A long time ago, my middle-class father decided that my only passport to a better life was to get into an elite engineering college. So I made a promise to myself: I would try, and if I were successful, I would smoke. On a sultry June morning, 36 years ago, when I checked the results of the entrance test, and found that I had got through, I bought and lit my first cigarette. (Before we go on, let me say this: What you are reading is fundamentally about scientific temper. The tobacco issue is only a trigger.)
Smoking was very common then. In fact, it was stylish. People even smoked non-filtered cigarettes, and the harsher the drag you took, the more macho you thought you were—an idea driven home by the ads of that king tough-smoke brand, Charminar, made iconic among Bengalis in the 1970s by Satyajit Ray; his detective Feluda chain-smoked it. And all those novels were written for young teens! Of course, Ray turned virulently anti-smoking after his heart attack in the early 1980s. Pre-heart attack, all the men in his films smoked at an alarming rate. Post-heart attack, only the bad guys smoked. And this is hardly unique. Johann Cryuff, the great Dutch footballer, smoked 60 cigarettes a day before he was diagnosed with lung cancer—and he became an anti-smoking activist. Walter Wriston, the legendary manager who built Citibank, was a heavy smoker and had to have a lump taken out of his lungs when he was in his 30s. After that, he made tobacco a criterion when it came to promotions and raises—a smoker could not be trusted with important stuff.