Immigrant Bengalis

The Story of an Ex-Smoker
Gautam Bandyopadhyay

On a Saturday morning, sitting at our dining table, I was explaining to our 9-year-old grandson, Kishore, how I developed some bad habits like smoking cigarettes in my youth. Mila, Kishore’s 7-year-old sister, sitting at the table and listening intently to our conversation interrupted me and asked, “What does a cigarette look like Dabhai? Why would you put fire to it if it is in your mouth?”

I was dumbfounded – she did not know what a cigarette is! She had never seen anybody smoking a cigarette in her life – not in person, nor on TV or in movies that she was allowed to watch. What a dramatic shift in society in the last 50+ years since I tried my first cigarette!

My smoking habit started in 1964 when I was a resident of the Eden Hindu Hostel, the dormitory for male undergraduate students at Presidency College in Kolkata. The first year or two I smoked on special occasions only - once or twice a month. But in 1965, when I moved to Technology Hall in the Ballygunge Circular Road for my postgraduate program at Science College in Rajabazar, the habit picked up and the addiction started to take hold. 

Being in a hostel and away from the watchful eyes of parents and other guardians, it was an easy routine for my friends and me to buy one or two loose cigarettes (that we could get in India without purchasing the full pack) from the local ‘paan’ (betel leaf) shop during our daily leisurely walk to ‘Ballygunge Phary’ after dinner. We would light up the cigarettes using the smoldering rope hanging on the side of the shop, and then walk back to the hostel.

Within a year, one or two cigarettes per day were not enough. I needed to buy more to keep up with my growing habit – the usual path for addiction for most young would-be smokers in Kolkata in the 60s and 70s.

While growing up, I saw people smoking all around me. My father was a smoker; many of the other men that I knew and respected were smokers. The awareness of the impact of tobacco smoking on health was minimal 50 years ago - it was something adult men did - nobody questioned and worried about it. 

With no strong societal and health constraints, my Technology Hall friends, and I felt free to smoke without hesitation. It made us feel like adults - smart and intellectual - a mindset and perception promoted through advertisement by the cigarette companies using famous movie stars and other celebrities as models. As we learnt to blow perfect smoke rings while sipping on a cup of tea or coffee in the Coffee House across from Presidency College, we imagined ourselves to be like the models that romanticized smoking as a habit.

In the Fall of 1969, when I arrived at Berkeley, California for my graduate studies, I was already addicted - smoking nearly 15-20 cigarettes/day. My Ph. D. Professor and several other graduate students in my laboratory were also smokers. I was surprised though that the students smoked freely with the professors and often they would borrow cigarettes from each other. This was very different from the cultural norm that I grew up with. In India, young people would avoid smoking in front of their parents or teachers or other elderly relatives or family friends – it was deemed disrespectful.  It took me a while to get used to this new freedom. But it gave me permission to smoke in class and during my work in the lab.

Although, I had no constraint in the campus and in my lab for smoking, I heard serious complaints from my three housemates, all Indian graduate students like me. They all came from outside Bengal. They would loudly complain about the smell and tell me that Bengalis smoked too much. They did not even like me to smoke in the car!! These complaints sounded irrational to me then. I wondered: which planet did they come from and whoever had heard about such problems with smoking? I never knew of any restricted areas for smoking in 1970. We could light a cigarette even in the airplane or in a hospital!!  Today in 2023, I think that my housemates in Berkeley were way ahead in time regarding their demands! 

In 1969 when I arrived in Berkeley, tobacco smoking in the USA was almost at its peak. Official statistics showed that about 40% of the adult population smoked cigarettes at that time. A year later, in 1970, US Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banning the advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products on television and radio. The warning recommendation came from the proven correlation between smoking and lung cancer as well as other respiratory diseases through extensive research. Comprehensive smoke-free laws, however, were rare even at the local level until the 2000s.

