A Day with a General

By Ex-Sgt Mandetira N. Subramani

Sitting across on the other side of the table facing a General is good enough to give one the jitters. And, when this gentleman peers at you over his gold-rimmed tinted spectacles with a ‘Judgement-day’ look on his somber face, it doesn’t make things any better. But the worst part is when he proclaims judgment over you. “Take care of your health kid”, is all what he said. That’s a very common enough statement we make every day in our lives. Like saying “Bhai, take care” or “Take care of yourself, okay?” etc. But this simple sentence coming from this gentleman made my stomach churn.

The General carried on with his work. We were discussing issues connected with the problems of Ex-Servicemen and things like that. Though I was physically and mentally present and taking active part in the conversation, a small part of my brain was trying to figure out what this mustachioed General was up to. Small gear-like wheels began rotating in that mass of grey matter I call my brain. More like a clock going ‘tick-tock tick-tock’, looking for an answer.

The episode narrated above happened a few years ago when I was summoned to the General’s house at Mysore for a meeting at sharp quarter-past-four in the evening. I had some work in the office and so had to skip lunch to make it to the General’s house on time. You know these Defence guys and what a stickler they are for punctuality. But, how, could he know that I’d not had lunch? If that was the reason for his ‘take care’ thing. Was it written on my face? No. That couldn’t be it! My stomach wasn’t grumbling all that loud enough for anybody to hear, either. Skipping lunch wasn’t something new to me. Ever since I started this social work thing, I’ve had to skip lunch on a number of occasions. Then what could it be?

The General must have felt I was slightly pre-occupied with something, for he gave me a glance that seemed to say, “What’s bothering you kid”? I tried to explain by saying that I had not had any lunch. “Lunch?” “What lunch?” he queried. “Nobody’s ever kicked the bucket by skipping a meal or two, I’m sure. In fact skipping a meal once in a way is good for the constitution. It gives the over-worked tummy a break” and words to that effect. “I was talking about your smoking habit, chum. How about giving it up, eh? Better give it up, pal, if you know what’s good for you”, he added. Now, how on earth did he know that I was a puffing chimney? I had fooled others into believing that I was a non-smoker. How come he found out? Maybe he too was a smoker once upon a time.

It all began quite long ago, somewhere in the golden seventies. Golden for me ‘cos I was in my youth then. And smoking was considered the in thing to do those days. There were hoardings, ads in the newspapers, magazines, theatres and almost everywhere portraying the macho male with a cigarette in his hand. It gave the message that one wasn’t man enough if one didn’t smoke. A drag on a fag and letting out thin streams of smoke through the nostrils gave such a great pleasure, which I can never forget. Heroes in the movies always had one sticking out of their mouths all the time. Shotgun Shatru, as Shatrughan Sinha was called, was one of my childhood heroes. He could blow smoke rings, which touched the ceiling and became garlands. Wah! What an art by an artiste!

There were times when I ran short of that vital drag, once in a while, when I was in the Armed Forces. But then what are friends for! A Friend in need is a friend indeed, goes the adage. One such friend of mine did not share my viewpoint, though. He used to hide his fags whenever I went to him for anything. What a miser he was! One day I was dying for a puff and was short of the stuff. The ever reliable ashtray gave me “hath” too. In dire times of need my old buddy the ashtray had always came to my rescue producing a good-sized butt or two, but not on that day. There were only filter tips glaring at me as though challenging me to dare.

It was a bit late in the night and all the shops were closed. During the year 1978 Ambala, in Haryana, did not have any nightlife. The only alternative was to bum my friend. That wise guy, who was senior to me, and a Corporal to boot, must have sensed my intentions for with a heart-breaking sigh he said, “Sorry Pal!” and threw a presumably empty pack out of the window. I smelt something fishy, for this guy was never out of cigarettes, and his body language said something else altogether.

I told him that it was perfectly all right if he didn’t have any. With my radar on, I went outside to hunt for the supposedly empty pack he had thrown. And I was right! My sixth sense had not failed me. There were two fags left in the pack that he had thrown. Now it was his turn to come chasing after me for at least one of those fags. Well, all said and done, those were the real golden days. Reminiscing with nostalgic hiccups is what I do these days.

Nowadays, things have changed. Smoking is taboo. We discourage our children from even starting this habit so that they don’t have to kick it later. There are no ads portraying macho heroes with a fag in one hand and a dame on the other. There may be surrogate ads with the same brand name advertising trekking gear, etc. But an outright ad illustrating the good points of smoking is just not to be seen anywhere these days.

On the contrary one finds “NO SMOKING” signboards all over the place, especially in government and private offices, which is a very good thing, if you ask me. I’d been secretly trying to get rid of this habit myself for quite sometime now. And like Winston Churchill once said, “Its very easy to give up smoking. I’ve given it up a number of times”.

Today, I went to see one of my cousins in his office to seek a favour for one of my ex-servicemen brethren. Though, he has acceded to all my requests till date, I am still scared of going anywhere near him because of his elderly advices on my vices. However, I never hesitate to go in front of him when it comes to asking for favours, either for me or for my ex-servicemen brethren.

Strangely, today, the moment I entered his office, he gave me a cold stare, as though I had committed a great crime and had barged into his chamber for protection, even though I had obtained a prior appointment from his secretary for this meeting. What he smelt I could never visualize.

This cool and humorous cousin of mine, today mercilessly ordered one of his tough looking security guards to frisk me and the guard obediently robbed me of all my cigarettes and the lighter, too, which ultimately found a convenient resting place in my cousin’s wastepaper basket. He gave me one more stare and said seriously ‘Kick your smoking habit right now, and come back after a month!’ I was literally taken aback because this order of his was tougher than the General’s, which I had received a few years ago. I had no escape route this time except for saying ‘yes’ most respectfully and got out of his office in a big hurry as if I had stepped on a deadly poisonous snake. I had forgotten the very purpose of going to his office, which I’d been planning for months together.

The moment I came out of his office realizing my mistake of saying ‘yes’, I sprinted to the nearest cigarette shop and bought one cigarette, which I smoked till its filter got burnt. A strange feeling was bothering me. There would be no another day or another cigarette for me. I have willingly decided to kick the habit from tomorrow i.e. 10th October 2009. Is it a resolution or an excuse to smoke for one more day? I just cannot figure out! But that’s it. I either kick the butt or get kicked in the butt by all and sundry. Enough is enough; I’m going to call it a day as far as smoking is concerned.

So guys October 10, 2009 is going to be the red-letter day for me. No more huffing and puffing like a steam engine of yore. I’ve decided to join a gym and workout to bring my ageing body back in shape. I have a lot of life still left in me and intend to live a healthy life hereafter. I’ve begun wondering what people really got out of smoking. Just plain nothing, I should say! Take in smoke and let it out, that’s all there is to it. So, now that I have given it up I sure hope all you smoking chimneys out there would also give it up. This advice comes with no strings attached from a guy who knows and cares for his brethren.

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