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The last puff…

SHORT STORY

Dr. Abhijit Rabha

I was puzzled like I never was. I gazed down at the government order directing me to report to the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. The earlier order to take charge of a forest range stood annulled. There were hardly a few days left for me to get relieved from my duties under the Divisional Forest Officer, who was hard pressed for the presence of an Assistant Conservator of Forests, in his forest division.
Making it to Dehradun within three days was a normal travel time those days and within the said time frame, I made it toRoom Number 7- my new home in the hostel – which originally belonged to the timber branch of the Forest Research Institute of those days. Soon, the classes began and we began befriending each other amongst the batch mates. In nine months’ time, we all would be awarded a diploma in Wildlife Management by the WII and that used be a prestigious one those days. WII was the only institute to award such a diploma in the entire continent of India.
The 10 feet-tall doorway to room number four had two massive wooden doors made of Sissoo timber, more than a century old and it just seemed to get better every day. I tugged the latch of one of them and they parted. The large interiors of the room with a high ceiling gave you the idea that it was built during the colonial Raj days. The diffused light kept the interiors mutely illuminated. The aroma of burnt Van Gogh pipe tobacco assailed my nostrils. Now and then, Mr Savarkar would take a deep drag from his Briar pipe and exhale blue white tobacco smoke from the pipe. Mr Savarkar was busy poring over a survey of India topographical map from some remote corner of the wilderness in India. The man next to him was Mr William Allen Rodgers, now no more, a loss to the wildlife circles these days. The latter could walk a lot, fly a plane and gave up learning Hindi in lieu of learning Indian Field Botany. At that time, both of them were busy working on the Bio-geographical regions of our own India.
My foray into Room Number Four was just an exploratory one; to find out what goes on where. The time was close to two and the two gentlemen got ready for their lunch. “Drinks before, cigarettes after!” boomed late Rodgers and both of them vanished with the maps open on the huge table, a remnant of the colonial past.
The nine months that we spent in the Wildlife Institute of India, and feverishly worked for a Post Graduate Diploma, were tough ones. If the theoretical classes were loaded with concepts and jargons for endless hours; the months long tours in a crammed up minibus brought in no respites. Instead, they fuelled the birth of so many questions in the final semester.
At the end of the whole love and hate affair with the WII, we repacked our light baggage which had grown heavier by a mite due the inclusion of the Diploma certificate inside them. Returning to my headquarters, I found myself homeless, as the officers from the outlying forest ranges manning the Indo-Bhutan Boundary made the Forest Inspection Bungalow their home and endowed that with filthiness supreme. So a clean room at affordable monthly rent became another temporary room for a bachelor. The tag of bachelorhood was a problem. Every household seemed to rent out one or two rooms or so, but would back away when they found out my marital status.
In the afternoons, I took a long walk that would encroach into the hours known for the ghosts and goblins to come out, spook and scare people not partial to sleeping early enough. I was standing in front of a small cigarette and betel nut vendor’s shop. My last cigarette was gone and I sorely missed the post-dinner tobacco smoke.
Somebody was nudging at my elbow. A clear fragrance of some expensive perfume brought across the Hatisar Indo-Bhutan Boundary gate made me understand that a feminine form was trying to say something.
“Arrey, Advocate Baideo! I do not have the brand for your kind tonight. What about a packet of Marlboros, really original, brought from Kathmandu?”
I found the source of the fragrance now. This was wafting out from a beautifully aging lady of about forty plus in a stunning saree. Not very far away, a Maruti 800 with its chauffeur stood on the edge of the tarred road, with its parking lights on.
“No, nyet, nein and nahinhoga! I want my usual pack of the brand named the ‘More’.”
I knew about those slim ‘More’ cigarettes that are terribly weak ones due to the very miserly contents of Nicotine. I had developed a disliking for those cigarettes from the very first puff. It was a bad investment considering my salary obtained those days. I remembered that more than half a packet still lying preserved in my waist pack.
“Hey, Subhro, I will pay anything if you can arrange at least half a pack of More cigarettes. See I have had my dinner and have an urge of a drug addict for that after dinner smoke, don’t you see!”
Something came over me. I confronted the wonderfully fragrant personality. I noticed the still youthful features of the lady. For the awfully late night hours, she was too beautiful to risk herself on those troubled days. In those days, in every nook or corner of our township, improvised bomb devices were exploding, killing a few, but maiming hundreds of innocent people.
“Madam, I still have half a pack of the brand of cigarettes that you prefer above the Marlboros.”
“Okay, I will buy you a new pack of Marlboros in exchange of the satisfying More cigarettes.”
In no time, she was blowing nice rings of smoke out of her mouth. It was nice to see the transformation of a strained personality into a satisfied one. Soon, thereafter, I was promoted and sent out of the troubled township to somewhere in Assam.
Many years went by. Last year, I was late returning from a small gathering we had with my Maozegndri guys. One of the tyres of my Scorpio SUV suffered a leak and stopped in front of the old DFO’s bungalow near the DC’s court.
“What the hell are you doing here, Abhi?”
“I would say the same for you Baideo !”
“You still smoke the Filter Wills?”
“No, I prefer the India Kings these days….”
It seemed we met each other in the unearthly hours in unlikeliest place after eons of times. “But this is the last stick of IK I am smoking..”
“It doesn’t matter, let me have the privilege of having the last puff; don’t mind, Abhi…”
She nearly snatched the smoking cigarette and went off to a corner as the lights of a police vehicle turned towards her.
My vehicle was ready with its spare-tyre already fixed in place and I turned to go. But I could not spot the lady, only had the glimpse of the burning tip of the cigarette.
The month of December came and I was in some legal tangle. I was in the court of the Judicial Magistrate with my counsel. Casually, during the tea time, the topic of the lady advocate came up. “Do you happen to remember the name of the advocate, who you say smoked expensive imported cigarettes?”
“Yes… I met her just a month ago”. I gave him the name.
“It cannot be… or you are plain crazy.”
“What???”
“Remember the serial blasts in Guwahati in the black October?
“So?”‘
“An advocate by that name was blown to bits here in a bomb blast. Sorry, if that hurts you…”

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