Translated by Jayanthi Sankar
Rukmini came out of her office when it was twenty minutes past six. The sun light reflected from the vehicles moving on the road. Sun hadn’t simmered yet as it was summer. Rukmini felt like buying a cigarette from a shop on her way to board the electric train.
That’s how she felt some days. She usually suppressed her urge fearing many people might see her buy a cigarette. At times, not bothered about anyone around she had gone to to actually buy one from the shop.
She has watched some of the men from her office go over to the petty shop to buy cigarettes and smoke. It might shock them if she had gone to ask for a cigarette there in front of them. But, that wasn’t her intention.
Just that she wanted a cigarette. Not to smoke. She has never smoked before, but she knew the smell of it and how to hold it delicately in her hand. She also knew how the circled cigarette smoke disappeared into space.
When she entered a small shop near the bakery, even before she opened her mouth, the shop keeper asked if she needed shampoo. She said no thinking who might want to buy shampoo in the evening. He immediately went on to ask if she needed Vicks candies, pen refill or safety pins
He had perhaps concluded that those were the only four items in the shop bought by most women. She stood there staring at the cigarette packs stacked behind the huge candy bottles. A stranger dashed against her to enter the shop to buy a packet of ‘Pan Parak’, the crushed beetle nut. He opened the pouch, emptied the content in his mouth, swiped the change and left in a hurry.
After a few minutes of contemplation, Rukmini gave a five rupees note and asked for a cigarette. She noticed that the shop keeper’s facial expression suddenly changed. Then, in a mocking tone, he asked which one.
Hundreds of men come to the shop daily to buy cigarettes. She felt angered when she thought that he wouldn’t have displayed that mockery to anyone of them. She said, ‘Filter cigarette.’ Shop keeper crooked his face and asked, “Ya, I know that, but I asked which brand?”
‘Wills filter’, she replied.
Shop keeper pulled out a cigarette out of a pack and placed it along with the change on the bottle lid. When she took it in her hand to have a good look, she could feel the shop keeper’s stare. She purposely held the cigarette in between her two fingers and continued to stand there. As if to tease her, the shop keeper showed a match box in front of her. She said no and walked off.
As she walked with the cigarette in her hand, she knew pretty well that people were watching her amusingly. Unbothered about their glances she continued to hold it as she waited for her train.
Some faces that went past her showed sudden shock upon seeing the cigarette in her hand. She smelt it. Oh the very same smell! Even now, just like that old times.
Till her fourteenth year of age, it had been Rukmini’s daily chore to go to the shop to buy cigarettes. She has purchased cigarettes from all the shops in their street.
Rukmini’s father smoked. To her, ‘father smokes’ are two words that made unforgettable scar within her. Many times, as soon as those two words were uttered she used to feel blood gush from the legs with sudden force.
She never understood why father made her go from one shop to another to buy cigarettes. Weren’t she a girl even in those days? Why an action considered quite normal at the age of ten becomes a sin at the age of twenty? At that age, no one ever ridiculed or teased her. Why? Is it because all those who smoked were men? Smoking is an arena that belonged only to them.
Rukmini’s father used to work in the Statistics Department. He was said to be a calm employee who had never fought with any one in the office. He used to pack his lunch from home. Visiting the temple daily in the mornings and evenings was one of his habits. He used to go to the office even during the public holidays to complete his work.
But, all these were only for the outside world. At home, father shouted and fought with mother all the time. Not a day of his passed without beating her. Mother’s head had thus been injured and stitched more than ten times. Only after forgetting all that, she ran around the house cooking meals for him daily. Sometimes, mother also gathers all the anger within her to scold him. But, the bitterness between them never seemed to diminish.
Probably that was why father had started to smoke. Soon after fighting with mother, he started to smok aggressively. He smoked even seven to eight cigarettes continuously at times. When he smoked his face looked very tensed. There was a rage within him as if he was trying to conquer someone.
Father has been smoking for years. But, not even one day he had gone to a shop to buy a cigarette by himself. He used to be very careful in asking back from her the left over coins. If his usual brand was not available she had to walk further down to find a shop that sold. Otherwise, she would get beaten by him.
Every day, when Rukmini went to buy cigarettes she would see and smell. It was the smell of tobacco. When there was no carton, she used to hold four or five of them carefully together in her hand and walk back home. As walked she used to fear if she might let go of them. If the cigarettes were even slightly damaged she was sure to be yelled.
Father used to make her go even late in the night to the shop to buy cigarettes. She used to close her eyes in terror as she ran in the darkness filled street. He would smoke turning his face this way and that way as if he was very keen on filling the whole house uniformly with that smoke.
His facial expression used to be like he was venting his anger on someone. To butt the ash, he used to take whatever is available around him like stainless steel tumbler, plate and powder tin.
Once, he asked mother to show out her palm and shook off the ash on it. It’s because he thinks everything in the house has been bought by him and that it was normal if he did things like that.
