Here is something that happens to me very often.
Someone I don't know very well wants to smoke. They offer me a cigarette. I say "Thank you, but I don't smoke." They always respond with "Oh? When did you stop?" I say, "I've never smoked in my life." A pointless argument follows.
"What do you mean? I have seen you smoking!" they declare, shocked. I patiently reply, "Perhaps you're confusing me with someone else." "Arre no!" they insist. "I have seen you with my own eyes!"
It's very hard to combat a false memory. The irony here is, not only do I not smoke, I am close to being an anti-smoking type. My home is no-smoking though since I don't believe in such hardcore intolerance I allow people one window sill to smoke on. I look long suffering when friends smoke around me. Dear readers, I shamefully admit, I might even be that cherubic little girl with accusing eyes in that cough- homework-karo-beta-cough-anti-smoking video that's shown in cinema halls. On at least two birthdays, I definitely did ask my father, who was a chain smoker for much of his life, if he could quit as a birthday present to me, which seems like the cloying, filmi thing that kid would do.
Despite all this, why do people think they have seen me smoking? Could I be a sleep-smoker?
It is simply their stereotype of "women like you." That is to say, unconventional, opinionated, "artist", feminist, hence definitely 'smoking-drinking types', you know? I use so many air quotes because these words are frequently used with a nudge and wink of implication. It's not that the people who tell me this are very strait-laced or simplistic in their claimed world-view. But the idea of certain traits and behaviours coming as one package deal seems so close to even a complex surface.
A funny story of the "smoking lady" as problem figure was one I heard from a colleague. She was smoking outside an airport and got into an argument with the security guard about something. He called for support on his walkie talkie thus - "Jaldi aao, ek badmaash aurat yahan cigarette pi rahi hai" (Come fast a rowdy woman is smoking here).
Such stereotypes are funny, until they are not. For they are also used to single people out, label them and then justify violence. In 1991, the filmmaker Madhusree Dutta was beaten by policemen at Borivali station while buying cigarettes. In court someone suggested her injuries were from tripping because she was drunk ("smoking-drinking types").
25 years later, we may believe we are less narrow-minded. Then, we hear about a young man being beaten up in Kandivali because he was smoking outside a building society on a public road and so, accused of disrespectful behaviour. Not even the cherubic girl in the film would agree with this. The folks in this neighbourhood have recently formed a vigilante group to rid their area of 'bad' elements who molest girls. Laudable as the goal may be, the leap from smoking to molestation and poor character would put a retrograde Bollywood script to shame.
Smoking may be a vice. But, what should we call this addiction to the opiate of prejudice that has us in its grip?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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