Rassee!
By Shoaib Hashmi


It is a long time since I last harangued you with the plea that we are the last 'Endangered Species' -- us smokers. We are a sweet and harmless lot, but the hand of every man is against us, and most of you openly say that you will not mind if we go the way of the Dodo, which is not very generous to say the least. What you don't realize is that cigarette smoking was the center of a whole way of life, and a culture -- well, at least a mini-culture, and that will go too, which will be a pity.
For instance before you got all your ill-gotten gains and grew rich, cigarettes were not sold in your vaunted Department Stores, they were sold at the corner 'Paan-Shop'. This was just a chest high counter, with a tin roof leaning against the nearest wall. The counter top was full of containers with chaalia and illaichee and saunf, and a few even more exotic condiments; and you gave your one Anna coin, and the man piled little bits of them all on a betel leaf and rolled it, and you stuffed it in your mouth -- then you wiped the kathha on your fingers in your hair, which was the polite and proper way -- and then you needed a cig.
As I said this was before all the conspicuous money, and this was not the airport Duty-Free shop, and you didn't buy cigarettes by the carton, or even the pack, you bought cigarettes -- by the cigarette! The normal thing was to ask for a 'Capstan' or a 'Gold Flake', tap its end on the counter to get rid of the loose tobacco bits -- there were no sissy 'filters' packed with asbestos wool -- stick it between your lips, and then look around for a light. And there's the rub!
Every 'Paan Shop' had a fixture, which was a coil of hemp rope, about half an inch in diameter, hanging from a hook in the ceiling, with a loose end hanging down -- there was a delicate little wisp of smoke rising from the end, because it was lit each morning, and you pulled it and put it to your cigarette, took a few deep satisfying puffs, and went on your merry way.
There is something infinitely sweet about a coil of cord, hanging quietly and sending off its thin wisp, which has more nostalgia than all your fancy designer lighters, or your cheap Japanese disposables. It was somehow symptomatic of a less frantic way of life, and a less brazen style, and I hope someone, somewhere is keeping it up!
The hierarchy of brands too was firmly in place. 'Capstan', which is the contraption you tie a boat to, and 'Gold Flake' which is whatever, were the standard brands for the reasonably prosperous; and these, and all others, were made by two firms, one 'The Successors to John Player and Sons, England'; and the other those to 'W. D. and H. O. Wills', and this last had little pictures of the two bearded brothers, W. D. and H.O.
If you were slightly down the prosperity scale, the universal brand for you was called 'Qainchee'. This was the proper translation and description of the brand name 'The Scissors'. I have no idea why anyone should have chosen that as a brand name, but for decades it was the largest selling brand.
At the bottom rung the brand of choice was 'Bagla', which too was taken straight from the picture and the brand name of 'King Stork'! This was the original 'Cult' brand, because the smoke tasted tough, and if you ground your teeth after a puff, you could savor the sand, but aficionados would smoke no other! Much later this was replaced by 'K2' which was even tougher, and had an even larger following.
Somewhere in between there was a peculiar brand called 'Passing Show', or more properly 'Passanshow' in Punjabi. The pack had a picture of a man in top hat smoking away, and it was billed as the first 'Cork-Tipped' cigarette. So the tip wouldn't stick to your lips! I seem to recall the tip was mostly colored paper, and not only stuck but left your lips colored brown, but no matter.
If you wanted to really create a scene and a bit of a furor there were the fancy brands for you, 'Sobranie' and 'D. Macropolo'; the first was black, and the second dark brown, and they were both perfumed -- and I mean perfumed! Smoking was allowed in cinema houses then, and occasionally someone in the balcony would light up one, and the whole audience knew, and blessed him.
If you wanted to create a visual scene also there was 'Sobranie Cocktail' which was a packet of cigarettes, not perfumed, but all different colors, red and blue and green. The Ministry of Health wants all this sacrificed at the altar of their hygiene; but when they finally come upon a cure for their favorite disease, I wonder if it will have brand names anywhere near 'Passing Show' and 'Sobranie Cocktail' -- or will be administered with a Rassee!


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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