By Aaliya Wani
This is the first in our new series, Undercover, on things women do that they wish didn’t need to be kept secret.
Things that are easily available or part of your everyday routine are rarely appreciated. It’s only when they become rare that they tend to get more attractive. An apple in Kashmir, taking a stroll around Dal Lake and all the little freedoms that we enjoy on any given day remain underrated. In my case, it was puffing a cigarette in Kashmir that was a rare little freedom, and therein came the attraction.
I was a smoker even before I realised what smoking meant. My father, a chainsmoker, made me one, though passively. And when I was old enough to think for myself, my brother led me to consider smoking. The constant cigarette in his hand was one of the first things that made me register gender privilege. Although smoking is not exactly a privilege, the idea of making it permissible to one gender certainly does make it look like one.
At 17, my brother began smoking and initially, it sent the family into a panic. But soon, it was accepted as a part of his growing up and developing masculinity. It was an open secret and he was expected to quit with time. He never did and he was never compelled to.
During my second year exams at university, when sociology suddenly started feeling like rocket science, I decided to take a break from studying. One of the things I wanted to do was smoke. One day, I took a cigarette from my father’s packet. In the middle of the night, I found myself sitting on a windowsill, puffing a cigarette. I coughed several times but it relaxed me. After it was over, I sprayed the entire contents of a bottle of deodorant in my room and the corridor. No one suspected anything.
On the last day of my exams, I went over to a departmental store, the kind where you pick up stuff and put them in your basket yourself, and don’t have to ask a shopkeeper for help. That packet of cigarettes remained in my bag for almost six months because I was too scared to smoke at home or anywhere. Later, I trashed it. I worked hard to control my urges when I saw my father and brother smoking.
Another six months later, I met a man my age. One of the things that brought us closer was smoking. He happened to be a smoker and not judgmental about my urge to smoke. We met often and smoking became a crucial part of our meetings. He would buy the cigarettes and we would go on drives to unfrequented places so that I could smoke. In his car, he kept a vigilant eye on passersby, asked me to keep my head down while smoking and kept his hand close to mine to quickly grab the cigarette in case anyone spotted me.
At times, he’d mock my style of smoking or give me instructions on how to be a pro-smoker. At all times, he was very comforting. We were soon joined by another woman, and we turned into life-long friends. But despite my male friend’s support, I knew I had to look for ways to buy cigarettes on my own.
The thought of buying a cigarette myself seemed daunting, although I have seen little kids, including girls, buy cigarettes for the elders in their families. Buying from a departmental store was one option, but not always a feasible one, because not many departmental stores were available nearby.
Instead, I decided to use my looks to my advantage. I pretended to be a non-local, and asked for it in a very Indian accent. This helped me get cigarettes anytime, without arousing any suspicion. On the other hand, a Kashmiri woman buying it would have been scandalous, representing a moral decline of the entire society.
The idea of smoking as a health hazard is never the primary concern when admonishing women against smoking. It was not even culturally inappropriate till quite recently.
I remembered my father’s aunt smoking hookah whenever and wherever she wanted, without getting any looks. She would carry around her hookah in the living room and even offer it to others, including my father. No one ever felt offended by her behaviour. Her hookah was decorated with tiny jingles and ribbons that reflected her taste, and she used a carved wooden box for storing tobacco. All of these things were seen as a part of her graceful personality, not something taboo.
Apart from finding ways to buy cigarettes, I also had to find a place where I could smoke. Home was never an option. On regular days, I’d go nearly 15 kilometres from home to the top of a hill to smoke. On other days, I’d wait for everyone else to leave the university campus and find a department with open doors and an open washroom. I’d quietly slip inside and smoke there. I never escaped the fear of getting caught and being suspended from the university.
On one such day, while sitting in a park waiting for others to leave, another student came to sit by my side. She instantly realised that I was a smoker from the colour of my lips. To my surprise, she was a smoker too. Her experiences were no different from mine. She too would go up to a hill or hide behind a bush in a quiet corner of the park to smoke.
In the six years since I began smoking, I have met many other women smokers in Srinagar, but none who were willing to do it in public. I wasn’t either, till one Sunday two weeks ago.
I was with a male friend in a park when the constant feeling of being watched by others just evaporated for a moment. I took out a cigarette and smoked under the sky in the open air. It felt strangely liberating. Passersby looked and then looked again curiously to check if I was a local. Perhaps my looks saved me again. In that moment, the fear of being seen smoking by some distant relative just vanished.
This was, however, a one-time experience. I don’t think it is ever coming back. The freedom of smoking in the open is something that I have experienced on my trips to Delhi. In Delhi, I’ve smoked in an auto and a CCD outlet.
But here is the thing. Smoking in Delhi just doesn’t seem half as attractive. It is perhaps the restrictive environment back home that makes it more appealing. It gives a strange sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of rebellion against the rules that restrict very simple things for women.
My search for smoking spaces was made difficult by my busy schedule at work. Always short of time, I’d sometimes ask my male friend to smoke in my presence to make me an actively passive smoker.
A few days ago, on my way home, I felt a strong urge to smoke in company. I called a friend, but he wasn’t anywhere close to the city. I called others, but no one was free. I went over to a friend’s office, hoping to catch her there. I didn’t find her, but I found her colleague smoking in a small smoking cabin. Without speaking a word, I picked up his packet of cigarettes off the table, lit it and puffed. To my surprise, the pack had come from Pakistan. He had bought it on his recent trip there, he said. We had a little chat about it, and then left the cabin as if it had never happened.
Aaliya Wani (not her real name) is a social worker based in Srinagar.