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Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

THE F-WORD

Smoke signal

  • Smoking is shorthand for signalling you're a certain kind of woman, the kind that is the Cool Girl that is mentioned in the book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A confident, self-assured woman who drinks Old Monk instead of white wine, who can drive a car faster than you can, who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks of her.

I haven't always been a smoker, of course. There was a time when my young lungs were disgusted by the idea of it. I picked it up, as people do, when I was in college—a bad decision I've wanted to take back hundreds of times since—and have been a slave to the cancer sticks ever since. Oh, sure, I've tried to quit. I've tried to quit so many times—and sometimes succeeded even, but here we are, my last column for 2015, and I'm still a failed smoker.

For many years, I think the problem was that they went with my image of cool, rebellious writer chick. Whips out her cigarette and delivers bon mots at parties. A man I dated even confirmed it once: he was a non-smoker himself, and when I said, wistfully, “Do I smell like an ashtray?” he said, “But you look so cool when you do it!” And it's true, I do look cool. I look cool like all the ladies in films before me. Uma Thurman, on her stomach on the Pulp Fiction poster, legs up and crossed behind her, holding a cigarette in her hand. Sandy, from Grease, in the last song where she reinvents herself from virginal girl to a sassy leather-wearing diva who sings about how he's the one that she wants—all the while holding a cigarette which she lights with penultimate coolness. Even in Bollywood, in the early days, the bad girls, the exciting ones, the ones the heroes all wanted in the beginner were smokers. (Fun fact I just noticed: if you Google image search “Bollywood women smoking,” there's actually a picture of me from back in the day embracing a male friend's back, holding a cigarette.) Smoking is shorthand for signalling you're a certain kind of woman, the kind that is the Cool Girl that is mentioned in the book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A confident, self-assured woman who drinks Old Monk instead of white wine, who can drive a car faster than you can, who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks of her.

There's an episode of Friends, where Rachel suddenly takes up smoking. Smoking is no-no in Friends-land, Chandler is the only one who occasionally slips, and even then he is castigated so much by his wife and friends, that he promptly stops. But in this particular episode, Rachel wants so badly to fit in with her colleagues and be party to the certain intimacy that only a smoker's room provides, that she takes up the habit just to belong. Anyone who has ever worked as a journalist will attest to that fact: if you want face-time with a boss, a one-to-one interview with someone else, or just to know what's going on, there's nothing like a shared cigarette or lighter to make you feel like one of the boys.

Maybe that's why a recent article I read in The Quint mentioned that while overall cigarette consumption in India is falling, the rise in women smokers has been quite considerable. From 5.3 million women smokers in 1980, the number is now more than double now, second only to the US. In a male-dominated world, sometimes you have to send signals out that you're not some weak thing, some delicate damsel, that you're as willing to work your hardest as your male colleagues, and smoking sometimes indicates that.

But to be a “modern woman” has its own perils. Back in the day, when my own personal blog was very personal indeed, the most number of angry comments I got was when I mentioned that I smoked. It was also the biggest criticism people had about my first book: why was my main character drinking and smoking all the time? Was this any way for an Indian woman to behave? When I smoke in public—which I totally do less and less, in these health-conscious times I'm always trying to quit—I have to find a corner to huddle in, or face stares that are even worse than normal. Smoking on the streets indicates that you're a fallen woman, a harlot, a shameless trollop who should be open to pretty much anything that men throw at her. (Surprisingly, this might be just an urban thing. In rural India, many women—a lot of them older—smoke as a matter of course. If it's not a communal hookah, they smoke beedis, and no one looks at them strangely either.)

Maybe women's attitudes to smoking will change when men's do. When it's no longer so much about rebellion but just a nasty habit that we should all kick. When there's a way to belong that doesn't involve changing who you are, and when people take you seriously without “accessories.” Until then, I'm afraid we'll have to live with our rising number of female smokers—but I'm signing out. Again. Hopefully this time for good.

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