At four I was a disgruntled mess. My perfect life had been upturned by the arrival of a little sister, who as far as I was concerned, showed up without any warning whatsoever. The parents were first to go, followed by the grandparents. Every visitor who dropped by was there to meet the li'l one. Atleast I had my friends and my toys. Then came the day when a play buddy declared (on arrival) that he had come to play with that gurgling pool of baby clothes and baby products. I still had my toys but I was a mess, an unloved mess to boot. Who was I kidding?
But in this awful world that revolved around the li'l one, there was one thing that could make me happy - a pack of cigarettes! Yes, you heard right and so did Ma. I wanted my own pack of ciggies like I had never wanted anything else. Ma promptly blamed Baba-the only known smoker in the family for leading me down the smoky road of addiction. While she raved, ranted and had horrific visions of nicotine stained milk teeth, Baba set about absolving himself of the guilty charge. He offered me one of his own cigarettes, I refused and howled for a sweet cigarette not a stinky one. The existence of a semantic gap was thus established and Baba was exonerated. Peace returned once again to the household as Baba and I went to look for whatever kind of cigarette it was that my four year old heart desired. Atleast now I had my toys and one parent...progress!!!
First stop: the fancy food store where Ma bought her quota of Amul cheese, dried fruits, nuts, chocolates and other goodies. The owner knew about cigarettes and would gladly share one with Baba. He also knew a thing or two about toffee/candy and would gladly sell us some of that but "cigarette toffee" was just weird. Being a kind man, he directed us to another store down the lane where we were once again directed to yet another store and so it went. After some random candy hunting, we finally washed up at Rao's. Rao ran a kiosk by a street corner where you could stop by for a soda, a snack, a smoke or just a good chat. So it came, that over a bottle of soda, the question was put to Rao. Rao, I imagine scratched his head, pondered and then scratched some more. And in turn, Rao polled his other customers for answers. The mystery was finally explained by a gentleman who had stopped by for some double-roti. Cigarette candy was what all self respecting pre-schoolers were talking about. Duh! Didn't you know? Rao did not have any in stock but promised to get some the following week.
A few days later, Baba brought home a small white box with red stripes and a picture of the Phantom on the cover that held ten little peppermint-y sticks of happiness, ten white sticks that glowed red at one end and tasted like heaven to a four year old. The universe did love me and Rao's store rocked. Didn't I just find myself a morsel of ambrosia? I don't remember the brand name for this particular kind of candy but most of my peers who grew up in India in the early 80's probably know what I am talking about. At some point the cigarette candy fell from grace, just like Poppins, hard orange candy (the kind that makes your mouth pucker and turns your tongue a ghastly shade of radioactive orange) and all those other sugary treats that made childhood (and life with a little sister) so much more bearable.
Baba is no more and Rao is an older man now. Yet to this day when I am back home and find myself stumped by some strange item on a shopping list, I stop by Rao's for a snack and directions. And the last time I tried cigarette candy - to my mature taste buds used to more sophisticated, complex flavors it tasted like chalk . But all of it does make a lovely story doesn't it? And what about the little sister, you ask? She turned out to be a lot of fun too.