Similarly, he used to throw the left over cigarette bits all over the house. The window was just near the place where he usually sat to smoke. However, he has never once thrown them outside.
Mother carefully picked and collected all the small cigarette butts and threw them out of the house. They were not allowed to use father’s match box to light the stove in the kitchen. It was always kept near his pillow.
Even at mid night, father used to wake up to sit on his mat to smoke. He would get angry if someone coughed after inhaling the smoke. He blew the smoke deliberately near the face.
To him a cigarette was the symbol of possession he had on them.
One day, he burnt mother’s hand just because she forgot to carefully remove the cigarettes from his shirt pocket before washing. That night, mother did not come home to sleep. She had gone off to sleep at Varalakshmi’s house that was nearby
Father sent Rukmini there to fetch mother home. She was very angry. Standing there at Varalakshmi’s door step, she kept calling ‘come back home ma’, ‘come back home ma’. But, her voice did not seem to fall into mother’s ears. She thought it was better for her also to sleep there. Therefore she curled herself on the floor.
In another few minutes, father’s voice was heard at Varalakshmi’s doorstep. He stood there shouting vehemently. Unable to bear his vulgar swears, Valaralakshmi insisted mother returns home. With fear Rukmini walked along with mother. Father gave her a ten rupee note and asked her to buy cigarettes and escorted mother back home.
Scolding her father within herself, Rukmini walked in the darkness.
There by the street, a rickshaw rider smoked a beedi. Innumerable men kept smoking day and night. And the smoke was always targeted at the women around, she thought as she walked. The shops were all closed. She didn’t know where to go and buy cigarettes.
She walked till the fish market. Almost all the shops were closed there. She feared that father would beat her if she returned home without the cigarettes. She walked further towards the cinema theatre hoping there would be a shop open there which sold cigarettes. There was the usual loud music before the second show began.
When Rukmini walked back with the cigarettes, she saw a guy who came riding a bicycle throwing a half smoked cigarette and entering the theatre hurriedly. She ran to grab that, simply to have a look. It was still glowing. Looking around to check if anyone was watching she took a puff. Smoke entered the windpipe and leading to a cough. She threw it off immediately and coughed really hard.
The cough didn’t seem to subside at all. She feared her lower abdomen might get a severe cramp with the intense cough. When she reached home, she noticed father seated in his easy chair waiting.
She gave the cigarettes to father and entered the house to go and lie down next to her mother. The taste of cigarette still lingered in her tongue. Mother seemed to have smelt. She turned around to make sure. Next moment, mother slapped on her face hysterically asking, ‘Did you smoke? Did you smoke?’ Rukmini shouted repeatedly, ‘sorry ma, sorry ma’, but the beatings didn’t cease.
Father watched everything unaffected while he kept smoking away. Mother beat her till she exhausted. Later, she hugged her and cried. Both of them slept together. After that incidence, Rukmini always held the cigarettes away from her body to avoid getting the smell on her.
There were many boys and girls who came to the shop to buy cigarettes. She asked mother why only men smoked. Mather said, ‘He is earning. So, he is smoking. What’s the big deal?’
When she was in the sixth grade, Rukmini was asked to bring her parent to school. There were two students selected from her class to participate in the cultural event to be held in Delhi. When she walked from home with her father to school, she said hesitantly, “When you are in school, you shouldn’t smoke pa.”
Father behaved as if he didn’t even hear those words of hers. Her class teacher told them to meet the Principal after prayer. Father was asked to wait outside.
In the mean time, father had started to smoke. When standing among all the girls, Rukmini closed her eyes to pray when the smoke kept drifting and mixing in the air. Till the prayer was finished, no one said anything. Father had already found the Principal’s room and entered. Standing in the room he continued to smoke.
When Principal said in a stern voice that smoking was prohibited in that room, father said that school had no rights to interfere in his personal habits. He pulled out another and continued.
By this time class teacher had come there along with Rukmini. Father was standing there casually smoking away and telling that he wouldn’t send his daughter away anywhere. He said knew how to bring up a daughter properly. The room was getting filled by smoke. Class teacher and the Principal were discussing the issue separately.
After a few minutes, they asked father to leave the place immediately with Rukmini. Rukmini pulled her father as she tried to leave the place. He continued to smoke as he walked with her. By the time she exited the school gate, she knew they wouldn’t send her to Delhi.
She felt very angry with father. Father never cared about others’ anger, swears or scolding. “Your father has no other bad habit except smoking. He brings home all his earnings. Soon after office hours he returns home without wandering here and there”, said mother often in praise of him.
However, Rukmini came to dislike him more and more. Father always smoking – was the only image that remained within her. Perhaps, that was why she always felt extremely angry when she saw those men who smoked.
