A slightly edited version of this write-up has appeared in Apr-Jun 2009 issue of Success & Ability.
One dreadful thought that I had as a teenager was that I can never be a writer because my left hand was dysfunctional. And, it wasn’t that that I couldn’t use my right hand to write, it was just the hypothetical image of a successful writer that I had in my mind; a bearded fellow at his table, half a dozen of reference books, dictionaries/thesaurus etc. scattered around. A fountain pen in his right hand with a sparkling golden nib going about making a fuzzy sound as it scratches an A4 size paper. His left wrist working as a paperweight holding down the paper he is writing on; a luminous glow emanating from between his fingers with addictively fragrant smoke.
So, somehow I got this impression that smoking cigarette was vital if I wanted to be a good writer (can’t pinpoint today how that idea got into my head). I always cursed my crooked left hand (with the wrist protruding outward, elbow folded at an odd angle and the fingers remaining in a perpetual fist) whenever I failed to write something as well as I wished or read something really good and felt it was beyond my capability to write like that.
Those days smoking wasn’t a social taboo or even a criminal offence as it is now. We could see people freely enjoying it, whether it was an elderly uncle at home, or the rickshaw puller puffing away his twenty five paise worth of Beedi or Mammootty or Amitabh Bachchan lighting up an imported brand of brown cigarette on the silver screen.
The craving for the nicotine induced smoke virtually made me a sniffer dog. I would be always looking out for smokers in the vicinity and tried to drag in as much stuff as possible of what they exhaled.
The harmful side effects of the cancer sticks started sinking in when Doordarshan became the most vital part of my idle life. It had a couple of anti-smoking Public Service commercials. One was a simple message showing cigarette bending downwards from the centre signifying impotence. Other one was more impactful, which ended with Gary Lawyer carbon monoxide affected baritone singing with a cigarette in my hand, I was a dead man. More material started appearing in the print media about the ill effects of cigarettes; from simple bronchitis, coughing, impotence to deadly cancer. All this information curbed my wish to be a smoker.
It was really scary to imagine myself coughing incessantly, while making serious effort to write. I’d the problem of breathlessness as a child; it came with an itchy feeling in the chest and phlegm induced gruff sound. It made me invalid and miserable for a few days. Memory of those days returned whenever I came out of the movie theatre with hundreds of live chimneys (working non-stop for nearly three hours) around. I would have the same feeling in the chest as I’d have during the breathless phases as a child. So, it acted as a deterrent subconsciously. But, still.
A more frightening nightmare was; what will happen to my intellectual image if I became hairless as a side effect of chemotherapy? My craftily unkempt beard, bushy eyebrows and thick sideburns that could hide my large ears; what’d happen to them? I’d be reduced to being as smooth as a mannequin. And, above all, thoughts of those tubes and needles pierced into every penetrable part of the body; as they show terminally ill patients in the movies.
But, it didn’t root out the craving fully. I got a few opportunities take a puff or two here and there in my mid twenties, when I made a couple of friends who were courageous enough to take me out alone (without the protective shield of the family). But, they were reluctant about me trying a cigarette; their logic; you can’t even swallow a morsel of fried rice without coughing for half an hour, what will happen if you drag too much smoke? There was lot of advising before the tobacco roll was put between my lips; make your lips dry, this thing is expensive, don’t drag too much, be careful that smoke doesn’t reach your throat, be absolutely calm etc.
On the other hand, my writing aspiration starting chugging ahead, couple of my write-ups appeared in the newsletter of the Spastic Society of Eastern India. And, a few letters were accepted by newspapers and magazines. Those things gave me momentary joy. After the initial excitement of seeing my name in print, depression wrapped around me; a feeling of disappointment came over with a thought that if I could do it; it must be very easy. The wish to smoke took a back seat. But, it did not vanish fully. Meanwhile, opportunities in writing became better by the day; from amateur to professional.
Once I read an article by the late actress Priya Tendulkar where she wrote that her father playwright Vijay Tendulkar had this peculiar habit of keeping a packet of peanuts and chickpeas on his table while writing and putting a handful into his mouth in between. After that I insisted to Ma to put a bowl of peanuts on my table every evening. But, that too flopped because of my left hand; I had to stop writing/typing whenever I felt like eating from that bowl.
Then one day I heard Saint Sunil Gavaskar while doing commentary talking about peculiar habits of some of the players when they came out to bat; his fellow commentator asked whether he (SMG) chewed gum or took a stroll in between balls. Gavaskar curtly replied; “I did neither, I’d rather focus on the next ball instead of chewing gum or taking a stroll”. From that day onwards I have even stopped playing music when I’m working.
Has anyone coined a phrase like ‘deformity is bliss’? After going through the process of writing this, I feel it is.