A Good Friend

For thy sake, Tobacco, I
Would do anything but die,
And but seek to extend my days
Long enough to sing thy praise.

Charles Lamb

Henry was a heavy smoker. He had been a heavy smoker since the age of thirteen, when he tried his first cigarette. Unlike in all those stories you hear, about kids choking on their first fag and how they would have to give it several goes before learning to inhale, Henry’s earliest experiences with tobacco were thoroughly enjoyable. Right from the start he was smoking a pack a day, an average he maintained for something like forty years.

Occasionally, of course, he smoked even more heavily, especially when he was working. Henry was a writer, he wrote detective stories. By the time he finished work on a book, his throat would be so raw he could hardly talk. So he would quit smoking for a day or two, get plenty of sleep and before long his cigarettes were tasting fresh again.

There were also times Henry cut down drastically. Whenever he was traveling, and he traveled a lot, he would always take along plenty of chewing gum. Riding long distances on busses and trains, he preferred, for some unknown reason, chewing to smoking. So that helped considerably and there were no withdrawal symptoms. Henry, you see, never tried to control his smoking. He didn’t believe in that. In fact, he reckoned will power was a myth, just one of the ego’s many devices for inflating itself.

In Southeast Asia, which Henry took to visiting regularly, he discovered betel, that pungent green leaf the natives use to induce mellowness. They wrap it around the chopped-up nut of the areca palm, add some white lime paste and a variety of spices, then chew it. It makes your mouth go all red and sticky and there’s nothing more aesthetically devastating than when some pretty Thai or Malay girl, the village sort usually, suddenly smiles at you. You expect a set of beautiful white teeth to contrast with her dark, smooth skin. Instead you get a great blob of red gunk. Most of the older betel chewers, both men and women, are toothless. That’s because of the lime. Henry liked chewing betel all right but he did without the lime. False teeth are expensive and bothersome and Henry was a little vain.

Once he stopped smoking outright, for six months. That was in Bali, a very magical island off the east coast of Java. In those days Bali was still a perfect little paradise, inhabited by luscious tropical vegetation, warm sea air and the most friendly people on earth. Then, as with many an erstwhile Shangri-la, it was invaded by middle-class tourists and started turning sour.

First, Javanese money men constructed a big, ugly hotel in Sanur, much to the local people’s chagrin. Later, after the hippies had discovered the place and for the most part come to terms with native customs, international tour developers began pressing to have Kuta Beach similarly commercialized. Electric lighting was introduced; neon signs popped up; Japanese motorcycles went roaring along the sands at dusk, disturbing the peaceful nature lovers who came to meditate on the most entrancing sunset on earth. Worse still, the Balinese themselves were now thinking about money.

Henry hated mass tourism. He thought it the most evil occurrence of this century. He once wrote a newspaper article in which he likened tourism to the atom bomb. At least the bomb, he said, would destroy everything at once, whereas tourists were gradually gnawing away at the fiber of countless remarkable cultures, reducing local arts and crafts to mere businesses and making people more greedy than ever before. Sometimes he wished the man in the White House or the Kremlin would just push the button and get it over with.

In Bali, Henry discovered a truly exquisite cigarette, the kretek. For many years afterward, even though kretek are hard to come by outside of Indonesia, they remained Henry’s favorite smoke. He liked them almost as much as he liked marijuana and hashish, and these he loved dearly. In fact, he liked them so much that after a month he stopped smoking them. His desire for tobacco simply evaporated.

Now kretek are unusual in many ways. To begin with, they are heavily laced with cloves, which not only gives them a tangy flavor, it also makes them stronger than ordinary cigarettes. Originally, sufficient cloves to satisfy the needs of kretek smokers were grown in Indonesia itself, mostly in the Moluccas, the fabled Spice Islands, northeast of Bali, near New Guinea. Today, half the requirement is imported from Zanzibar, which has long since cornered the world market for cloves. Ironically, the first Zanzibari clove seeds were brought there from the Moluccas, back when the Dutch were still running things in the East Indies. (Or should that be ‘ruining’?) Now the Indonesians have to pay hard cash for the descendants of those early plants. But that’s the way things go.

Henry’s favorite smoke is also bigger than most cigarettes and burns more slowly. In Jogjakarta, a university town in central Java, where the air is absolutely permeated with the sweet smell of cloves, they even have kretek a foot long and two inches in diameter. But Henry didn’t like these, they made him woozy. He preferred the regular kind, which come in packs of ten, though you can also buy them singly. In the beginning he smoked only a pack a day; but before long, so good were his kretek tasting, he was knocking back more than twenty-five between sunrise and when he retired, around ten o’clock. After just three weeks, Henry could hardly breathe.

Then he moved away from Den Pasar, Bali’s small capital city, a mere town actually, where pony carts, called dokars, jangle their bells to warn sarong-clad pedestrians of their hurried coming and in whose crowded marketplace a few coppers will buy you a selection of choice tropical fruits or a substantial Chinese or Indonesian meal, a steaming bowl of rice with fresh prawns or a dozen grilled pork satays. He moved away from the Adi Yasa Hotel, away from mornings filled with the stereophonic sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival, and rented a grass hut near the beach down at Kuta. There, among other things, he started reading a book on yoga.

