stood out from the rest. For his age, he was a hard worker, and I saw him putting in longer hours than anyone else. However, I would see him taking frequent breaks to go to a courtyard area, outside the building. Shortly afterwards, I realized that he would go there to pull a bidi out of a small bundle from his pocket, and enjoy a smoke. 

On one particular day, I went to the courtyard to smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, I heard someone clear his throat. Then, I saw that the old man was sitting there, and smiling at me. The smile, that only a fellow smoker can recognize -- the smile, that tells you, "I'm out, can I borrow one from you?".

Bidis and cigarettes are like apples and oranges, usually, if you like one, you don't like the other. But, in times of need, one learns to ignore the difference. I handed him a cigarette, and he took out a match and lit ours up. Since we did not have much to talk about, we smoked in silence.

A few days later, I was feeling a strong urge to smoke and it was only after I went to the courtyard area that I realized that my packet of cigarettes was empty. I pulled out my wallet and found that I did not have enough money in it to buy a pack, and I would have to trek to an ATM to withdraw some cash. For some strange reason, the memories of college came back -- I was "broke".

Suddenly, I heard someone clear his throat. The old man was standing there, holding out his bundle of bidis, with a smile on his face. I smiled back, pulled out my matchbox and lit both our bidis.

We smoked away in silence. It was the best bidi that I ever had.

1 comment:

  1. after scotch and god, back to beedis? once a desi, always a desi. :-))