How the Ancient Mariner Lost his Albatross

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Here’s a story within a story from Soumya, in a genre different from humour, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

He wasn’t that ancient really, being a well preserved old sailor, and he did not have to hold me with his glittering eye, as his tales of exotic places around the world were fascinating enough to hold my attention. We were sharing a companionable beer at a friendly watering hole in .

He asked me if I wanted to go out for a smoke, as he knew that I was afflicted with this terrible since ages. But I had succeeded in breaking the chains, as I proudly informed him. I had quit the habit since we had last met. As I happily let him know, more than a year has gone and I was finally free of this craving. He naturally congratulated me, and asked me about my motivation and struggles, as all smokers know how tough it is to quit.

The conversation veered round , and the brands available earlier, their packaging, from the round tins to the flat metal boxes of 555 that my dad smoked to the blue pouch packages of Charms that I did, and the international brands that had to be smuggled in but are now available at every corner paan shop.

This led him to share the story of how he had got rid of this albatross, despite the prevalence of smoking among sailors and easy availability of the erstwhile status brands. The story moved me, and I will, like my predecessor Coolidge did with his mariner’s tale, tell this in the first person.

The Mariners Tale

“I was a chain smoker in those days, and there was a craze for foreign ciggies in India, as well as for all things from abroad, which were available cheap to us, so on my trips ( it wasn’t Mumbai then) I had a large consignment of contraband with me. Our ship had docked just around the corner from where we are sitting today, and I was waiting for my goods to be cleared. The friendly customs man who was supposed to see us through hadn’t turned up, and I was tense. Standing by the customs gate, I kept smoking one fag after another. There was an elderly gentleman in civvies standing nearby, observing me, and making me uncomfortable.

“Hello young man, you appear to be worried?”He said. “What’s troubling you?”

Nothing, I’m fine, just waiting for a friend.

“I have observed that you have smoked three cigarettes in the last half hour, and you are tense. You are a sailor, from that ship just berthed I guess. If the friend you are waiting for is a customs man, he may not come; there was a special drive to curb smuggling, a new officer showing his spirit. He will take a few days to settle down. But don’t worry; I may be able to help. What are you bringing in?”

At a loss, I decided to try my luck and trust him, as I had little option.

Oh! Nothing uncle, just the usual things for family and friends, nothing to trade, just some jeans, perfume, sunglasses, a watch for my , a for my brother, some liquor and smokes, some chocolate, a doll for my niece… stuff like that.

“Give me the details; let’s see what I can do”

He did a quick calculation and worked out the exorbitant duty at about four thousand rupees. That would have been a year’s salary for someone my age in a land job and would dent my savings from this trip quite a bit. I looked crestfallen.

“We can enter into an arrangement,” he said

Ah! He’s finally coming to the point I thought. Let’s bargain.

How much? I asked.

“Those two cartons of cigarettes you can hand over to me and that packet in your pocket.”

Miffed, I asked, and…?

“That’s it. You can take out the rest. But there’s a condition. You have to promise me that you will never ever smoke another cigarette in your life, and talk as many of your friends out of smoking as you can”

Stunned, I asked, but why? And how will you know that I will keep my promise? I can just walk out and buy more from that shop around the corner. He keeps all smuggled brands. My friends are expecting these.

“My name is Suarez, and I am in the customs myself. My son was a Shippy like you, and a chain smoker. He brought me my supplies too, as well as for his friends. He died of lung , at roughly your age. Since then I have made it my mission, to make as many kids like you give up, as I can. I will have to trust you on this. I will throw away these sticks. I try this with as many people coming in as possible. Even if I can save a few lives, I think my son’s soul will get some peace.”

I took the deal, and have never touched cigarettes since.”

The ancient mariner concluded his tale.

The story moved me strangely, and I thought that instead of the usual satire and humour pieces that litter my blog, let me take Suarez’s battle forward. If anyone reading this can shake off their Albatross, or share the story to help someone else shake off theirs, young Suarez’s soul will get some peace.

©Soumya Mukherjee

Photos from the Internet

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Soumya Mukherjee is an alumnus of St Stephens College and Delhi School of Economics. He earns his daily bread by working for a PSU Insurance company, and lectures for peanuts. His other passions, family, friends, films, travel, food, trekking, wildlife, music, theater, and occasionally, writing. He has been published in many national newspapers of repute. He has published his first novel, Memories, a novella, hopefully, the first of his many books. He blogs as well.