When she reached the eighth grade, father’s smoking increased a lot more than before. There were consistent quarrels at home. Every day, when she returned home from school she used to be terrified because father would be scolding mother or even whacking her. Soon after, she would have to run to the shop to buy cigarettes. At times, she used to think if it would be a good idea to buy a few from a shop on the way back home from school.
One day, when she returned from school there were many folks gathered at home. Mother was seated on the floor leaning against the wall. Her hair was all in a mess. Her sari that was tattered hung clumsily. A few women sat around her as they lamented. Father sat there calmly on his easy chair. There were a few neighborhood men near him telling things.
As Rukmini entered the house, a woman shook mother by her shoulder and asked in a loud voice, “How could you even attempt to leave a daughter like her all alone?”
Mother did not turn her face towards Rukmini. She had attempted suicide. Fortunately, the women had saved her on time. Otherwise, she would have been dead by now, they said.
Rukmini’s legs shivered when she heard them say that. She went near her mother and sat beside her. She leaned forward to take mother’s hands to hold but mother brushed her aside and said, “Go, go and buy your dad some more cigarettes.” Rukmini felt like dying that instance.
She sat there without changing into her home clothes. That night, there were many people in their house late till around eight thirty. Later, father asked her if she felt hungry. She lied that she wasn’t. He pulled out a fifty rupees note and gave it to her to buy some idlees for her and a few cigarettes for himself.
She took the money from him. When she was about to step out of the house she heard father call her name. She turned to look at him. Wearing his sandals he told her to stay behind and that he was going to the shop to buy. She couldn’t believe. When she asked him if she would go with him, father said no and just walked away.
Father did not come home till eleven o’clock. Mother told her to go and search for him. Rukmini went from one shop to the other asking if her father had come to buy cigarettes. He hadn’t gone to any of the shops. Where he had gone in such late hours, she wondered.
She returned home and said to mother that she could not find him. Mother tied her loose hair and walked with her to the cinema theatre but father was not there too.
At midnight, mother stood on the street and cried aloud. Those who gathered in the evening to console her didn’t come then. Only her mother and she cried together.
Next day, she went with mother to father’s office. He had not come there, they said. They went from house to house of all his friends. He went to none of those places. Mother’s anger seemed to focus on her now.
She started scolding her, “Why didn’t you buy him his cigarettes? Only because of that he got angry and left home.”
Seventeen years passed since father left home but she could never understand why he did not allow her to buy that last cigarette for him.
What would have happened to father? Could he have gotten killed in some road accident? Or has he remarried and fathered yet another girl to buy him cigarettes? Or has he become a beggar roaming around with many beggars? She thought on various angles on many days.
Men who smoked along the road sides always reminded her of her father. Why did he smoke so vehemently? Did he have some kind of pain within him? If so, what was it?
Mother lost her health gradually after father left. Rukmini left her mother in her uncle’s house and stayed in a hostel to study. Now that she had started to earn, only the hostel room gave her the solace she wanted.
Cigarette smoke and smell strengthened more and more the scarful image of father within her. Sometimes, she bought a few cigarettes and placed them in her table drawer to get over the feeling. If some day father returns, couldn’t she give them to him to smoke?
That day, everyone looked at her when she walked around with a cigarette in her hand. So many people traveled daily by train but not even one woman smoked. Have all the woman folk sweared never to smoke? Or are they all banned from smoking?
The world she witnessed was filled with male perversions. A world full of men who stood on street corners to urinate, men who spit on road sides, men who stood by the road side stalls to eat bajji, men who visited in groups the TASmark shops to drink liquor, men who vomited and roled on the rubbish, men who picked pocket and men who molested women in crowded public places. All men smoked. The smoke reached and filled the women in the next seats, the wives, the lovers’ lips, the children who slept nearby.
Men smoked. It was not just a simple action but violence against children like her within whom they left everlasting scars. It was a tool to exhibit their masculinity. It was their way of showing around that just like they throw away cigarette butts and stepped hard on them; they could treat others also the same way.
Thinking of many such things, Rukmini put the cigarettes into the drawer. There were forty or fifty of them there. Seeing them, she asked herself the very same unanswered question – why didn’t father let her buy that last cigarette for him?
After he left, his face seemed to fade away slowly in her memory. Only the cigarette remained in her as his memory. Only the cigarette was left of her childhood memories, she thought.
After mid night, when she laid there staring at the ceiling, she felt as if the room was filled with cigarette smoke. She could even smell the smoke. Widening her eyes, she looked hurriedly all around. There was no one in the room except herself.
Even after so many years, what made her very sad was that father’s cigarette still continued to smoke within her without ever showing signs of dissolving. She cried for sometime not knowing what else to do. Then, she started talking to herself. That’s when she felt that she behaved just the way her mother did. She could not stand the thought.
(அப்பா புகைக்கிறார் என்ற எனது சிறுகதையின் ஆங்கில மொழியாக்கம்)
நன்றி :ஜெயந்தி சங்கர்