With this public health warning in the background, suddenly my habit started to bother me. A little later, around 1972, lung cancer was diagnosed in my Ph. D. advisor. Prof. Fulrath was a tall, handsome, and healthy looking 47-year-old man, but a chain smoker since he was a teenager. This was indeed a scary diagnosis and came without warning. It shook all of us up. I started to seriously think about my addiction.

Prof. Fulrath came back from the hospital with a strict warning that he must quit smoking. This was not surprising - a strong connection to his habit of over 30 years and the disease was already well established. The diagnosis was sufficient motivation for me. I decided to quit smoking right away. I left my last half empty Benson and Hedges packet on my desk and promised that I would not touch the packet again. My professor had the same challenge for himself, but his situation was far more dire. Proverbially ‘he had a gun pointed to his head’ and he had no option but to quit.

Anybody who experienced tobacco addiction knows well that quitting could be a serious challenge. For a lucky few, the addiction may not be so strong, and they may be able to stop without difficulty. But for most others it could be very hard.

Unfortunately, I was in the ‘difficult-to-quit’ category. For the first few weeks without cigarettes, the nicotine starvation in the body created havoc, both physically and mentally. I started to have second thoughts. Like all young people in the early-twenties age group, the concern for long-term damage on health was not an overwhelming issue, and it almost failed to keep me motivated. Fortunately, I found another strong argument. For my meagre graduate student stipend, buying cigarettes was a significant expense. Financial savings was a compelling motivation for me to quit.

I had the unfinished cigarette pack lying on my desk for weeks, and my professor would stop by every morning to check the number of cigarettes left to see if I had used any. He was going through the same withdrawal pain, and I became a partner in his effort. He was clearly struggling, and he would often congratulate me for my willpower. He looked nervous and appeared to be losing the war.  This was a strange feeling for me. My professor was a dominating figure. Even today, I consider him as one of the three most influential men in my life. He was highly respected and well established around the world in the academic community. It was heartbreaking for me to see such helpless moments -- for such a giant in his field -- in his private war with tobacco addiction.

 A couple of months went by since my professor had his operation. I was very happy that both he and I survived the most difficult period of the withdrawal. My unfinished pack remained untouched. I was very proud of myself and felt that I might have succeeded in my effort. I was also happy with the nearly fifty-dollar savings that I made in the two months.

Then the surprise came. One morning, I went to see my professor; his office door was closed. I was about to go back, when the secretary told me to knock, in case he was available; she did not think anybody was there with him.  I knocked on the door and the professor enquired in a low deep voice. On hearing my response, he asked me to come inside.

When inside the room, I could smell cigarette smoke!! I was shocked to see that he had a burning cigarette in his hand which he was trying to hide with an expression of shame and regret! I looked with astonishment and before I could say anything, he quietly said, “I just could not stop myself today. I feel so bad.”  I did not know what to say – I was so sad and upset. I forgot about the topic that I had in my mind; instead, I spent the time talking to him about his battle and the helpless feelings that he had! I could very well empathize with his difficulties - I was going through the same problem myself.  But I could never imagine the power of this evil addiction.  Even when he was staring at certain death, he appeared helpless. It was such a contrast to who he was to me - a powerful and successful world-renowned professor, yet overwhelmed and unable to control the incessant demand for nicotine.

I left the room with a different feeling than the normal student-teacher relationship that I had with him. He needed somebody to share his deep personal difficulties of the moment and associated failures. We agreed at the end that this was a mistake, and he would certainly not smoke any more. Unfortunately, I was apprehensive and was not sure about his promise – I knew the problem firsthand.

I submitted my Ph.D. thesis in Dec 1973 and left Berkeley for a job in a Chicago suburb. I remained in close contact with my professor. The disease could not slow him down professionally. In fact, some of his most impactful collaborations and research work happened after his cancer was detected and until he passed away five years later, in 1977. He was only 52!!

