Monday, November 29, 2010

The Craving

This is a story I translated for my friend Chidananda Sali. Sali is an award winning Kannada writer, who has brought out books of short stories, poetry and Ghazals.

The story was read in a recent workshop organised by the Kendra Sahitya Akademi in Cochin, Kerala

The Craving

Even before he was completely awake that morning, an intense craving
for a smoke hit Masterji.

Oh Shucks… he almost said it audibly. But he could hear his heart
shout loudly that not yielding to the craving as not as easy as
wishing it away.

For a man of 30, Masterji looked three times older. There were scores
of fights between his heart and mind every day. These constant battles
had taken a toll on his health. His cheek had gone into hiding in his
mouth, and he was getting weaker and weaker every moment.

The craving hit him from within like a battering ram. It seemed to
have come well prepared. It had come equipped with a concoction of
logic, justification and the will to convince him to yield to it.

He thought of the joy of smoking a cigarette standing in his balcony
early morning. His hair would flutter in the cool morning breeze, the
hot smoke warming him up from inside.
But he was still asleep. ``What the hell is this? Why should I be
hounded by so many thoughts even before I am fully awake,’’ he

Smoking brought him vivid memories of childhood. Smoke spiraling out
of his cigarette danced in the air taking various forms, like a kite
that had broken off from its tether, like a bunch of clouds and live
the divine curls of Lord Bahubali in Shravanabelagola. This for
Masterji, sounded much like the designs his soap bubbles produced when
he was young. He would prepare froth from the soap powder and use a
neem twig to blow bubbles. The bubbles would suddenly paint themselves
in the colours of the rainbow and spin around as if some unseen force
pushed them around.

Masterji wondered how a simple taste for tobacco has the creative
power to bring memories of childhood. ``This is something out of the
ordinary. But then this justifies the need for a smoke now,’’ he said
to himself. His heart rejoiced at the little combat it had won against
the mind.

But then, Masterji is no non smoker. It is just that he has not smoked
for some time now. Well, it is not just three days or three weeks or
three months. He took a vow three years ago and has not broken it for
so long.

In these many years, he has been tempted many times. His friends have
smoked in front of him and had a good time. However, he has been
steadfast in maintaining that he would not join them. Though this
earned him appreciation from well wishers, some of his friends were
jealous that he was able to summon up such courage.

There were several stories about him and his addiction. Friends and
acquaintances spoke about how he would create forms in air puffing out
smoke. Like a musician playing a wind instrument, he had the
dedication and sincerity towards his work. He had perfect control on
the air he inhaled and the smoke he exhaled. The smoke spirals began
by looking like the mint in `the mint with the hole’ Ad and end up
like a bracelet on a plump woman’s arms. They would then lose form and

He would hold back smoke in his mouth and release it little by little.
He would run trains of smoke circles one behind the other and sit down
enjoying their dance in space. When people saw this in awe, he would
feel proud of himself.

But then, smoking was never an ideological issue with him. He never
thought it was a bad thing that needed to be avoided.
When ever his friends asked him to quit smoking, he would recite
Kannada poetry that justified or even glorified smoking. He would
quote from B R Lakshman Rao who likened cigarette to his girlfriend
who he would not live without. He would recite a couplet by Dr
Booduguppa Prahlad Reddy that said he hated cigarettes so much that he
set them on fire when ever he found one.

He was also fond of bragging about the variety of cigarettes he had
smoked. He would find a chance to stop discussion on any topic and
turn it towards a talk on cigarettes. He would speak at length about
where he found a particular variety of cigarettes and how he felt
smoking them.

His reminiscences would wander around the Australian Marlboro that
looks like a piece of white candy rather than cigarette, the King
Edwards cigar from USA that comes with a plastic coating and costs Rs
35 per piece, the Café Cream that came in small boxes and had a coffee
flavour, the Gudang Garam of Indonesia with sweet flavour, Kukuru of
Nepal, Royal of Bangladesh, Wonder from Pakistan, 555, Annpenn, Benson
and Hedges. He would also speak equally proudly about the half burnt
beedis that he had stolen from his father.

Such an avid addict had kicked the habit and maintained his vow for
three years, like a religious ritual.
But today’s craving was so strong that it was filling all corners of
his mind like smoke in an empty room. He began wondering if any dream
had led him to it. However, in a moment he realized he had never been
able to recall his dreams.

The whole morning, he had a feeling that something was missing.
Something that had made his life less meaningful, less satisfying. It
did not take much thought to realize what- a smoke.

His wife, who was watching him since he woke up, lost patience. ``What
is wrong with you? Is your tummy upset? You are farting like hell. Why
don’t you stop eating and take care of that? Why do you go around
smelling foul like a garbage truck?’’ she shouted. Masterji did not
know how to react. He just tapped his fingers on his tummy as if it
was a drum, and waited for a reply. Then he got up and went away. Once
he school he realized everyone had begun to avoid him for his foul
odour. A fellow teacher asked him for a pen to sign the muster. While
he turned around to hand it over, he saw she was covering her nose
with a handkerchief. Was he still smelling of tobacco after three
years of quitting smoking?

Another teacher told him it was World Anti Tobacco Day in school and
the local government doctor was arriving to speak. Of course, everyone
was invited. What a cruel coincidence! He was being stalked by an
intense craving for a smoke on World Anti Tobacco Day. He resolved to
defeat it and moved towards the Tenth Class.

When the doctor ended his speech on dangers of tobacco, no one was
sure if anyone understood. The speech was so loaded with jargon that
it was possible the doctor himself had not understood it. The head
master looked at teachers and gestured that they could speak. Masterji
felt as if an unseen force had pushed him to the dais. He began
passionately speaking about the pleasures of smoking and began
describing various types of cigarettes. A chit from the audience woke
him up. What was he saying? He realized his folly and turned his
speech into one against the dangers of tobacco. He said all the
pleasures of smoking were a farce. ``Nicotine is poison and smoking is
suicide,’’ he said and got down. He had just saved himself and the
school’s reputation.

