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
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!