To smoke like Belmondo

In Jean Luc Godard’s Peter The Fool, anti-hero Peter/Pierre was so mesmerised by Humphrey Bogart’s buccaneer charms in the doomed love classic Casablanca that he started imitating him. And what did Pierre find most attractive about the plain-looking Bogart? His way of smoking the cigarette while it hanged incisively from a given angle in his mouth. The drifter Pierre, while running from gangsters, never lets the cigar fall from his mouth — as if that was his armour against the regular world. When the tree-hugging, survey-clutching, watery-eyed do-gooders yell for putting tobacco to death, ban smoking in public, and cause offence to the culture of smoking tobacco, I feel like dangling that cigarette in front of them.

History has it that Christopher Columbus and the sailors who followed him to the new worlds on the Atlantic learnt the art of tobacco smoking from the native Indians. So they are the ones who introduced modern-day smoking to mainland Europe in the 1600s. Some legend and some facts together put the blame of lighting up English high-society on none other than Sir Walter Raleigh. He is said to have told a servant while lighting his pipe: “Master Ridley, we are to-day lighting a candle in England which by God’s blessing will never be put out”!

Well, with the blessing of a unilateral and almost universal law, the candle is about to be put out, forever. 

Agreed, little can be argued in favour of the physiological harms of smoking, especially on others. But put it to you that smoking is also a matter of habit, of culture and a right. More important, it is also a rite. In isolation and in a company the smoker has as much of a right to smoke, as the nonsmoker has, to protest. So, the question is not about the need to ban smoking in public but also about the right to do so by a dominant group over the other. 

Smoking adults are not ignorant of their effects. They smoke happily ever after and are happy smoking away to glory and to death. Sanitised life is not for everybody to chase, like money and riches. It takes all kinds, and for God’s sake, smokers are just a kind. So please keep your platitudes and your do-gooding enzymes to yourself. 

I fell in love with smoking while growing up with large hand-painted billboards in Calcutta with a couple on the beach holding hands saying ‘made for each other’. It was a brand that was part of the daily ration and rationality in middle-class Calcutta. Thinking people smoke when they think, the lore said, and in support, the famed Coffee House resembled a large chimney. 

And you bet, every metropolis in the world has people who act as they like and do not change with fads and fashion. Has anyone ever seen Camus or Sartre in a picture without the cigar or the pipe? A Bergman or a Ray, a Groucho Marx or a Churchill? A Brigitte Bardot or a Marlene Dietrich? Great men (and women) smoke because they think and they want to. 

And who was history’s most notorious anti-smoker? Adolf Hitler, who attributed his success to his leaving smoking. So much for anti-smoking political correctness. 

So must everything and everybody change? Must we all be pink-lipped metrosexuals, market-happy bankers, calculative crusaders? No. There should be a place for others who are not part of every changing trend: habitual heterosexuals, irrepressible commies and careless smokers. Heard what Emile Zola said last: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco”.             

And who wants to be perfect?