Smoking is one of the most indefensible habits but many creative people indulge in it. Why is smoking so appealing to the creative fraternity? This also includes writers.
When one talks about writers and nicotine, I instantly get served with an image from my memory: Gunter Grass with a dangling pipe.
I don't know if my fav writers like Naipaul or Coetzee also smoke. Perhaps Rushdie does. Or maybe he doesn't.
Among the Indian writers, I am sure of only two people who smoke. Actually, I had seen them puffing away after a seminar in a lit conference in Delhi: Ruchir Joshi (The Last Jet Engine Laugh) and Githa Hariharan (In Times of Siege). I hope I recognized them correctly.
But well, there are many other examples from another generation. Picasso, Sartre, Camus, Orwell: They all did it, more or less.
One of the best novels, in any language, that I've ever read is the Chechniyan novel, My Dagistan by Rasool Humzatov. I had read it in translation in Hindi but despite it being a translated work, its creative power was hard to ignore. The novel started with a sentence like this: "Agar Allah Talah kabhi koi kahani kehna shuru karta hoga to woh zaroor pehle cigrette ka ek lamba kash leta hoga" (If God would ever start telling a story, he must would go for a long drag of the cigarrette).
Cigarette companies cannot find a better endorser than the Almighty Himself but then that is a matter of creative speculation.
Here are some of the lesser mortals holding forth on the subject:
I guess I began to smoke regularly at university, because everybody else was smoking. Even my English tutor sucked on a cigarette the entire time she had eight or nine of us imprisoned in her tiny room; she would spell out the spatial relationships in a poem such as Gerard Manley Hopkins's Wreck of the Deutschland with her fag pack and her box of matches, voicing the lines round the cigarette that hung from her nether lip. Dragging on my own fag was the only way to avoid the nausea reflex that other people's smoke can still trigger. If others in a group are smoking, I'll smoke; if not not. For years I smoked only OP's - other people's. I can work for eight or nine hours in a library without feeling any kind of craving for a cigarette, but I'll probably light up on the way home, if there's a cigarette in the car. If there's not, I won't make a special stop to get some.
In the 1950s my fellow students were smoking cork-tipped Virginia cigarettes, Craven A, Ardath, De Reszke (pronounced Dee Rezeek), and Du Maurier, which always struck me as dry and tasteless. Tough guys smoked untipped cigarettes, Senior Service and Pall Mall. The more adventurous - or pretentious - smoked exotic cigarettes, Black Sobranie or Passing Clouds. My mates and I followed the example of Picasso, Sartre, Camus and Orwell; we smoked Gauloises "brunes". And I still would, if I could ever find them. The last French factory making them shut down nearly two years ago. Altadis, the company that manufactures Gauloises, is being stalked by Imperial Tobacco. The younger generation does not like dark tobacco, so we old reprobates must do without. "Liberté toujours!" has given way to "British American Tobacco rules OK". As the rich are growing out of the tobacco habit, the poor are being sucked into it. Our children smoke in the same spirit that they disfigure themselves with piercing and tattoos. The pleasure principle has nothing to do with it.
There was a ritual to my smoking when I sat down at my desk, one that involved the wearing of a pair of white gloves. This was to stop the inside of my fingers turning brown. I placed a packet of cigarettes directly in front of me, and a tin hat that had belonged to my father at my right elbow. The latter had nothing to do with the ceiling falling down; it was simply to cope with ash and stubs. Then, three years ago, my left big toe froze up and my calf hurt. On a warning that I might have to have a leg off, I gave up smoking. Since 1973 I had been used to writing a novel a year, as well as columns and articles. Suddenly, all the words drifted out of my head. My explanation for this is as follows. When young, the creative urge stems from a desire, a need to explain the meaning of one's own particular existence. God knows why: possibly it has something to do with the events in childhood. Then, as the years pass and life gets the boot in, the brain no longer works in the same way. What was once intuitive becomes muddied by experience, by the effects of age. It isn't that one doesn't feel the same way, simply that the optimism, the life force has begun to rust. Nicotine contains something that invigorates the mind, returns it after a puff or two to its original state.
I can well see that the young shouldn't smoke, just in case. But maybe those over 70 should be allowed to continue. What about a room in pubs and restaurants set aside for those of mature years?