World No Tobacco Day special: Behind the smokescreen

May 30, 2015, 08:32 IST | Krutika Behrawala, Hassan M Kamal and Dhara Vora

Tomorrow is World No Tobacco Day. We scoured the city to find three people who run tobacco shops, and who despite being surrounded by it from all sides, choose to refrain from consuming this harmful product

Imaging/Gajanan Hajare
Imaging/Gajanan Hajare

Woman at the helm

‘Maushi, ek mild…’

She seems at home, draped in a purple sari; her hair tied in a salt-and-pepper bun even as the big bindi on her forehead grabs our attention at first glance. Sujata Chavan (named changed on request) peeks from behind a few Pass-Pass sachets that are suspended from a red brick window.

A pedestrian drops by and requests, ‘Maushi, ek mild’. Without batting an eyelid, she reaches out for a stack of loose cigarettes of different sizes, picks the right one with effortless ease, and hands it over to the customer. The 50-year-old woman has been helming affairs at the Ram Bharose Paan Bidi shop under the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus over-bridge for over 20 years now.

The shop also stocks cold drinks, biscuits and confectioneries. “This used to be my father’s shop. As a kid, I would sit with him at the counter and play here during my summer holidays. When he was just 45, he suffered from a heart attack, and died immediately. So, I took over as we didn’t want to shut it down,” she recalls.

However, running this store was not her first choice. Born and brought up in Mumbai and educated till Class XII, Chavan had initially applied for a post at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), where her husband works too. “My father passed away on the day of my interview, so I couldn’t go for it,” she rues, but is quick to add, “I don’t regret giving it up. My father was my priority.”

When we ask if she notices raised eyebrows from passers-by, considering she is a woman who sells tobacco, she asserts, “No. No one has heckled me either. Anyway, looking after the store is better than being just another homemaker. My mother-in-law manages the house, my husband and son, too, are working. For me, too, this is a job, just like any other.”

Just another profession

‘I don’t sell tobacco to kids’

“I was 15 years old when I started selling cigarettes,” recalls Sadanad G Tatkare, a pan-bidi shop owner in Dahisar (W). “Earlier, I would sit near the Dahisar Check Naka, but I moved to Kanderpada six months back. By God’s grace, it has picked up well since then,” he shares.

Now 64 years old, Tatkare has spent most of his life selling tobacco products, a business that he started with his elder brother when he was a teenager. He is filled with joy when he remembers some popular cigarette brands from his early yearsChar Minar, Red and White, etc. “There was a time when you could buy a pack of cigarettes for 2 paise,” he recollects. However, Tatkare never picked up the habit of smoking.

“Cigarettes don’t suit me,” he says. When asked if the second-hand smoke from smokers bothers him, he replies, “It’s part of the business. I am used to it now.” When we prod further, we realise that he was unaware that passive smoking is equally dangerous as smoking cigarettes, and that he may be putting his life to risk. “I don’t know about that. But I do know that it’s bad for children. So, I don’t sell any tobacco products to children.

I have followed this rule all my life,” he asserts. Tatkare has two children — a daughter, who is now in college, and a son who works as a driver. His wife works as a home cook. Tatkare sits for nearly 11 hours, everyday in his shop. After paying rent and electricity bills, he manages between Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 from his shop. “It’s not much to run a family. But it’s better than sitting at home,” he admits.

‘By God’s grace, I’m fine’

“If I had a son, I wouldn’t mind him getting into this business,” says 55-year-old Lokesh Bangera. Bangera, who is a non-smoker, is one of the many ‘annas’ who run paan and cigarette stores in the city. He has been in this business since 1985 and runs a popular paan shop in Mulund (W).

Originally from Karnataka, Bangera, who couldn’t complete his education due to responsibilities, was introduced to this field by his brother-in-law.Bangera has two daughters, one is currently studying whereas the other, a science graduate, teaches at a prominent coaching classes chain in the city.

We quiz him if he has ever thought about the repercussions of constantly being surrounded by people who smoke, “I have been working here for so long but by God’s grace, I’m fine; nothing has happened to me, till now. It’s my source of earning, and a good one (with a large portion of earnings coming from paan sales) so why will my family object?” he asks.

Bangera tells us that he has never taken any precaution against passive smoking and interestingly, he hasn’t come across anyone from his field who has faced problems. While the government has constantly increased the cost of cigarettes over the years, Bangera tells us that this hasn’t reduced the number of smokers; on the contrary, he reveals that the number has increased further.

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