Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Dum Maro Dum

One skill I have tried to learn unsuccessfully (and I am now thankful for that) is that of smoking a cigarette. Maybe it was a sub-conscious impotence imbedded in my lungs, but I just could not draw the smoke inwards. Maybe it was the 'warnings' that I had been fed with. Whatever, the cigarette stayed as anathema unlike alcohol which I enjoy in small amounts at treats/parties.

For all the smokers who swear by their malboro/wills/kings and the non-smokers who curse the existence of tobacco, A.R.Venkatachalapathy's book "In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History" has a chapter on tobacco. This blog-entry is the second in the series of 'chapter-wise' review of the book. A little slyly titled chapter is:, "Triumph of Tobacco: The Tamil Experience". Sly wrt to what?? Before you get any Madrasi vs Hindi debate, let me put it straight that the slyness is wrt to the word 'triumph'.

The obsession that Indians have for tobacco is to be seen to be believed. It is consumed in three forms namely inhalation by burning (cigarettes and bidis) and chewing (tobacco leaves) and inhaling snuff. Historically, it is proved that tobacco came from shores far away but got Indianised sufficiently. As an extract goes:

"Tobacco, along with pineapple, cashewnut, papaya, guava, chilli and potato, came with the Portuguese to India in the sixteenth century. But tobacco has become so much a part of Indian society, that, following Ashis Nandy on cricket, one could almost say that tobacco was an Indian crop accidentally discovered by the Europeans!..."

There is another extract which proves that economics played a vital role in tobacco fanning out all over:

"...Newcomers always do indeed face resistance from existing crops and consumption habits.But K.N.Chaudhuri observes that tobacco(and maize), unlike potato, was readily accepted and from this he surmises that it found 'an immediate opening in the economic and social surface of existing farming practices.'. Irfan Habib calls the rapid extension of the cultivation of tobacco 'one of the most remarkable changes in the crop pattern that occured within the course of the seventeenth century' and, contrary to received wisdom about pesant traditionalism, sees in this a 'remarkable readiness' on the part of peasants to cultivate anything that could sell well"...

Another interesting extract is this: "A crucial aspect of tobacco cultivation in India was the fact that it had no export market. '[N]early the whole of tobacco produced in India is consumed in the country, the great bulk of it in the district in which it is grown'.In fact it was not quoted in the London market at all......"

Francis Buchanan in 'A Journey fron Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar', 1807 (AES Reprint), Vol I, p 52 says about the differential response to tobacco:

"In both the upper and lower Carnatics, taking snuff is much more common than in Bengal: indeed, I have never been in a country where the custom is more prevalent. Smoking, on the contrary is in great disrepute..."

All the above statements have been taken from the Government records. More info is found in the Tamil literary texts. They are mainly in the form of poems disguised as odes to Gods but which contain huge references to tobacco. Example?

"Seeni Chakkarai Pulavar in 'Pugaiyilai Vidu Thoothu' (Tobacco as the Messenger) in an innovative move, presses tobacco into service. Tobacco is given the task of taking the message of the pining lady-love to Lord Murugan of Palani. However, the message is only a pretext. For, of the 59 couplets (kanni),53 are in praise of tobacco with a mere six forming the text of the message".

The blind-love towards tobacco was broken with the advent of the English educated middle class and the rise of the national movement.But, see the irony..."..While the mahatma (Gandhi) went about condemning tobacco, enterprising traders marketed 'Gandhi Cigarettes'!!..."

All in all, this chapter was pretty dry without the thrill and feel-good factor associated with the coffee chapter. Or is my inherent dislike towards tobacco proving to be a mental block??

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