About midway through the book, the Indian author made his one and only reference to smoking. “Breathe fresh air instead,” he wrote. Henry was ripe. That single sentence made such an impact on him, not only on his thinking mind but on his whole being, that he didn’t touch another kretek, or any other cigarette, until he was leaving Bali six months later, by which time he was ripe in another way. Needing to conceal the smell of his ganja during the bus rides north, he chose to blend it with kretek-scented tobacco. In no time flat, he was off and running again.

Now you know how most people, once they’ve quit smoking, become very self-righteous about it. Well, Henry didn’t get that way. Though very much into his new trip, he never tried to lay it on anyone else. Except once, with Tom.

Tom was an old Asia hand who lived by his wits, seldom doing anything people in straight society would call work. He divided his time, pretty evenly, between the flesh pots of Bangkok, the opium dens of Penang and the rather exclusive rear courtyard of Adi’s hotel, a haven for travelers who liked rock music, congenial company and a steady flow of good Sumatran grass. It was Tom who first taught the gang at Adi’s how to make little cardboard filters for their joints, even the single-paper American kind. Henry, in particular, thought it a grand idea and to this day never rolls a number without thinking fondly of Tom.

One day, around the time Tom was again making ready to leave for Thailand (he usually sailed on a banana boat from Singaradja to Hong Kong, where he would engage in some, ah, ‘business,’ then flew), Henry cycled up from Kuta to pay a visit. It was a splendid afternoon, cloudless despite the impending October monsoon, the hot sun tempered by a gentle hint of cool summer breeze. Adi was at the cockfights, either winning promises or losing the family heirlooms. The hotel staff—cheerful, robust peasants, most of them from nearby villages—were having their daily siesta.

Only Wardo, a hefty fellow who never seemed to rest, was at work drawing water for the bathing cisterns. In a spot of shade at one end of the square yard, a fattening piglet slept, untroubled. It was still some weeks before the next religious festival and the homely banquet at which he would provide the main sustenance, but only after Wardo plunged a knife into his heart and skewered him on a long spit for roasting. The Hindus of Bali share much in common with their caste brethren in India, but the vegetarian habit is not among those traits. The ritual of cutting up a still-living tortoise is especially something to watch.

When Henry strolled into the posterior compound via the covered passage that angled its way by a series of sharp turnings past the family temple with its fierce stone gods and sprawling banyan tree, past the open doorway of a large, dark kitchen, its magnificent mud stoves ranged on either side of a clean dirt floor, Tom was taking a break. All morning he’d been cleaning and pressing grass and now he was lining his suitcase with the finished mats. He greeted Henry with his customary grin, shifting a little so the balding writer could sit next to him on the step leading up to Adi’s personal quarters, where the only spare room was always reserved for the odd Western girl passing through on her own. More often than not she was Australian. Then Tom offered Henry a cigarette, a kretek.

“No, Tom, thanks anyway. I’ve quit, y’know. Haven’t smoked anything for weeks. My, it sure is good, breathing fresh air instead of the stale smoke of dead, dried leaves.”

Though it wasn’t at all like him, there was something a trifle superior in Henry’s tone. It carried the notion of proper wisdom, all right, but lacked the humble certainty of someone who really knew. An excruciatingly fragile border, to be sure.

Tom struck a wooden match to his own cigarette and smiled, but just barely. He dragged deeply, held the smoke in his lungs for a string of long seconds and exhaled. Wisps of pale blue fume wafted aloft from the kretek’s glowing tip. In the hushed silence you could verily hear the cloves crackle. Was it true that with at least some of the brands they mixed in a few shreds of ganja? No, most likely that was merely a rumor. It was the cloves, for sure, that got you a wee bit high and had even confirmed nonsmokers asking for an occasional puff…then ending up buying their own packs! What would happen, Tom sometimes wondered, if you were to shoot up with cloves?

“Well, yes, Henry,” Tom said at last, “you may have a point there. But a cigarette…,” and he turned to gaze, lovingly, at the stately fag burning slowly down toward his fingers, his free hand nonchalantly stroking a short, bristly beard, “a cigarette can also be a good friend. Yes, sir.”

Tom nodded, Indian fashion, and took another hard drag. Henry just sat, quietly, without a thought in his head. After several minutes he ambled into Adi’s foyer and turned on the stereo. Tom went back to his room and his mats of grass.

Last year, right around Christmas time and a week or so after he’d put another novel to bed, Henry had a massive heart attack. It landed him in the last place in the world he wanted to be, the county hospital. And as there were no private rooms available, he had to content himself with the ward, where smoking was prohibited. Not that it made any difference. The first thing the doctor did was forbid Henry to even think about tobacco, let alone use it. Three days later he moved him to a semi-private room.

Ironically, Henry’s roommate was a Sikh, a wizened old gentleman with deep-set eyes, a long grey beard and even longer white hair which he wore tied in a tight bun atop his head. He was from the Punjab, land of the five waters, rich and fertile, now divided between India and Pakistan. Henry, in his overland travels, had passed through there often. Shortly after coming West to visit his granddaughter, the old man had suffered a mild stroke and was still recuperating. It was his first time away from home.