At lunch, everyone was talking about the speech. Teachers spoke about
how engrossed he was in talking romantically about tobacco, how
smartly he changed track after the chit flew in and in what direction
the speech might have progressed if there was no chit. He joined the
gang and cracked jokes and laughed. For a few minutes, he forgot about
the craving that was chasing him like a beast. He laughed so much that
he felt tired. After all teachers had left the staff room, he began to
doze off in his chair.

When he woke up, it was closing time. He began to worry about how he
would cover the syllabus for higher classes. At the closing prayers,
he announced he would take special classes.

He reigned like a King in the special class. The response was
encouraging too. Santana Krishna, the duffer who spelled his name
Sattana Kashta, had done his sums correctly and got a pat on the back.

Masterji began recollecting real life scenes where Santana Krishna
used to sneak out of school and go swimming. Teaches would send other
boys to fetch him. A few boys would tie literally carry him to class,
as if they were carrying a corpse. He was so rough and unwilling to
learn that teachers took turns in beating him up. Masterji was
surprised to see such a duffer turn into a keen student. For a moment,
he felt he was Gautam Buddha, who had converted Anguli Mala from a
cruel dacoit to a saint.

He felt he had caused this tremendous change in him and the other
students. He felt very proud. He stopped lecturing on mathematics and
announced he would give them lessons of life. He began by defining who
is a good student and who is bad.

Then the talk turned towards teachers. In trying to describe the
virtues of a good teacher, he abused all the colleagues he despised.
However, he took enough care to see that his students understood who
he was talking about. He also took digs at teachers who smoked or
chewed gutka. Comparing himself to them, he said he was above board.
He announced he had no bad habits and that he was the best. He was the
best because he could motivate even a bad student like Santana Krishna
to become a studious boy. And this was no mean achievement. When he
ended his talk, he was convinced of all the lies he had told.

By then, it hit him that it had got pretty late and that his wife was
alone at home, waiting for him. She will start shouting now. I better
hurry, he said to himself running home. He reached his front door in
minutes. A lock on the front door brought him in touch with reality.
His wife had gone home and he was all alone. He began missing her
badly. Her voice, her manner of leaving him to himself, and her silent
working around the house, everything. Even her temper tantrums began
to appear lovely. He was so lost that it did not occur to him that he
could listen to some songs by putting on the tape recorder.
He spread a mat and threw himself on it. However, the slow sounds of a
lizard muttering on the ceiling made him feel lonely, sad and
probably, afraid.

Somehow the sense of being alone and the presence of the lizard seem
to go together and form an empty hole in his mind. That is exactly
when an intense desire for a cigarette arose from within him again.

He felt that he was getting weaker and weaker and his resolve against
smoking was diluting. He shivered at the thought that he would not be
able to keep the promise he made to himself. He would also join the
league of those teachers `with bad character’ that he told students
about. He began to imagine that the craving was not just a feeling. It
was a formless demon that had come well planned. It had come to him
when he was alone and all his defenses broke down one by one.

It seemed like a million strong army had pounced on an unarmed,
innocent guy. It felt as if every evil force in the world had
conspired to make him sin again. All his efforts to find a
justification for remaining true to his resolve began to side against
him. It seemed as he was unable to find any reason not to yield to the
addictive passion.

This fight between his mind and his heart went on for over an hour and
at the end of it, he found himself losing it. All the reasons that he
could conjure up to say I will not smoke, began to cross the line and
began stand beside the line of ``I will smoke. Come what may’’. He
later began rationalizing. The only way I can feel better now is by
smoking. After all, it is a question of just one cigarette. What will
I lose if I puff off just one cigarette? He began to ask himself.
Anyway my wife is out of town and no one will know. In fact this is an
opportunity to satisfy a small urge and let it go forever, he told
himself. He got up hurriedly, put on a shirt, checked whether he had
some coins in his pocket and went out. He was feeling extremely happy.
Tricky fellow, he said to himself and smiled.

It was dark outside and it helped avoid guilt. He came to the village
circle and paused to decide on which shop to go to buy cigarettes.
There was a paan shop nearby. But it was near a bar and he did not
want to be seen walking towards a bar. He feigned a serious look and
began walking towards the opposite direction. At the shop, he bought a
cigarette and a match box. The girl selling cigarettes was young and
must have been in primary school. ``I am a high school teacher and the
chances of her recognizing me are less,’’ he thought. But then he did
not want to take a risk. That is why he said no when she offered to
light his cigarette with a lighter kept at her shop. He walked away
briskly, to reduce chances of being seen at the shop. Guilt began
surfacing slowly and his forehead was wet with sweat. He was no longer
the happy man he was when he left home. He fought hard to bring back
those emotions and sat on the parapet wall over a stream.

His hear was pounding. An hour ago he was fighting a righteous battle
against the craving for a smoke. Then addiction had gained an upper
hand. Now, he was fighting to light a cigarette and guilt seemed to be
getting the better of him. But the cool breeze made him feel better
and reduced his tensions. He decided to settle everything with a
smoke. Just in front of him were two people lost in conversation. They
had not noticed him. Neither had he seen their faces as it was dark.
He fought hard to smile at himself and put a cigarette to his lips
that had stopped trembling. He lit a match and brought it near his
face. He lit the cigarette and puffed without a care in the world.

He had not even taken back his hand away from his mouth, that Santana
Krishna who was sitting next to him, got up suddenly, and said
``Namaskara Sir”.


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