At 2.00 AM on yet another dismal day in Mumbai (all days are dismal in Mumbai) I took a cab to the international airport. At 5.30 AM, I was on a Turkish Airlines flight to Berlin via Istanbul. In my pocket was a plastic baggie containing five chewing tobacco pouches. It was September 26, 2011, and I was determined that these would be the last that would ever cross my lips.
But I get ahead of myself – first, some background…
Chewing tobacco – you don’t really chew that stuff. In its loose form, you assemble a wad of it in your mouth and park it between your lower gums and lip. With pouches, you do the same, except that you don’t go through the process of wadding it up first. The tobacco releases its nicotine and assorted carcinogens into your bloodstream via the mouth’s mucous membrane.
A new user needs to spit out the fetid fluid every now and then, because swallowing it causes nausea and hiccups. (This is not a problem in India, where democracy exists in such a pure form that folks let fly without notice at any currently unoccupied spot on the road. I have no idea how people manage in less progressive countries.) The more seasoned chewers (I was one of them) have no problems with swallowing the stinking brew and do so it in small amounts at judicious intervals.
Chewing tobacco is the less glamorous cousin of smoking, but it is a hell of a lot more damaging. For one, it shoots its load of goodies into your body via a small, extremely focused surface area of the mouth. Mouth cancer is most certainly on the agenda sometime in the future.
Also, a load of chewing tobacco has a lot more time to do its work than a cigarette does. You don’t face any of the limitations that smokers do, especially in these dark days when lighting up anywhere but on the road or in your own home lays you open for severe social sanction at best and legal action at worst. This fact makes smoking a bit of a catch-as-you-can undertaking and curtails indulgence even among the jitteriest smokers. Moreover, a cigarette doesn’t last longer than three to four minutes.
A tobacco chewer, on the other hand, pops the stuff into his mouth and it’s business as usual. No elevator rides down to the street or long walks to the office’s designated smoking area. In other words, anyplace and anytime is good enough. He can last a very long time without having to spit, and the nearest toilet (or, in the case of India, the nearest window) is just fine when he does.
No lighting up. No tapping ash every ten seconds. No outraged health freaks baying for your blood. Just keep your gob shut and do your thing. Veterans (again, yours truly among them) can even drink coffee and eat a meal with tobacco still in place. It takes some very dicey oral acrobatics, but it can be done. And so, the tobacco chewer is often wired into the deadly load for an hour or two at a time – sometimes even the whole night through. This is seriously bad news, bro.
A note on ‘gutkha’. This is a very lethal variant of chewing tobacco invented in India and enthusiastically consumed all across the country. This shit is a truly deadly combination of betelnut pieces, paraffin, tobacco and lime (yes, the stuff you put on your walls). As far as I know, it is only made and sold in India. Gutkha kills folks maybe twenty times faster than chewing tobacco. For the record, I was hooked to this as well. I’m 47 now – all said and done, I was not counting on seeing age 65. One has to be realistic – you simply don’t do stuff like that to your body and expect to eventually bounce grandchildren on your knee.
How had I gotten on this lethal ride in the first place? Well, I had been a smoker for something like 20 years, and switching to chewing tobacco had been my misguided way of quitting. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire, but it was too late by then. For ten years after that, I needed chewing tobacco and gutkha from within ten minutes of rising in the morning until I went to bed at night. I’d tried quitting like a thousand times, but it never worked.
Okay, so I land at Istanbul Airport with one of my last five tobacco pouches in my gob. I suck it dry, spit it out into a garbage bin and throw in the remaining four, as well. Now I’m in a foreign country where no chewing tobacco exists (at least not on the airport, and as a transit passenger I was not at liberty to waltz off and sample the local souks). I was waiting for a flight to an even more foreign country where the mere mention of chewing tobacco would probably get me fined.
In my haversack were twenty nicotine patches and ten strips of nicotine chewing gum. Cold turkey? Not for this hombre. I am a orderly sort of guy, and willing to believe that needless suffering has its place – but it has no place in my life.
Four hours later, my mother folded me into a hug at Berlin’s Tegel Airport. I was chewing Nicotex and trying to be brave about the ordeal that I thought awaited me over the next ten days. None materialized. I arrived back in Mumbai (yes, it was a dismal day) eleven days later, but did not make a beeline to the nearest tobacco vendor. Five days earlier, I had ditched the nicotine patches and was only on gum now.
So far, so good. It’s been a month now, and I’m switching to a lower dose of nicotine gum soon. No overpowering urge to say “the hell with it” and fall off the wagon has shanghaied me, and I know that I’m rid of the evil shit for good.
Here’s what didn’t work – patches, gum and good intentions while I was still in my comfort zone. By that, I mean a country where chewing tobacco is available even in areas without electricity and drinking water.
Here’s what worked – complete non-availability. Moral of the story? In situations where no other options but doing the right thing exist, even the most degenerate compromisers among us tend to do the right thing.
No, this won’t work for smokers. Contrary to common belief, folks in Germany and probably the rest of Europe are still puffing away for all they’re worth, and fags are available at every street corner. But if you have a chewing tobacco problem and tried every other method to quit and failed, consider leaving the country and heading for Europe for a couple of weeks. The period of forced abstinence will open for you the window of opportunity you need. After that, you’re obviously on your own. But if you’re like me and have felt the tightening noose of doom around your neck for long enough, suddenly being tobacco-free for two weeks may be all that you need.