As one traverses the lanes of morning dust, fraught with humidity, one attempts to disentangle oneself from the nightmares of yesterday, the darkness of unbidden dreams. With streaks of dawn appearing across the skyline, apprehensions lighten in color and take ten steps backward where they would be waiting for the night. The pall of industrial chemicals hangs overhead, and bodes ill for a future no man or woman with cards or palm reading skills can read. It is seen when it arrives, like a bad day. The prospect of odd occurrences looms over the horizon no matter how many backward glances one casts retrospectively. The miasma of hellish smoke is a testament to bad decisions. I sigh and lookdown. What I see is the residue of cheap blueprints and vague predictions about matters that happen so far in the future that no one remembers by the time we get there. Such is the state of our lives. The roads are local brews, our very own wet cement, where footprints remain etched, erased only by time. How we are, we see and forget every day. On my right, the grey road is dotted with cigarette stubs; flattened brown, squished white, and some oozing tar onto the asphalt. On my left, the odds and ends of yesterday lie bare; leftover straws, punctured juice packs, pebbles, a flying yellow wrapper of chips, a stepped-on can of Coke, and so on.Emptiness suffuses my veins, and settles in, as though it is carried by oxygen, and now it safely resides in my bloodstream alongside other industrial chemicals. Morning walks are good for the soul, I was told. And here I am weary as indigestible chemicals irritate my air passageways, a homeless dog looks my way and I raise a rock to shoo it away. She goes away. With only trails of faded thoughts in my head, I begin to notice minutiae. The pavement is painted on the side in yellow and black, and gives the impression of molten candles as the paint trickles down in tear streaks. Should a woman be seen smoking, it would draw public denunciation. What makes a stick a barometer of identity and of character is a question worth asking. Between a man’s fingers, it means masculinity, with a woman a dubious immoral character. How did we get here? Why did we evolve such criterion for measuring a human being? After all, are our vices all that define us?One thing is consistent: cigarette stubs. Ubiquitously tossed, these things are like drops of paint that a painter leaves on the floor after a paintjob. I remember that even in areas where cleanliness is stringent, the ground is often speckled with stubs. Like bird droppings they are splatters of human addiction, of cravings unquenched by however many sticks one burns away. A testimony to our unfulfilled drive for happiness, satiation, they dot pavements, roads, playgrounds, markets amongst other places. At times, lungs seem an inexhaustible engine from where emanate desperate coughs, and they mingle with the din of lives.To extinguish cigarettes under one’s shoe is a part of a smoker’s life. It is no longer an arbitrary act; it is one of those things that one does for so long that they no longer think about doing them. So what is it about the cigarettes? Much of all else would invite reproach, or at least a few scornful looks for it would thought of as littering, a paucity of social responsibility. And most of the roads I have walked exude a kind of lawlessness with the way the garbage of smoked lungs mottles the grey under feet, under tire tracks. This, too, is a way of living. If tossed in dustbins with hands weighed down by responsibilities and conventions and rebukes etc. the red ember on the edge of a cigarette can cause a fire and as the plumes rise to touch the clouds of other kinds of pollution, only the husk of former cautions would matter. But this is not an essay about what ought to be in the dustbin nor is it about how cigarettes are carcinogenic; it is a matter of seeing.Perhaps it tells a different story, one of a culture, one of blunt masculinity. It is a symbol. It is a cultural nuance. It is masculinity packaged as little cancer sticks. Should a woman be seen smoking, it would draw public denunciation. What makes a stick a barometer of identity and of character is a question worth asking. Between a man’s fingers, it means masculinity, with a woman a dubious immoral character. How did we get here? Why did we evolve such criterion for measuring a human being? After all, are things all that define us?Filing away the thoughts under carpets of the mind, not to be revisited, not to be seen, I walk on. Some days later, at a dhaba a man takes puffs from his cigarette through the side of his clenched fist while the stick is held carefully between his middle finger and the index finger. Relish was plastered on his features. Licensed by society, he peers into the car where we sit, and does not avert his eyes for the entire twenty minutes we were there.Staring like this, like you are being sized up to be sold, is common practice. To raise questions about etiquettes is akin to madness, they cannot help it, for they are men. This is a self explanatory answer. Perhaps ogling is a manifestation of some abject malaise eating away at the foundations. Perhaps these are human instincts but then, animals have the same instincts. A question arises: are we any different? We might never know. To ask questions in a cave is to poke a stick into a nest of wasps.The walk does not end. If not this day, then it is some other day. The alleys are littered with the debris of paper, hollowed cardboard boxes, and polystyrene cups, wrappers of chips, and spitballs of chewed bubble gums, rotting rinds, and defecation, orphaned remnants of cloths, and countless dreams of having. Faces change, roads alter, and every mile a new injustice waits. We all inhabit this space after all, interacting, longing, meanings interspersing through lives, irremediably altered by everything. Though not equally, in some measure, in some unfathomable way, we change all the time.The writer is freelance columnistPublished in Daily Times, August 17th 2018.