Mr. Gopal Singh—all Sikhs bear the same surname, having taken it from their tenth and last guru, the ferociously militant Gobind Singh—Mr. Singh, of course, did not smoke. His religion strictly forbade the practice. It was always a test for Henry, whenever he spent the night at a Sikh gurdwara, to dispense with his most mandatory cigarette, the one just before bedtime. And at the famous Golden Temple, in Amritsar, where he liked to stay for a week at a time, he would have to take long walks just to enjoy a peaceful beedi with his morning chai, as most tea-stall proprietors doing business near the temple precincts are not appreciative of customers who smoke.

After a day or two, Henry usually gave up cigarettes and beedis altogether, preferring to pass the hours meditating alongside the huge pool, or tank, of the Sikh mother temple, inside the marvelous open-air quadrangle with its glistening tiles and shady porticos. There he would watch the multitude of pilgrims who came daily from all parts of India and from abroad, women in brightly colored saris, bearded men in turbans and tight, white leggings, all streaming back and forth along the brass-railed ramp leading halfway across the still water to the very heart of the temple, a small, three-storied building overlaid entirely with gilt and from whose inner sanctum emanates day and night the most haunting of all Indian music, the Punjabi raga; tabla, harmonium and voice blending melodiously to recite the devout praises of God and Man according to the ultimate manifest guru, the Adi Granth, sacred book of the Sikhs.

And every so often during those brief sojourns, an inspired Henry would sit by the temple pool, even in blazing sunlight, and see nothing apart from the empty bliss at the core of his own being. Of all the religions with which he had come in contact, and there were many, the Sikh faith came closest to liberating his inner self. Perhaps even more than the Buddhists, those followers of Nanak and of the nine gurus who succeeded him tread the true middle path. Justly rendering unto both God and Caesar, and placing service to one’s fellows on the same high altar as divine worship, the true khalsa Sikh learns by daily experience how to forge, from the very human clay which he has inherited, the most lethal of all weapons for destroying the sin of ignorance and the illusion of mortality. Quite simply, the sword of love. Unfortunately, in this particular foundry, smoking is prohibited.

Mind you, even Henry was aware that to follow the essential teachings of the Sikh gurus, especially in this day and age, it was no more necessary to forego cigarette smoking than to carry around one of those silly daggers they all wear under their saris and business suits. None of that was Nanak’s idea anyway and whatever spiritual values were later ascribed to the five K’s—unshorn hair, a comb to keep it neat and clean, the dagger, a wrist bangle and, funniest of all, short pants—they were a lot more relevant to the various armed struggles in opposition to Mughal rule than to the battle against twentieth-century materialism.

Still, if one were a Sikh in any form—and a bald, unbeturbaned Henry was bound to be an unorthodox sort—it would be nice, at least occasionally, to associate at length with your coreligionists. But, alas, even after days of the most intense rapture at the Golden Temple, a week of abstinence was about all Henry could take. So he would move on; yet each time he felt a touch more troubled than at the previous parting. Finally, during his last visit to India before the heart attack, he was beginning to loathe both his tobacco habit and his annoying inability to break free from its clutches. At summer’s end he arrived home, more depressed than he’d ever been in his life. He immediately set to work on a new book. By then he was smoking more than three packs a day. His ageing heart couldn’t believe it.

“How can I quit smoking?” Henry had once asked his meditation teacher, rather casually.

“Don’t worry about it,” came the equally casual reply, “when you’re ready to stop, you will.”

As with so many wise sayings Henry had encountered in his day, he understood this one quite as thoroughly as he failed to comprehend it. Why, he wondered, does truth always have to disguise itself as a paradox? Realizing, even as he posed the question, that the only valid answer was another paradox. After two weeks in hospital, and in the peacefully penetrating company of Mr. Gopal Singh, many of those paradoxes had ceased to be. When it came time to leave, and both men were released on the same day, Henry, if not exactly enlightened, was certainly very close to understanding his own true nature. He was also, as you may have guessed, a nonsmoker.

Oh, yes, Henry still allows himself the odd joint, a single-paper job with that tiny cardboard filter tucked in at the end. And, albeit less often, he sometimes pops a gram of Leb Red or Kabul Black into one of his many hash pipes and passes it around, though not in the presence of his Sikh friends, of course. But the tobacco habit is gone, probably for good. Only this time, Henry doesn’t feel in any way superior about it.

After all, if it hadn’t been for all those cigarettes, along with other things like the strain of writing detective stories or even just the common pleasures of day to day life, Henry might never have met Mr. Singh. Nor would he have realized his growing dream to become, outwardly as well as inwardly, a Sikh brother. Like the man had said it would, it all came together once Henry was ready. And cigarettes, from menthols to kretek, had certainly played their part, as well as giving comfort and relaxation for many years.

Tom had hit the mark, all right, more than he ever knew. That little weed had sure been a good friend.

© 2010 by Eddie Woods

First published in The New Millenium (Kerala, India) and then in Parisiana