By Harsh Snehanshu
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. His toe taps and crushes each of those nine pale fag ends that lay strewn on his balcony’s floor. He has exceeded his self-imposed quota, of four cigarettes a day, by five tonight. The packet has just one left, what could have been six if he had the discipline. He shoves the pack inside his pocket and stands still, scrutinising the thinning traffic of the night—his favourite pastime whenever he smokes in the balcony, but not tonight.
A surge of guilt grips him as he stares with a hazy gaze at the whizzing cars that ply unconcerned. What would she say if she finds out that he still smokes, that the promise he had made to her has never been kept? For every day he didn’t smoke—or at least pretended that he hadn’t—she would make his night on the phone. Despite the distance of an odd six hundred kilometers between them, her voice knew magic. He glances at the bright screen, at the message that brought him out to the balcony, the message that says, “So, monsieur, what’s the count for the day? Did my lover boy desire me or the cigarette more?” He wants to tell her the truth, type, “Nine. I don’t deserve your love. I am sorry”, but he sends, “Zero. Waiting for our night to begin.” instead.
His eyes drift away from the phone, towards the moon that’s gleaming at him. It is brighter. It resembles a fresh cigarette bud kept safely in the sky to tempt him. His lonely fingers start to itch, troubled by an uncomfortable urge. How nice is it to hold that soft bud, clutched with blithe unconcern between the index and the middle fingers, watching its velvety white turn yellow and then brown with every passing puff? If not for the guilt, he would have lit the one that remains.
He gapes at the wrinkled stubs lying dead around his bare feet. A tussle of thoughts and now, his fingers inches for one and seizes the tiniest of them all. A smile surfaces, a paltry smokeless smile. He brings the stub closer to his face, and sniffs. It reeks of an indulgent day. It is now close to his lips. Shall he? Sucking a dead cigarette isn’t smoking, is it? The sepia bud, an inch away from his lips, allures but something within him snaps.
Slowly, he scissors the bud open with his thumbnail and extracts the layers of the cotton-like shreds—cellulose acetate; he’d read it in Wikipedia—it is composed of. What once was white is now tainted in dark brown. Would his lungs be like this? Layers and layers of brown tissues, sticky with tar, peeling off from within him. The imagery disgusts him and he flings the bud on the road, even though there is a dustbin right next to him and he likes to refer to himself as a responsible citizen in front of his fellow IAS aspirants, especially female ones.
The traffic has become sparse. One car every minute. Still, a passing Contessa manages to trample the tossed fag end and it now seems one with the asphalt. What a quick demise! Would his end be like that—a Contessa squashing him like a gum, retching gazillion litres of tar from within him on the road? One with the asphalt, ha. That’s far. Could be nearer if he continues with this streak of nine cigarettes a day.
Where is the tenth one? He digs his pocket and pulls out a packet that contains the one, the last one of the lot. It is saved for the dawn of tomorrow, his most cherished time of the day, when she’s asleep and he’s with himself, when the night has been made and the next day that usually starts after sleep hasn’t started. He calls it No Woman’s Land, the place and time when no woman who minds him smoking is awake, and technically he doesn’t have to suffer the guilt of lying as he smokes and sips elaichi chai at his favourite nearby shop. After all, can one ever feel bad about something when one’s asleep? No, right? She had asked him to not smoke when sad. “Smoke when you’re happy. It’s easier to stick to your conscience when happy.” He is the happiest in that hour.
His cellphone rings. “I have been thinking about you the entire evening.” The voice on the other end is as soft as cotton.
“Liar,” he says. The word rings within him. He unconsciously sweeps the balcony floor off its dead fag ends with his right foot. As though she could see through the phone. “Weren’t you with your parents in the evening?” He hides the buds in the darkest corner of the balcony. His remorse, like the malignant tar lining his lungs, itches and makes him cough.
“Yes, my father played ghazals by Iqbal Bano on the stereo,” she says, “and I couldn’t help but imagine us rubbing bodies with her voice singing in the background.”
“Thank you! I am standing in the balcony with this huge bulge inside my pyjamas now.”
“Ha! Tell me something. What colours are the pyjamas concealing?”
“I like where this conversation is heading. You’re fast. To be fair to your question, I can’t actually recall. I might have to check what’s inside.”
“Are you waiting for the neighbour to come and find out for me?”
“I don’t mind. There is actually a girl in the neighbouring balcony, sipping tea looking at the moon.”
“Shoot for the stars, then. You might land on the moon with her. I think I will go put my bra back on.”
“What? Were you bare? Why didn’t you tell me? And I was kidding!”
“Sorry, do I know you?” She disconnects the call.
He undresses in the dark of the night. His night. He calls her, and begins, “It’s black.”
Fifteen heavenly minutes pass. The pyjamas are littered on the floor. The vest, on the other side of the bed. His chest is wet with sweat. The front page of the newspaper, where the prime minister is shaking hands with the chief of China, is swollen at the precise spot where the handshake is. As he gathers his breath, the blotch on the newspaper spreads, now eclipsing the torsos of the luminaries. It’s too dark to see. He grabs the two diagonally opposite ends of the newspaper, folds and constrains his matter there to be absorbed, thinking of how for the past fifteen minutes, his remorse had vanished.
