Jostling With Ethics -2- : Puffing a Bit of Smoke


One of the earliest ethical jostles that I remember was about smoking. I was in Class X and I was going to a school where many of my friends, the tough and the non-sissy ones, were experimenting with tobacco. Holding a cigarette, inhaling its smoke, blowing a ring, all these seemed so macho. I must admit that I was tempted to join these heroes of my class. Also, my father was a heavy smoker. I have seen him use cigarettes, cheroots and the al-bola from my infant days. Surely there would be no harm in smoking? And if Baba was such a heavy smoker, using up more that a packet every day, then smoking could not be ethically wrong? No. I was quite convinced that smoking was a macho manly stylish thing to do. Yet, I could not bring myself to the actual act of smoking for a set of complicated reasons.

Bani Dasgupta was my mother’s second sibling. My Ma was the eldest child. Then there was a girl named Kalyani (who’s son Bhaskar was my closest pal in the family) and then there was Bani. I called her Moni-maashi and she was extremely fond of me. I reciprocated fully. She was about five years younger than Ma. That made her about twenty years my senior. It so happened that she was smitten by a younger cousin of my father named Birendra Nath, my Kutti-Kaka when she was still in her teens. The elders in my family were however not amused by this play of romance. By family traditions, two bahus could not be brought from the same household. That was that. Thus the young things pined away while accepting the family dictate. They were however determined not to marry any other person. They marched determinedly into blessed single adulthood. Unfortunately, Moni maashi contracted TB when she was about twenty-nine. In the forties of the last century, TB was not easily curable. She had willingly forsaken matrimony. But as she realized that her days were numbered, her desire for motherhood and related emotions became very strong. She picked on me to be her emotional son-substitute and poured all her affection on me. I too felt attracted to her. For a child in his pre-teen years such overwhelming affection had to be reciprocated. In one of her interactions with me, she had extracted a promise from me that I will not indulge in smoking. She hated the smell of tobacco. I was then barely nine or ten years old. Then she went and died. I grieved for her and she remained quite alive in my memory. Thus, three or four years later, when the urge to smoke rose in my heart, it came in direct conflict with my commitment to Moni maashi.

So far, the story is quite simple and appears quite clearly as a matter of love and emotions rather than a matter of ethics. I had never considered smoking to be wrong. How could I, when Baba smoked so heavily? No. From that angle, my decision to smoke or not to smoke did not involve any interference of ethics. Days rolled on. Migration from Pakistan, rehabilitation in India, joining the NDA, becoming a pilot of the Air Force – all these happened in the next five years. The struggle within me for a decision to smoke or not to smoke however raged on. If any thing, the intensity of this struggle intensified after I became an officer and the number of friends smoking around me increased substantially. Also, the official embargo on smoking as a cadet was no more applicable. Many of my friends chided me for being a sentimental fool and cramping my life style over some silly promises extracted from an immature boy by emotional manipulation by a grown woman who was now dead and gone. This peer pressure was so strong that I had come close to taking up smoking on a number of cold or distracted moments of my life. But, I did not start smoking. I could not bring myself to break my pledge.

It is only much later in life that I realizes that I was not being sentimental. I was only following my instinct of ethics. I will now tell you about this bit of self analysis. From my childhood, my parents had drilled one value in my life that enjoined me to be true to my self. If you promise some thing to any one you love, they told me repeatedly, you are only making that promise to your self. Value of your own word overrides the value of anything else in the world. I perhaps did not know it consciously, but I was only being true to my value system drilled into my subconscious. I do not promise much to any one easily, but what I do promise I do deliver. That is an important part of my ethics. Of course now I am also thankful to Moni maashi for having extracted that promise from me when I was a mere child. She has saved a lot of my money and has gifted a lot of health benefits to me in the bargain.


6 responses »

  1. Again… a lesson remembered…’bhodroloker ek kotha'(The true gentleman has but one word to give and execute) was something we were taught right from the time when we were squabbling infants and extracted toys and goodies from our siblings by making rash promises for momentary gain….painfully held to commitment when the plaintiff registered case with the family high court!!! Again a lesson that has stood me in the highest stead when I have felt bad or cheated or like a chump(for not doing what everyone else was doing because i had given my word to my mother I would not!!!)or any of those seemingly insurmountable moments of agony in all my growing years…fewer and farther between now….but just as potent even today!To answer Baba’s question-perhaps parents transfer the values and ethics by just embidying them….rather than teaching them as lessons in morality….far more believable…the true practitioners of leading by example…..

