The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

‘Cigarette’ or ‘Secret’?

This essay by Chimee Zangmu Lepcha was awarded the Special Mention for the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2024 by judge Amulya Shruthi. The theme for the contest was Keeping Secrets.

‘Do you smoke?’ she asked taking the first puff from her cigarette.

‘No…I don’t’ I replied gesturing with my hands.

I as a person was always entrusted with keeping secrets since the very beginning of my childhood. At first, I did not know what do secrets actually mean, I used to get confused between the words, ‘cigarette’ and ‘secret’, as I did not know the spelling for either of the two. As a kid I was told, bad children who do not listen to their parents smoke cigarettes so for me the meaning of secret was related to something bad.

6-year-old me used to love wearing my Mumma’s sandals. I did that every time she went out shopping with my aunt. My aunt used to leave Joanna at our place whenever they went out since our house was just 10 mins away from theirs. Upper Syari is filled with neighborhood aunties who do not have a life but at the same time very pretentiously helpful.

Joanna was my cousin and also my childhood best friend, we joined Holy Cross school together in kinder garden, we were in the same class, we used to do everything together, from eating lunch at the backside of auditorium to even visiting washrooms during the break, if she wanted to use the washroom, so did I and vice versa.

Me and Joanna made so many memories together, going to buy chips even though when we were not allowed, to fighting with bullies at school. Joanna was very calm and composed on the other hand I was introvert but at the same time extrovert as well, I could take stand for myself and used to beat boys if they created any nuisance, so basically everyone thought I was the rude and mean leader of our girl gang.

One day me and Joanna were left alone at home, ever since I was a kid I loved dancing, that day I decided to climb up to the dining table and dance, Joanna was clapping and cheering for me, from below. When suddenly there was a huge thud, only after the thud I realized that I had hit my butt on the table with one leg hanging from one side of the table. Instead of crying the room was filled with Joanna’s sadistic laughter, and my nervous laughter accompanied by tiny drops of tears on each corner of my eyes which did not roll down, echoing through every corner.

‘Don’t tell Mumma about it okay’

Joanna stops laughing for a while and says ‘lah’ (informal way of saying okay in Nepali) and continues to laugh again.

After few days while Mumma was giving me bath, she saw the bruise on my thigs ‘Nani what is this?’

‘what ??’ I replied.

‘This’ she said, pointing at it.

Even I had not realized that I had bruised myself, so I just pretended to know nothing about and replied ‘ did this happen’ and started playing with the water in the tub.

Mumma looked at me with suspicion, but I decided not to make any eye contact with her. Later she gently massaged my bruised area with warm mustard oil with methi in it. It was my first secret I kept away from Mumma. I knew I was lying but I did not know lying to cover up something is called a secret.

As I grew up to become a teenager, I was welcomed into Ninda family’s dramatic talks, more likely into the cousin’s clan. Where gossips were spilled and secrets were kept. I learnt the art of keeping secrets and telling my secrets to the trusted one.

We trust each other so much that we criticize about each other’s parents and no one takes it personally. Sometimes the secrets were fun, sometimes so controversial that the secret was meant to be kept very secretively that even sherlock should not be able to decipher it and sometimes so tragic which would basically turn into trauma dumping and we could cry consoling each other. It was the perk of having strict parents.

After my parents got divorced, when I was in class 4. I moved in with my dad almost at age 15, I adapted to the situation very quickly, even though it took me some time to process what was going on. The situation and circumstances forced me to become mature which helped me gain more trust on keeping secrets for other people, which was quite a hectic job sometimes. As I used to not have any idea that I was out with my cousin hypothetically, when they would be out with their friends.

I was put into hostel in Siliguri at St. Michaels school in class 8, as I was not taking studies seriously. So, my father thought that putting me into a hostel would solve the problem, but no one had the courage to tell him that it was his daughter who was scientifically challenged and not the environment.

In hostel we kept secrets from our wardens and Munni didi, who was the caretaker. Specially on the exam days when we used to wake up at 3 in the morning to go and study inside the bathroom area, because that place was the only source of light within the whole dormitory. Few girls sat on the commode after shutting its lid, some on top of their bucket making it upside down. Shruti Agarwal used to stand near the door to check on Munni Didi if she was making her way to the washroom. It just needed one call to alert everyone.

As soon as Shruti used to say ‘Girls Munni didi’ rushing her way into one of the rooms, everybody used to hide inside, sometimes with three or four people together in one room. Although we did get caught a few times, but we never stopped that trend. That’s how I panic when exams arrive and became competitive because I was surrounded by intelligent Bengalis, hardworking Biharis and smart Bangladeshis.

I lived with my aunt in Siliguri, as I joined Birla Divya Jyoti for my high school studies. She had two daughters, Sable who was just two years elder to Dichenla, I address them as Aie which means elder sister in Sikkimese, I have never called them by their names even though we are like friends, our family is very strict and sentimental when it comes to respecting each other. After they went to Bangalore for further studies, it was just me and my aunt at home. They visited home once in a while during their long holidays.

During April in 2023, Aie Dichenla had come home. My class 12 boards exam had just gotten over and I had a reunion party to go to. It was almost 3 pm and I was getting ready, when aie Dichenla walked inside the room and said ‘Chimee get me a cigarette when you return okay’.

‘What…when did you start smoking?’ I asked doing searching for the other pair of my white socks.

‘After a few months I moved in to Bangalore’ she replied pushing the pile of clothes on the bed making space to sit down.

I looked at her with my raised eyebrows and said ‘which one should I get?’

‘Indie mint’ she replied scrolling through Instagram.

Around 12:30 am, after ever body fell asleep, she opened our bedroom window and started smoking, with her head out and fanning the smoke outside the window, trying her best not let the smoke get inside the room, as we had to close the window because of the mosquito which would play trumpets on our ears the whole night.

The next day, Pavitra didi while washing the dishes said ‘last night somebody was smoking near our house.’

Image Credits: photographymontreal on Flickr

Me and Aie Dichenla looked at each other from across the dining table.

‘Really…I was deep asleep last night’ replied my aunt spreading a small chuck of butter on her toasted multigrain bread.

The day before Aie Dichenla was about to leave for Bangalore, my aunt was helping her pack. When my aunt flipped one of her clothes and the packets of cigarette dropped from it. There was an awkward silence which was broken by my aunt by placing that shirt on top of the packet. My aunt chose to ignore and move on. She didn’t ask Aie for any explanation. My aunt could not accept that Aie Dichenla smoked so she just pretended like nothing had happened.

I am pretty sure that there were many questions that came across my aunt’s head like ‘whose was it?’, ‘Does she really smoke?’, ‘maybe it’s her friends?’, but she was too scared to hear an answer from Aie Dichenla that would make her upset so she decided to stay shut.

There are many secrets I hold dear to that are linked with precious memories. And there are some people who are holding onto my secrets as well. Secrets are meant to be kept but some people do not simply know the meaning of keeping secrets.

Me buying a cigarette was a secret now. I have also realized through my experience that not all people who smoke cigarettes are bad, just like how all secrets have different meaning to different people. Although me smoking will never be a secret to anyone. I have never done cigarettes but I will keep on doing secrets.

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