Mydavolu Venkata Sesha Sathyanarayana, Longlist Short Story 2017

Smoke

Mydavolu Venkata Sesha Sathyanarayana

I stopped my bike before the cigarette stall, but kept the engine idling. Taking the weight of the bike on my left foot, looking at the man in the stall I asked:
“One pack of cigarettes.” and I told him the brand.

He must be in his mid-forties. He was fair in colour and good looking.  He was making a paan with beetle leaves and nuts. He once raised his head, threw a brief glance at me and then looked at his assistant standing behind him in that small kiosk. The assistant, a boy in teens quickly picked out a packet from the racks, my brand of cigarettes and handed over to me. Showing a little surprise I said:

“This brand is not available in all shops. Good… you got. Do you regularly sell them?”
“Hmm!” He replied. “This brand doesn’t move well. Still we keep stocks for some regular customers.”
I nodded my head and said: “Well I found your shop.  Hope I will have no problem hereafter.” and drove away.
I became a regular customer of that shop. But to my little annoyance, everytime I visited the stall, the shopkeeper looked at me as if I was a stranger and kept his question “Which cigarette?”
One day not hiding my irritation I quipped at him: “Hey man, know your regular customers.”
A little shocked he said “Sorry Sir. Yes…I know you. This will never happen.” I smiled and left. Next time when I was approaching the shop the shopkeeper flashed a friendly smile at me and yelled at his assistant:
 “…brand cigarettes for Sir.”
I laughed heartily and said: “Thank God. You recognised. By the way what’s your name?”
“Roshan Sir.”
“Nice name Roshan. Now we are friends.”

I pulled out a cigarette,  lighted it, took a deep puff and said:
“Cigarettes are killers…doctors say. But well I am unable to quit the habit. Hmm.  Do you smoke Roshan?”
He laughed “Sir, cigarette vendors don’t smoke, bartenders don’t drink and most of the pimps are eunuchs!”

I too laughed aloud and said “Roshan, so many guys like me are standing around your shop and smoking. See… passive smoking is also dangerous and here sitting in your roadside stall you’re inhaling a lot of smoke coming from the vehicles and well there’s dust and stinking sewer lines nearby. Our advancing science is in fact grooming the atmosphere around into a killing machine.”
Sucking one more long puff and looking at the empty sky I added:

“Hmm,  let me have your phone number.  I tell my wife that you must be the first invitee to my funeral.” and laughed again.
Roshan did not find it amusing.  With visible pain in his eyes said: “I love to visit your home Sir…but surely not for funeral!”
He added “I am not worried about this pollution around Sir. The real pollution comes out of human hearts. Our greed, hatred and evil thoughts are real pollutants on the earth. I see and listen to them all sitting here. People standing here talk so many things…good, bad and ugly. I see the vulgar side of human mind. Well,  our scientists may take a longer time to understand the faint demurs of the fast tearing Ozone shield.”

Surprised I asked “Hey…what are you? Some kind of scientist cum philosopher, giving sermons sitting in this small hermitage called a cigarette stall?!” I laughed and added “Hmm a new concept, I must admit…and very logical too!”
He smiled shyly and said “My father taught me how to see the right from the wrong; and the good from the bad. I am a 10th standard drop out… hmm… when my father died!”

I became Roshan’s regular and best customer and his best friend too.  I stopped going to any other shop for cigarettes.  Often evenings I spent at his cigarette stall, just few minutes, sipping Tea sold by the next shop and smoking, talking to him and laughing. By the way I kept observing what he said about the pollution emitting out of human hearts.

Roshan always surprised me with his novel concepts and deep-rooted thoughts. Mostly I talked less and heard him. He is much younger to me and not well educated too. Whenever he came out with his new thoughts I used to quip “10th Standard drop out!” and laugh. Again I used to say “Good thing…you didn’t spend long years in schools and colleges. The open world taught you much more than what these institutions can offer!”

That day I woke up late in the morning. Sowmya came up with a cup of hot coffee to my bed and said “Good morning Sooraj ji! Your Sun dawned late today it seems.”
I flashed a lazy smile and said “Feeling a little tired!”
“That’s because of smoking. Smoking slowly reduces your energy and vigour! You know things, but don’t do.” She started the usual sermons, pretending anger.
“Come on darling! Smoking stimulates the brain activity. I am a writer you see. I need few puffs to write the best.”
“Nonsense!” She quipped. “You know better than that Sooraj.”

“Come on my dear!” I said softly, “Smoke or no smoke…we don’t live forever! We polluted the earth enough and anything  around us can kill us at any time, even one vulgar abuse coming out of our mouth!” Sowmya really got angry. Looking sharply she was about to say something,  when my cell phone rang. She picked up phone, heard silently for few minutes,  put down the phone, wearily walked to my bed and sat down by my side.
“Sorry Sooraj… bad news… Roshan died today at early hours.  His younger brother called. The cause of death not known!”

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