  2. Dear Sir,
    I loved reading this interesting and insightful piece which imparted an important lesson in ethics: What you promise you must deliver.
    Hat’s off to your sense of values and your willpower.
    Wishing you a very Happy New Year and looking forward to reading your engrossing blog posts.
    Vikram Karve

  3. Sir,
    Let me try to enlarge the scope of this beautiful topic.Your story has dealt
    with two fundamental concepti.e values and ethics.
    To behave ethically is to behave in a manner that is consistent with what is
    generally considered to be right or moral.Ethical behavior is the bedrock of
    mutual trust.
    So how do values relate to ethics,and what do we mean by etics?
    “Values determine what is right and what is wrong,and doing what is right is
    is what we mean by ethics. To behave ethically is to behave in a manner
    consistent with what is right or moral.
    You gave a promise to your mashi not to smoke.You gave that promise based on your
    core values.Because your value determined what is right.Suppose your mashi had
    asked you to steel.You would have refused.Because it was not consistent with your
    value system.
    Now next phase is keeping that promise which was based on your core value system.
    ” To behave ethically is to behave in a manner consistent with what is right or

    • Pradip: Are you splitting hair as a pedant? I look at it differently. A ‘value’ becomes a value only when it is acted upon. If it just rests within a book or inside some one’s head without being acted upon, it is valueless.

      In my case, it is only after a desire to smoke arose in my mind and was in conflict with a promise I had made that the question of ethics became a factor. Otherwise there would have been no karma to test my dharma!

  4. Sir,
    As I said earlier that your story has dealt with two most important issues (values and ethics) in a very subtle manner. There is a crisis of civilization because we have devalued values and ethics from our life. It has a catastrophic impact on our life, society, nation , business etc.
    I came across this beautiful article. It compliments your story.
    The below mentioned article was published in “Economic Times “ dated 3.1.12.
    Good Ethics is also Good Business
    In the first decade of the 21st century, many businesses learned firsthand the moral and financial risks of focusing exclusively on short-term financial gains. Consider the example of Lehman Brothers,which,after158 years of successfully doing business, went bankrupt in the space of a single weekend. The causes : horrific mismanagement and a reckless disregard for moral hazard. The results : the worst global recession in decades.
    The Lehaman Brothers debacle is only one of a long and growing list of recent business-management scandals that now includes Arthur Andersen, Enrorn, Bernard Madoff and Parmalat. In his latest book, “Management Ethics:Placing Ethics at the core of Good Management”, Domenec Mele seeks to shift our gaze from short-term gains at any cost to a deeper, longer view of management.
    Mele argues that good management should should take ethics into account because management is about people, and dealing with people requires ethics.
    A business is not a machine . It is first and foremost a human construct. Those who run the firm are free individuals who cooperate within an organisation with common goals , and the decisions and action a manager takes have the potential to benefit or hurt other people. Thus ethics is not an artificial add-on to business, but an intrinsic aspect of good management. Companies should, therefore, resist seeing people as resources or as simply a means for profit.
    Ethical management is about recognizing what people are, treating them accordingly and fostering their development.
    Ethics are embedded in management- first through decision making, second through the ideas that drive the practice of management and third through the moral character of the moral character of the manager him or herself. Making and acting on ethical decisions help to humanize a business, generating trust, fostering loyalty, encouraging responsibility and helping to develop a strong moral culture.
    Respect for human dignity is a principle Mele proposes, along with the necessity to contribute to the common good of the communities to which one belongs, and to society. He holds up three basic values, and their corresponding virtues, as critical to ethical management: just, truthfulness and intelligent love.
    Justice renders to all what is rightfully theirs. Truthfulness refers to the observance of truth in speech and behavior, and a disposition to search to to search for the truth. Intelligent love, understood as love driven by knowledge of the needs of the other, goes beyond justice and entails care and benevolence. Having an ethical sense pushes one to act in the best way for the purpose of efficiency. In turn, a company’s efficiency contributes to the common good.
    Business managers always face a trade-off between generating profits and being responsible to their firm’s many stakeholders. Shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and the local community all have a stake in the success or failure, sustainability or loss of the firm. In nutshell, while making a profit is necessary and important, it is not the sole purpose of business.
    Moral competencies , including character and virtues, have a particular importance in leadership. Character shapes the leader’s vision, goals, strategies and perception. As Peter Drucker said, “ It is character through which leadership is exercised.”
    While ethics may not be a cure for all the ills affecting the economy, they are vital if we are one day to move beyond the current crisis to a sustainable recovery. As Mele contends, by helping managers choose the best possible alternative in each situation, ethics offer a sure path to better business practice and even to a better world. (New York Times)

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