But slowly, with the return of the natural pace of his breath, the regret comes back and settles in. It has become stronger. He is forced to consider messaging her a sorry, but he remembers her ecstatic parting cry. She’s too happy, better not disturb. He walks plaintively to the loo, splashes water on his flaccid organ, looks at his grey lips in the dark. His eyes have adapted to the night lit by a purple sky. He thinks of the upcoming dawn, which smells like fresh cardamom to him, the sliver of which could be visible anytime soon near the horizon.
3:35 am. He is drowsy, but chooses to stay up. If he were to sleep, he would wake up to the pressure of sticking to his cigarette quota. Just an hour to go, and he can hold his prized cigarette in his hand glibly and smoke with his favourite company, his misty shadow and elaichi chai.
His body is tired, especially after the nightly ritual performed over the phone, and for a minute, he even considers procrastination. But he doesn’t succumb. In fact, he hates the word tomorrow. It scares him. Just look at it once. Tomorrow. With the vowel o repeating itself thrice, it reminds him of a large truck with its wheels embedded, moving so fast that he cannot catch up, even though he is running just behind, inches away, desperately wanting to get on board. Tomorrow, the one that comes after a night’s sleep, reminds him of the promise that’s difficult to keep. He’d much rather greet the dawn with a cup of elaichi chai—made by a friendly shopkeeper who has developed great fondness for him—gulped alternately with the cigarette.
It’s fifteen minutes before sunrise. It’s the time of the day. But he wouldn’t smoke just like that. The special hour commands special preparation. He ties the thread of his pyjama, puts on his brown t-shirt with short sleeves that show his shriveled biceps, and slips his feet into his flattened floaters. He thinks of combing his hair, but laughs at the thought. At this time of the day, the only people he’d encounter would be fellow IAS aspirants with dishevelled hair, hassled by books or excessive masturbation made possible by cheap porn novels available at the roadside bookstalls.
He locks his door and walks like a free man through the intricate alleys of Jia Sarai to reach the chai shop at the end of the lane, five minutes before it opens. He likes to calls it his five minutes of solace, where he experiences peace and solitude with just his shadow for company. Once he reaches there, he stares at the tall shadow that lurks on the adjacent wall, and unknowingly takes out the remaining one Gold Flake strong from his right-breast pocket.
The shutter of the chai shop remains closed, but his loyalty as a customer has fetched him a special favour from the shopkeeper. He probes his hand above the shutter, pulls out a crushed matchbox hidden up there by the shopkeeper the night before for him. He lazily lights his prized cigarette, puffs and lets it stay there inside his swollen chest until it starts circling his head as if he were on a Ferris wheel.
Rings of ecstasy crawl out of his curled lips, clambering towards the bulb that’s hung on the pole. They race among themselves to reach there first, only to dissolve with the slow passage of time. He looks at his faint sunlit shadow, smiles and says, “You know why I wait for all this while to smoke with you? That is because at this hour you don’t smoke, no matter how many times I bring this cigarette close to your lips.”
He brings the half-burnt cigarette to his mouth, takes in another drag and peers at his hazy shadow that seems to hold the cigarette on its lips. But there is no trace whatsoever of smoke. When he drags in a smoke, the shadow doesn’t follow him. When he exhales, once again the shadow doesn’t imitate him. It makes him incredibly happy. So happy that he could smoke. “See, how disciplined you are! Thank you, for you give me a better opinion of myself. I don’t feel like a liar when I tell her that I don’t smoke. After all, one’s shadow shows the dark side of a person, doesn’t it? You never show me mine, that’s why I like smoking with you. I detest smoking with that man in the mirror.”
The last puff goes in. He closes his eyes and allows the smoke to knead his body and massage his mind, tired from the strenuous hours of continuous study and intimate rewards. Just when he exhales, the shutter opens up from inside; the shopkeeper greets him with a silent smile, puts on the stove and pours down half a litre of milk into the bowl. The smell of chai wafts out the moment tealeaves dash into the boiling milk and turns it brown from white. He urges the shopkeeper to add elaichi into it and waits, while the milk gurgles and turns dark brown. Just like the filter of his cigarette.
A minute passes. He grabs the rim of the hot plastic cup and slurps the chai with his eyes closed, breathing in the aroma of the elaichi. The shopkeeper is asked to add this chai’s bill to his account, while he takes a jolly walk back to his tiny room with a balcony. Bliss drowns all specks of guilt that existed. A new day. A new start. A new packet. A new quota.
His shadow staggers behind him, following him doggedly like a lunatic, bumping here and there—against the walls, onto the garbage can, into the puddle, against the slender electric poles, even crawling through the malodorous drain. He doesn’t pay heed to it. Why should he? Now that he’s not smoking, he prances with great gusto. However, his shadow that embodies his dark side seems to be intoxicated—with smoke, which it always takes in within its black lungs, but forgets to breathe out every single time.