Ninety Four

Today, we stole cigarettes from our teacher.

We were standing in the corridor, discussing lunch plans. Futility, since we both knew it would be the staple cup noodles. Our Eco teacher came along, and the staple nerds rushed to sing half-assed “Good Afternoon Sir”s. Degenerates will do anything for extra marks.

Somebody bumped into EcoMan, and a pack of gold dropped to the ground.

No one else seemed to have noticed. So, V casually swooped in and pocketed it.
The bastard’s glasses didn’t even slip down his nose.

Somehow, I knew I was going to be involved in this escapade.

I think the biggest reason why V and I hadn’t smoked before was, well, we didn’t know how to ask the cigarette shop aunty. Sure, we knew all the names. Sticks in the gold pack were called Kings. The ones in the white were Milds. And there were the Ultra Milds and other nasty smelling shit called Garams and pansy Menthol and Cinnamon. Names weren’t the problem. We didn’t have the right swagger. Aunty’d know instantly that we were rookies.

I don’t know why, in the Big Bad World, there is no place for rookies. The first time V and I went to a pub, V had laughably asked for two mugs of beer. The bar guy had smiled a little too widely. As precaution, I hadn’t shaved for two weeks, hoping to look 18. I was praying the bar guy wouldn’t ask for our IDs. He didn’t. I think my plan had worked.

We were definitely better informed than last time around. All hail RatTail.

Our idol senior, RatTail (who managed to evade authority and successfully flourish a rat tail) smokes the crudest things called Smalls and Navy Cuts. If he manages to see us skulking in the corridors, he usually summons us and we go up to the watertank of the lab buildings where water’s ever-logged. We sit behind the tank, and RatTail strikes a match.

I don’t know about V, but whenever RatTail blows out plumes of blue smoke, I secretly steal lungfuls passively. I’m always fascinated with how he sits on his haunches, cigarette protected by his hand against visibility – except for the ratting lazy wraith. Bugger takes his time. The pull with the crisp crinkle of paper and leaves burning. The greedy sssss inhalation. And a content plosive exhalation – smoke hurriedly tumbling out of his mouth and nostrils, faster than commuters at a Mumbai station.

After the ritual’s over, RatTail fizzles it out in the nearest stagnant green pool, pulls out his deodorant and liberally spritzes himself and us, and with finality, flicks the telltale butt into far off oblivion. I always make a mental note to never play carom against this guy.

V and I decided to establish our own venue of ritual – who knows, after today, he and I would probably be seasoned smokers. We decided to test the terrace of his apartment complex. The last few periods (snigger) of the day, we killed discussing how hot girls look when they wear sling bags across their shoulders and their torsos make percentage signs. If only practical Maths was half as engrossing.

We went over to V’s. He sneaked out a pet jar of coke, his so far unlucky Axe deodorant, and without a trace of irony, matches from the Puja room (Nobody in his house smokes – at least openly. I once saw his dad smoke at a nearby tea-stall. And I don’t have the heart to tell him). And we set off for the terrace, about six floors away.

His terrace has a miscellaneous room, and with a little acrobatics, one can sit above it, hidden among many solar system units. It’s vertigo-inducing enough to keep the pesky young ones, and the judgemental oldies out. The middle of the spectrum, we realized judging by the number of cigarette butts there already, were moral thieves just like us.

We sat on our haunches, just like Rat Tail would. V stuck a cigarette in his mouth (there were seven in all) and proceeded to almost burn his eyebrows. He blackened a side of the cigarette significantly before successfully getting an amber end going. He made the same hissing sound, and coughed promptly after. His eyes were rheumy. Now, my turn.

The first thing that struck me about holding a cigarette – was how I didn’t know how to hold it. Do I push it to the axis between my fingers? Do I pinch the butt with my thumb and index finger? Do I sandwich it between first joints, or the second joints of my fore and second fingers? Of course, I registered how the cigarette was quivering. I think I licked my lips. I inhaled at an odd timing and filled my mouth up with smoke. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was counter intuitive to swallow it, so I blew it out. Nothing happened. My tongue felt coated. V said I was doing it wrong, that I didn’t make that ssss sound. So I tried again. Pull. Ssss. Cough. Out. Awesome. I’d just smoked.

Actually, not so awesome. It tastes like shit.

This must’ve been the second reason why I’d never smoked. In my limited experience of life, I have come to realize that the first time you do these much-hyped things, you are always let down. My first shave burned. My first love letter burned too, but in a slightly different way. My first beer tasted like fermented piss. My first kiss was insipid. My first blue movie was horrifying. My first arthouse film  (Citizen Kane, sue me) was an all round what-the-fuck.

Growing up is expectations ripening into disappointments.

Yet, I think the unexpected firsts are the things that rank as awesome. Like the first strand of a girl’s hair I found stuck on my jacket. The first morning I saw after staying up all night to finish a book, again, for the first time. The first high of cracking an algorithm for a self-imagined project.  The first time I discovered that bras, for some reason, have a sweet little bow right at the center.

V and I decided we’re not really the smoking type. We sprayed on the unlucky Axe and drank up the coke in silence. V left the now-5 pack there for someone else to discover.

We went down to his house a little guiltily. I noticed how odd V’s body language was, evading directly speaking to his mother, paranoid about the smell. We both held our breaths when she sharply inhaled and sniffed the air. She mysteriously said, “Have a bath no? Why waste scent?”

V came to the bus stop with me. And for some reason, got on the bus too. He said he just felt like the ride and took the window seat. We sat, lost in thought. I, for the first time, noticed the bumps in my co-passengers’ pockets, and discerned each of their consumption capacities. The squarish tens of Milds. The fat of twenties. The slim and stunted Navy Cuts. The slim and slightly taller Kings – or maybe, 3+ cigarettes of other names in a makeshift home before being incinerated.

My stop was here. I got off, V followed suit. We dodged a few autos. V insulted the mother of a brazen cyclist. And we burst out laughing. Both in amusement, and the relief of an unexpected happy ending.

And then he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you knew my dad smoked?”