The wailing siren of an ambulance is never a welcome sound. But in this case, the arrival of the ambulance van in record time in Kathputli Nagar, a slum dwelling in West Delhi was indeed a matter of great relief for Shyam’s neighbours. Hats off to the driving skills of the driver that he could navigate the van through the myriad back lanes of the impenetrable dwelling cluster which normally would require grease application on the vehicle sidewalls to enable unrestricted passage of a 4-wheeler.
Shyam, barely 24 years old, had hired a single room for a princely sum of Rs 3000/- on the western end of the colony. Of course, access to an often stinking public toilet 20 m away came along free with the dwelling package. Not only he, but three others from his village Barsatpur in Eastern UP had holed themselves into Kathputli Nagar which was very welcoming to immigrants from all over the country. Absolutely no questions asked if you paid your rent on time.
“You must get married at the earliest, After all, how long will we keep them waiting”, his widowed mother had implored last time he had visited his village. Engaged at an early age to pretty Kavita, the “gauna” ceremony was pending. Much as he loved Kavita, Shyam would always find some reason to put off the celebrations. “Ma, I need to save at least 50,000/- more to be able to set up home. I guess it will take one more year”, said Shyam.
Covid had indeed been hard for his employer Seth Jwalaji in Sadar Bazar, a wholesaler in undergarments. Pay had been cut to half but Jwalaji was generous enough to regularly pay all his casual employees so that they could sustain themselves through the challenging times. Enough for survival but nothing more.
And then calamity stuck! No, it was not Covid. Shyam had been having a persistent running nose and the occasional nosebleed for the last one year. Jwalaji, getting progressively uncomfortable with his presence and cognizant of the possibility that Shyam could be Covid positive, sent him to the local Government hospital for a referral.
A four-hour wait and then his number was called. The junior doctor on duty could immediately make out that something was not quite right. A quick rush through into the Medical Specialist’s chamber to verify his assessment and the doc made out a case for oncology to check it out.
Shyam could never imagine the speed that he was attended to in the government hospital. Notwithstanding the bureaucracy, his reports came out within a week. As suspected, he was in advanced Stage III of nasal and sinus cancer stretching into the throat region. The prognosis was bleak indeed and the medical assistant quite heartlessly broke the news to him with a chide.
“Cancer hai, bachne ke chances kam hain. Beta, Aur khao Gutka. Yeh to hona hi tha.” Loosely translated, “ You have cancer and your chances of survival are bleak. Go eat some more tobacco, this was bound to happen.”
Not knowing how to absorb the blow and react, Shyam slowly trudged back to his shack. “I will not tell this to my mother”, he vowed to himself. After all, she had told me to keep away from Gutka long time back. But then, everyone in his close group used to have it once in a while. More importantly, heart of heart, he knew that he got sucked into it because his all-time Bollywood favourite ‘Ajay Devgun’ enjoyed it as well.
A die-hard fan of the star, Shyam just loved his movies. He had not missed even one of them. Ajay the superstar, for him was indeed what a man should be–macho, masculine, daring, a bit reckless but always sure of what he was supposed to do. How strikingly he blended into the Zuban Kesari ad, a surrogate advertising attempt for peddling raw tobacco sold under the same trade name.
And if Ajay was having it, how could it ever be bad for health? And now even Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar were speaking the same language. One day I want to be like them, may be it will happen. Maybe not, but what prevents me from speaking the same language, at least a part of me will be like them. Maybe, it will make Kavita to run into my arms next time I visit Barsatpur.
The neighbours could make out that Shyam was getting delirious. Four months had passed after his diagnosis of the fateful disease. He had gone for the chemotherapy only thrice. The after-effects were too much for him to bear. The doctor had understandably banned his Gutka but he knew he had been cheating. Time was running out.
“Shyam bhaiya behosh pade hain!”
“Brother Shyam is lying comatose!”, exclaimed a neighbourhood kid. A crowd gathered as it was wont to be and someone had the good sense to dial the universal Ambulance number 102. In a record-breaking 15 minutes, the GPS fitted ambulance duly arrived. Loaded on a stretcher, a traumatized Shyam’s last journey to the hospital began.
“Declared dead on arrival.” read the medical note-sheet.
