Smoke Circles

November 13, 2018
Large head surrounded by a ring of smoke
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

My great-grandmother was a lifelong smoker.

Even in retrospect, the image of her mystifies me. There she is: ninety-something, her body soft and small and folded, a silver braid peeking out from beneath the lace cap she always wore. And there, in an innocent corner of her Karachi home, is her favorite hookah pipe, with its green base and its strange, saccharine scent of burnt tobacco. Every day, after saying her prayers and pulling the hairs from her comb, she situated herself in front of the pipe like the emperor in a Mughal miniature. Left hand propped on her knee, gold rings glinting, expertly blowing smoke circles into the air. She had something about her like the air of a Persian kingpin. Powerful and pious and calm.

My great-grandmother gave birth to ten children and buried two of them. She did not protest when her husband decided, at the height of colonial violence, to move his family from an undivided India to a fraught and frenetic Iran (a decision which, today, would likely be considered lateral at best). By no means was she defined by her vices and yet, it is the smoking by which I remember her, the smoking which most fascinates and perplexes me. In our stern, straight-laced family, she was the only woman to possess the habit.

Normally, men are the ones expected to indulge. I see them everywhere in Pakistan, tapping thin, homemade cigarettes between hairy fingers, ignoring the sporadic interruption of a public service admonishment. Shopping malls and government buildings, high school courtyards and decaying libraries are all fair game. Smoking is an embedded fact of life for these men. Many of them, when unable to hold a cigarette, hold hands instead, linking fingers as they weave through traffic. I remember, during a summer in Karachi, noticing for the first time the prevalence of this frank, unembarrassed intimacy and thinking that I pitied American men for having nothing similar.

And yet, even in the West, smokers follow a different set of rules, existing somewhere on the fringe of our unfriendly, untactile society. I notice them while walking to class (or to the Women’s Center), how they congregate on sidewalks and above trash cans, claiming the public space as their own. And I can’t help but be impressed---nothing draws strangers together quite like the camaraderie of a communal addiction.

Still, something about the act of smoking is hopelessly outdated: the unconscious choreography of hand to lighter to cigarette. The way lips flatten around a thin stream of nicotine and tobacco. It reminds me of the roaring twenties and the Hepburn generation, of Don Draper pouring himself a midmorning scotch after polishing off a second pack. It is part rebellion and part acquiescence--upheaval and continuity. There have always been smokers and there likely will always be smokers.

A woman sitting like a man would, in a tea shop with her shoes kicked off, tossing a shared lighter onto the table, is, in most neighborhoods, an inconceivable thing.

I spotted a cluster of them the other day, across from the University Hospital. Legally prohibited from standing too close to the building, they were gathered beneath a spindly tree, its color mostly gone, its branches brushing the tops of their heads. As I passed them, inhaling the scent (so reminiscent of rental cars and airport lounges) which rose from them in tendrils, I heard snippets of conversation, stories of partners about to go into labor, of children who fell during football practice. I saw a lighter pass casually between hands as rain began to fall. And even though I have never smoked, I found this gesture endearing.

I was reminded again of the fluidity of male friendships of Pakistan, the ease with which men light each other’s cigarettes and embrace when they greet each other. And I was indignant for the women who were unable to do the same. A woman sitting like a man would, in a tea shop with her shoes kicked off, tossing a shared lighter onto the table, is, in most neighborhoods, an inconceivable thing.

I am almost proud of my great-grandmother for smoking as she did--without shame and to the end. And I was similarly proud of myself, last New Year’s Eve, for going with my cousins to a Karachi dhaba. We were, it seemed, the only women for miles, sitting in a sea of smokers and sipping our chai. All around us, men shared their resolutions and regrets with each other as the scent of tobacco buried itself in our clothes and hair. The streets were packed so closely with bodies that traffic had stalled. A teenage boy ran through the crowd wearing a Pakistani flag on his sweat-soaked shoulders, his friends close behind. At midnight, the masses of men around us burst into cheers, lighting cigarettes in lieu of toasting champagne.

And there we were, an island of womanhood, inexplicably at ease. The noise soon subsided and gave way to quiet conversations on cell phones. A man at the next table called his wife to tell her he would be home soon, putting out a cigarette as he spoke. I felt a familiar twinge of irritation.

But there was a new year ahead of me. When I stood to leave, smoke was clinging to my skin. And I was thinking of my great-grandmother.

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