The best thing about my office is our 13th-floor balcony. It gives a sweeping view of the ridge in Delhi, a portion of the Lutyens zone and the haphazard concrete jungle of Karol Bagh and Punjabi Bagh.
I like telling my friends that when the sun is about to set the vast expanse of the old houses and office buildings remind me of the Egyptian old quarters in Cairo. Only the minarets are missing here when the sun dips into the horizon.
But of course no one believes me they say my imagination is running wild! (I have only seen Cairo on National Geographic).
So this balcony, it’s a favourite hangout for us smokers and also those who come out for fresh air but end up breathing tobacco. I feel bad for them. They have to inhale second-hand smoke!
This evening after umpteen trips to the balcony throughout the day, I went out for one last well-earned fag after rewriting three mind-numbingly bad copies on the Maoist massacre in Chhattisgarh.
Some guys were already there smoking and one of them offered me a bidi, which he had bummed off a group four staff. Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures when you’ve run out of stock. I gladly accepted the bidi, hadn’t smoked one in a long time.
While the very mention of bidi conjures up images of a scantily-clad Bipasha swinging lustily to Bidi Jalaile (Gulzar can also write this!) somewhere in the badlands of UP, I was reminded of an incident in my third year in college when I borrowed bidis from a police constable.
It was 2.30 in the morning. We were a group of five buddies studying for our final exams in my hostel room when we smoked the last cigarette.
We had four hours to go till we hit the sack and the exams were a couple of weeks away. Since the last two weeks were the only time of the year we touched the books (not necessarily read them) it was quite crucial that we stay awake.
So off we went in search of cigarettes. It was teeth-chatteringly cold and foggy outside. But we were an optimistic lot.
Our optimism stemmed from the fact that there was an all-night tea stall just outside the campus. It catered to insomaniacs like us and attendants of patients admitted to the Banaras Hindu University medical college and hospital.
But to our horror we found the tea-stall was closed, the dense fog and biting cold ensured that we were the only ones seeking adventure that night within a million miles.
Walking back the one kilometer stretch felt longer. But as Paolo Coelho wrote in one of his crappy books that if you want something badly the whole universe conspires with you to get it or something like that, we spotted our saviours.
A group of constables and homeguards were sitting huddled in front of a flickering fire, which threatened to die anytime.
We looked at each other with bright eyes all of us thinking the same thing. Suddenly all their collective eyes were on me meaning I have to do the dare.
It was not an easy task considering cops were a menace if you were found loitering outside the campus late at night and here I was going to ask them if they had cigarettes to spare.
I approached the cops gingerly while my friends stopped a few steps behind. Clearing my throat I said “Chacha ek the bidi mili (can I get a bidi)?” in the local Banarasi dialect.
My tension eased when I saw a welcoming smile on their faces. “Aye bachha log etna raati ke kahan ghumat haua (why you kids roaming around so late in the night?,” one of them asked in a friendly tone.
By then my friends had joined me seeing the cops smiling. We told them we were studying for our exams and have run out of cigarettes.
One of the constables, who looked like the senior in the group, took out his pack of bidis and gave one to each of us. Trying to soak in the warmth of the fire we dragged on the bidis and chatted for a while.
As we were about to leave the same guy called me and gave two bidis each for the five of us.
I still remember what he said with a gap-toothed smile peeking out of his bushy salt-and-pepper mustache: “E la du the aur bidi rakha aur ache se padhai kara humre jaisan havaldar mat baniha (here take two more bidis and study well don’t become a constable like me)!”