The post mortem report was a bit more detailed but didn’t take long to prepare. It was after all an ‘open and shut’ case since his medical papers were already available with the hospital.
“Please take these for further disposal as per your procedures”, the pathologist handed over Shyam’s personal belongings to the police inspector sorting out the medico-legal formalities.
“A silver ring, an Aadhar card, 547 Rupees and two photos” the Inspector reeled out the contents to his constable. “Pl inform his family, the address is on the Aadhar card”, he directed.
Ah! the two photographs, one of a smiling teenaged girl, Kavita inscribed on the back with faded ink in broken Hindi. The other photo of course needed no introduction, a magazine cutting of Shyam’s favourite superstar pasted on a hard paper.
Not at all suspecting that he had the murderer’s image right there in his very hand, the Inspector trashed the superstar’s picture into the nearby dustbin with an innocent comment put across with disdainful indifference,
“Hey, this is useless.”
Pained and hurt,
Dear Amitabh Bachhan, Ajay Devgun, Ranveer Singh, Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan and many others of your ilk,
“Do you have an iota of a sense of guilt and remorse when you do these surrogate ads to add to your already overflowing coffers? Fine-print disclaimers can never wash away sinful stains of the conscience. Utterly shameful and tragic to put it very mildly.”
Five men who appeared in Marlboro-related advertisements — Wayne McLaren, David McLean, Dick Hammer, Eric Lawson and Jerome Edward Jackson, aka Tobin Jackson, died of smoking-related diseases like lung cancer, thus earning Marlboro cigarettes the nickname, “the cowboy killers”. Karma?
First published at seekmediation.com on 11/05/22
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Follow-Up Comments by Amit
I certainly hope that the cinestars and other persons of social and public prominence who are lending themselves to ad campaigns promoting consumption of mutagenic or carcinogenic substances, refrain from doing so in the future. However I do not have much confidence that they will be able to dis-associate themselves from an activity that they see as ‘acting’ in lieu of being paid for their services. I suspect that they do not want to give up the opportunity of selling their services lest it goes to their professional competition. I am pretty sure that the philanthropy that they do through their charitable ‘trusts’ gives them the pillow (and a tax shelter) they need to rest their weary heads.
My skepticism that this plea will be heard is high. Tobacco and allied industries are low cost, low risk and very high profit industries. The corporate treasuries of these firms have very large war chests and no cost is too high for them. The firms will acquire every and all media possible to promote their products and cine stars are no exceptions. There is precedent in the United States and Canada where the raison d’être for many ad agencies were the cigarette companies. Tobacco ads were everywhere – family soap shows, magazines, sporting spectacles, wings of race cars, movie product placements… the works. The medical community waged what seemed to be a losing battle against these tobacco giants since the 1960s when smoking started to be associated with diseases of the lung. It was only in 1998 that there was a breakthrough when the chief bio-chemist of a tobacco giant Brown and Williamson, Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle on tobacco companies knowingly adding additional carcinogenic compounds to increase the addictiveness of cigarette smoke. In 2002, this led to a record 25 year $206 billion settlement between the four tobacco majors and 46 states of the United States. In 2019 a Canadian appeals court upheld a $15 billion restitution amount to be paid by the Canadian majors.
The reason why I have written the above is that appealing to the conscience of the promoters of the tobacco products in India is like crying to a stone cold idol. It may provide solace but not much beyond that. This is where governments have a role to play by means of policy decisioning and implementation by means of laws. My broad strokes are going to be as:
- Create a special tax code for all income arising out of promotion of tobacco products
- This tax will not be exempt as per the usual ambit of tax exemptions provided to corporations. Meaning that income is going to be taxed separately.
- Income arising out of promotion of tobacco products cannot be routed to charitable trusts.
- Charitable trusts including places of religious worship if they engage in promotion of tobacco products in lieu of income will not be able to claim tax relief.
- Payment in kind for services to the tobacco industry will be assessed for value and taxed accordingly
- Keep the tax percentage high enough that it is a deterrent.
- Surrogate advertising (brand clothes carrying the same name as the tobacco product) should be disallowed.
I am no expert in law, but I also know that major societal changes around the globe – for the better – have come about by government actions creating a huge disincentive for activities that are profitable business but are at cost to public health and safety. So let there be one more.