Like many ex-smokers, I went back to my habit, unfortunately. Two years after I stopped smoking, I was visiting my department at the Science College in Rajabazar, where I met one of my old friends - a smoking buddy from my college days. He lit a cigarette and offered me one. I politely turned it down. He was shocked and blurted out, “You are also brainwashed by the Americans!! Come on - take one, nothing will change.” Reluctantly, I did light up the cigarette, and as I started to take those deep puffs, I could feel my old addiction inside me. I knew that it was a big mistake. 

My failure to refuse that one cigarette from my friend got me back to smoking again.  For the next 12 years, I went off and on with my desperate attempts to stay away from smoking, but most often my effort lasted a week or two before I started to smoke again. It reminded me of the wasted hard work that I did to quit for the first time - I thought of the helpless look from my professor. I was mad at my friend for having offered me that stupid cigarette – I was even angrier at myself for not being able to refuse it.

It was 1987, and the anti-smoking message was gaining ground everywhere in the USA. Our office started to talk about the rights of non-smokers, and eventually instituted ‘Smoking Only’ areas in the building. I started to smoke in secret and tried to hide my habit from my family and friends. I was indeed ashamed that I was failing in my effort.

One evening, I went outside after dinner and lit up a cigarette under our porch away from the view from our house. My younger daughter, Sharmi, suddenly wandered in from nowhere and blurted out in her five-year old English vocabulary, “Baba, you are cigaretting again! My teacher says you will get cancer!!”

Those words from my five-year old daughter hit me hard. Suddenly, it reminded me of my professor and the regrets he expressed that afternoon in his office in Berkeley. I remembered his words about his wish to see his son in college and his daughters married. I became worried about my future. I did want to see my children in college and get married, I did want to see my grandchildren.

I threw the cigarette away, picked her up and told her that I was very sorry, and I would not smoke a cigarette ever again. I did not think that my little girl realized the impact of her complaint that day. But that was the last cigarette I smoked since that day. I needed a warning from a five-year old to make me understand that I needed to live for them. I did not want to die young!

Today, in 2023, smoking and cigarette-smokes bother me as much as they bothered my housemates in 1969-70. I fondly remember their objection to my smoking inside the apartment or in the car. Despite my hate for cigarette smoke today, I know that the residue of addiction is lying dormant inside me; it would require just one cigarette to get me started. But I also know that I am too old now to make that mistake again!

In 50+ years, tobacco smoking habits have changed dramatically around the world. The smoking population in the USA has gone down to about 10% in 2022 from about 40% in the 1970s. All US public buildings have become smoke-free. It is indeed hard to find people at home, in the streets, or in the workplaces with cigarettes in hand. No wonder our 7-year-old granddaughter Mila wanted to know what a cigarette looked like. Unlike her mother Sharmi, who warned me about smoking that she learnt from her teacher at age 5 in kindergarten, the schools today do not need to talk about the evils of cigarette smoking at that early age. 

While great progress has been made in all societies to minimize tobacco smoking, far more serious addiction issues continue to overwhelm today’s youths around the world, due to the availability of many dangerous drugs pushed by criminals and drug traffickers.  This is a perennial challenge of the twenty-first century for the law enforcement and the medical communities around the world.

(Posted October 1, 2023)

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​​Comments received from Bobby P. on October 25, 2023:

"Thank you Gautam for your Article...your storytelling was very compelling...sandwiching the perils of your dear Professor and Advice from your innocent kids/grandkids.
I felt that I was part of your hard fought journey despite never have smoked in my life ! I hope many smokers will be encouraged to quit after reading about your painful trials and tribulations. It is much more interesting than reading medical journals about the dangers of carbon monoxide and tar and seeing pictures of damaged lungs.
Breathe and smell the lovely fresh Air..... compliments of Mother Nature!"

Comments received from Raj Kumar M. on November 2, 2023:

​"I read the article on the ex-smoker's story, and felt as though he was writing on my behalf. Kicking the smoking habit is one of the hardest of all as I have realised"