My Encounters with Forbidden fare: The Conclusion. By Amrita Valan

Updated: Feb 20

Guest writer for "The NZDream" blog

By Christmas, my bestie, Toots, and I were determined to smoke cigarettes before others in our peer group. We were ambitious and had a sense of direction, not utterly clueless, we liked to think. The young heart longs to add a varied repertoire of experience. This would be another feather in our daredevil cap.. We planned it well on one silent holy night in December. Quite close to Christmas. Toots would sneak out a couple of packs of her dad’s 555! Nothing but the best for us yuppies! I would procure and bring the matches or lighter. We would meet at midnight, on the steps of the kindergarten school, run by the colony ladies for the toddlers on campus. That was the plan. What happened was I could neither find matches nor dad’s lighter in the dark. I came anyway, bizarrely enough, armed with the electronic kitchen gas lighter. Which was admittedly a strange thing to do. Need I say it didn’t help us light up? Toots and I sat shivering on the steps as the security guard doing the rounds slowed down with a curious sideway gaze. He knew that I was the daughter of the Chief Human Resources manager, responsible for his employment, and Toots was the only scion of the Senior Production manager. Nevertheless, much to his credit, he slowed down and pointedly eyed the gleaming steel gas lighter. The cigarettes were wisely kept hidden inside Toot’s coat frock pocket. After he returned, suspiciously enough, rather too quickly from his next round, we lost our nerve and scooted to my friend’s home, acutely sensing his feet plodding along behind us. Toots was outraged at her loss of opportunity for dignity or glory. No guts, no glory, right? She growled an unpleasantry at me for lugging along a gas lighter! "I don't know where ma keeps the matches, ," I mumbled. She smuggled matches from somewhere in her house and back we ran back to the school steps. Our breath was shallow and excited. We dreamt of blowing perfect smoke rings and hearts into the cold December mist. The guard was now busy in some other section of the compound, and we lit up our cigarettes hurriedly with shaky hands. In the misty halogen-lit front steps of the school, we made desperate attempts to pretend we enjoyed the taste. Mimicking the uncles, we blew smoke out of our nostrils and took deep puffs, immediately coughing in distress. But Cool had been achieved, at all costs! Before the guard could return, we smoked a few more puffs, stubbed huge, long unused butts, saying we would save them for later. What we were acutely afraid of was, of course, the reappearing guard, much like the Cheshire cat or the ghost of Banquo. Throughout that winter break, however, neither one of us reopened the topic of the unused butts. But, if you think that was the only time we got high, think again, my friends. “My Experiments with Truth.” To quote the Mahatma,, was not yet done. We had more tricks up our sleeves, or Uh...hat! Ma-Hat-Ma, get it? Ensconced in an all-girls' college for my B.A. honors degree, I mostly behaved. Mostly. But let loose into the freewheeling university campus for my post-graduate Master's degree, bumping daily into Bohemian friends with smoke curling out of their nostrils and hazy bloodshot eyes. Once again, inspiration struck! Alas! Sitting on the lobby steps of-the-art building with another BFF, (she had passed out from the same school with me, so an old-new bestie), an uber-cool pretty young thing who maintained a quiet reserve, but had a twinkle in her brown eyes I was betting by, we discussed the haughty group of chain-smoking students next to us. One of them, a diminutive drop-dead beauty with ebony kiss curls, passed us her ciggie casually, “Take a drag?” We politely declined, and a boy leaned over to ask us, “Don’t you smoke?” We said we didn’t. “They don’t smoke,” he said incredulously to his group of admiring girls, all very boho chic and bored in appearance. In a trice, we were ignored and totally ceased to exist for the remainder of the break. The only attention we got was from the lean and hungry university stray dog with whom we shared my sandwich. Something, of course, had to be done. “Tanvi my friend, our cool quotient is being questioned by these snooty Presidency chicks!”, I introduced the topic on the way back home, with her in tow. As she was a weekly boarder, I often invited her for a Friday night sleepover at my place from where she went home for the weekend. “We need to show them we can smoke too, Amrita; we just prefer not to!”, Tanvi spiritedly replied. I had hooked my fish with bait, and now I tugged on the line! Hard! “Oh, easy enough to talk, but I bet you can’t walk up to that shop and purchase a pack of Wills.’ I retorted scornfully. Tanvi’s pretty face blushed with indignation as she marched her petite frame off to the shop surrounded by men and cooed, “A packet of Wills please!”. Crisp and authoritative, albeit musical, the shopkeeper rushed to obey the pretty almond-eyed girl, while the men sniggered, and I gazed at my newfound heroine. Felt like slow clapping as she sashayed back, but thankfully refrained. I am a closet addict of addiction if you like. I just lacked the basic guts to walk my talk publicly, especially around boorish, chauvinistic men. But my tiny friend, henceforth christened “Prawn in Devil Sauce” by me, had what it took. That night, we got high, really high. Smoked countless cigarettes apiece. Lost count. Shared life stories, love interests. Tried unsuccessfully to blow smoke rings, and yes, actually developed a taste for the odious fire stick. And I finally came clean. How after Toots and I had parted that winter of class ten, only semi-successful, I had always harbored a sense of shame. Of a goal partially met. Therefore, unable to cross off the bucket list. So, the following summer, I had managed to sneak away an entire pack of my daddy’s 555. It was do or die. On that occasion, in class 11, I had single-handedly, determinedly, smoked thirteen expensive foreign cigarettes in my bathroom, while Toots gazed at me much in the way I now regarded Tanvi. She had finished off three during our sleepover at my home, but was unprepared for my solo cigarette marathon. “Stop Amrita!” she exclaimed. But I wouldn’t, desperate to actually like this grown-up habit. But, after the thirteenth, even I gave up, and showered and washed my hair in the wee hours to avoid detection by mom’s radar. Toots and I solemnly agreed never to touch cigarettes again or mention the story to anyone. Till Tanvi came along and re-baptized me. It was a second, or perhaps a third coming. And the last. Afterward, we did talk about it though, profusely, and loudly on the university stoop, of what fun it had been to puff away our sleepover night! We even managed to get invites for a few drags from our amused peers. But it really was the last coming. After university, I kind of lost the taste for cigarettes all over again. It had been an acquired taste, a classic case of indirect peer pressure. Now I gorge on chocolate bourbon biscuits and cheese. © Amrita Valan 2021

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