If someone walks about a thousand steps from one of the busiest streets in South Delhi, they will come across a deserted alley leading to a place that no one knows about. And if they walk another five-hundred steps down that lane, they will see a huge banyan tree on their left, standing tall on a small patch of dried grass. It is beneath this tree that I sit and smoke my third cigarette of the day, on my way home from college. It is beneath this tree that I blow out smoke rings and watch them fly farther and farther away from me, the smell lingering long after the smoke has vanished. I have loved the smell of burning cigarettes since I was a child. Baba used to smoke a pack of cigarettes everyday, before he added two bottles of whiskey to it, and his liver gave way. He died twenty-three months later. Every time I light a cigarette, I remember how his eyes lost all their shine over the last few months of his life. I do not want to ever be like him, but I press the filter between my lips anway, and inhale.
Sometimes, I read while I smoke, the weight of my lighter keeping the pages of the book from flying. I got my love for reading from Maa. My first memory is of Maa reading to me in a quiet, singsong voice as I lay with my head in her lap, my little brain trying desperately to hold on to every word she uttered. Our drawing room has a sofa set that Baba had bought second-hand just before he married Maa, a rickety armchair, and a very old bookshelf filled with even older books. After tucking me under the blanket at the end of our nightly storytelling session and kissing me good night, and making sure that Baba was fast asleep, she would go to the drawing room, and read. I know this because once, when I was six years old, I couldn't sleep at night, and I had tiptoed to the drawing room. There, I had seen Maa sitting in the armchair, her reading glasses perched low on her nose and her eyebrows furrowed with concentration as she read line after line, page after page. I had stood there for longer than I can remember now, hiding behind the greasy curtain that separated the drawing room from the rest of the house, so that the occasional guests couldn't peep inside easily. After a while, I had tiptoed back to the bedroom. That night, when she had slipped into the bed beside me, she was smelling of old books, a smell that I soon started loving. Back then, home to me smelled like an inextricable mixture of old books and cigarettes. Home smelled like home.
I sit beneath the tree for as long as I can, sometimes even lighting a fourth cigarette, trying to make a smoke ring pass through another one. I seldom feel like going home. Maa has changed a lot since Baba's death. She has stopped reading. Dust gathers on the bookshelf, on the books she used to adore so much, once upon a time. Sometimes, I manage to clean it without breaking down into tears, but that's rare. The books don't look so good anymore, with their jackets torn, and their pages turning yellow and even more brittle with time, but one only has to look at them to know that they were beautiful once. They remind me of our family, of us. We used to be perfect, before Baba died and Maa started wearing a white saree. Now, she just screams at me all day, and curses her luck. I do not know what she smells like now, because she never slips into the bed beside me anymore.
Sometimes, when the tree smells more like home than home itself, when I run out of cigarettes and realize that I have forgotten my book at home, I sit beneath the tree, and think. On those days, I always end up wondering, do we still call it home when it stops feeling like one, and stops smelling like one?