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.