My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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18 December 2017

Smoking and the "cool girl" myth

(This appeared as my F Word column in December 2015.)

I haven't always been a smoker, of course. There was a time when my young lungs were disgusted by the idea of it. I picked it up, as people do, when I was in college—a bad decision I've wanted to take back hundreds of times since—and have been a slave to the cancer sticks ever since. Oh, sure, I've tried to quit. I've tried to quit so many times—and sometimes succeeded even, but here we are, my last column for 2015, and I'm still a failed smoker.  (ETA: And now at the end of 2017 even.)

But look how cool she looks!

For many years, I think the problem was that they went with my image of cool, rebellious writer chick. Whips out her cigarette and delivers bon mots at parties. A man I dated even confirmed it once: he was a non-smoker himself, and when I said, wistfully, “Do I smell like an ashtray?” he said, “But you look so cool when you do it!” And it's true, I do look cool. I look cool like all the ladies in films before me. Uma Thurman, on her stomach on the Pulp Fiction poster, legs up and crossed behind her, holding a cigarette in her hand. Sandy, from Grease, in the last song where she reinvents herself from virginal girl to a sassy leather-wearing diva who sings about how he's the one that she wants—all the while holding a cigarette which she lights with penultimate coolness. Even in Bollywood, in the early days, the bad girls, the exciting ones, the ones the heroes all wanted in the beginner were smokers. (Fun fact I just noticed: if you Google image search “Bollywood women smoking,” there's actually a picture of me from back in the day embracing a male friend's back, holding a cigarette.) Smoking is shorthand for signalling you're a certain kind of woman, the kind that is the Cool Girl that is mentioned in the book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A confident, self-assured woman who drinks Old Monk instead of white wine, who can drive a car faster than you can, who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks of her.

There's an episode of Friends, where Rachel suddenly takes up smoking. Smoking is no-no in Friends-land, Chandler is the only one who occasionally slips, and even then he is castigated so much by his wife and friends, that he promptly stops. But in this particular episode, Rachel wants so badly to fit in with her colleagues and be party to the certain intimacy that only a smoker's room provides, that she takes up the habit just to belong. Anyone who has ever worked as a journalist will attest to that fact: if you want face-time with a boss, a one-to-one interview with someone else, or just to know what's going on, there's nothing like a shared cigarette or lighter to make you feel like one of the boys.

Maybe that's why a recent article I read in The Quint mentioned that while overall cigarette consumption in India is falling, the rise in women smokers has been quite considerable. From 5.3 million women smokers in 1980, the number is now more than double now, second only to the US. In a male-dominated world, sometimes you have to send signals out that you're not some weak thing, some delicate damsel, that you're as willing to work your hardest as your male colleagues, and smoking sometimes indicates that.

But to be a “modern woman” has its own perils. Back in the day, when my own personal blog was very personal indeed, the most number of angry comments I got was when I mentioned that I smoked. It was also the biggest criticism people had about my first book: why was my main character drinking and smoking all the time? Was this any way for an Indian woman to behave? When I smoke in public—which I totally do less and less, in these health-concious times I'm always trying to quit—I have to find a corner to huddle in, or face stares that are even worse than normal. Smoking on the streets indicates that you're a fallen woman, a harlot, a shameless trollop who should be open to pretty much anything that men throw at her. (Surprisingly, this might be just an urban thing. In rural India, many women—a lot of them older---smoke as a matter of course. If it's not a communal hookah, they smoke beedis, and no one looks at them strangely either.)

Maybe women's attitudes to smoking will change when mens' do. When it's no longer so much about rebellion but just a nasty habit that we should all kick. When there's a way to belong that doesn't involve changing who you are, and when people take you seriously without “accessories.” Until then, I'm afraid we'll have to live with our rising number of female smokers— but I'm signing out. Again. Hopefully this time for good.


  1. Please do.. And you know it is not helping you out!!
    We are all with you.. Keep up the spirit!

  2. I wrote this almost a year ago, somewhere around they released the movie Pink. Have not shared it with anyone thus far but i think u'd enjoy it.


    Both Sheela and her jawani are extra ordinarily jubilant today. She has just stepped out of the theatre. What a brilliant movie! The woman protagonist settles score with the bad guys and still remains the managing director at Pride & Dignity Pvt. Ltd. No wonder Sheela is enthralled with the idea of empowerment, justice and liberty.
    Something about her prized ‘’consent” makes Sheela feel as if she owns the effing city. On her way to the parking lot Sheela comes across quite a few people. That man she often sees at Gupta Karyana Store. The one who she is somehow convinced comes there to buy vicco turmeric, nahi cosmetic. He who very generously mistakes his boxers for shorts. That man is also there in the crowd. ‘What if you were to go to the market in your panties?’ Sheela’s super-elated jawani whispers to her. Shush! Sheela silences her jawani for the obvious wild-wild thought.
    People hop in and out of a series of high end eateries lined up right next to the Cineplex. Girls are wearing short skirts. Boys are wearing a sense of entitlement to the pair of legs in those short skirts. But today its different, Sheela struts through the crowd with the ever so determined l-have-just-watched-a-movie-on-womenempowerment-dare-not-mess-with-me look on her face.
    While driving back home, Sheela gets pulled over by a traffic policeman for not wearing a seat belt. As the Cop inches closer Sheela has the audacity of hope to get out of the traffic challan with a lame smile and a corny 'sorry bhaiya'. And lo it works! Two other men have to pay for their respective challans but Sheela does not mind the 'inequality'. Suddenly she does not feel the urge to wage a war against discrimination.
    Elated at her little escapade, Sheela lights up a smoke. A bulging-tummy wrapped in sari, passes by the car window. Too busy to give a fuck, at a woman smoking a cigarette, tummy moves on. A religious looking moustache comes next, and looks at Sheela as if she has asked the moustache to transfer all its movable and immovable property in her name. Sheela has three more drags to go. A dick comes by, it pops out of the zip, and stares at Sheela. Sheela avoids eye contact. The dick comes right next to the car and tries saying hi. Sheela looks away. Turns the ignition on and speeds off. But wait a minute! She forgets to take her consent along. Her implied consent to say hi to the dick, which she gave by smoking a cigarette alone.
    Sheela reaches home. She makes bhindi for dinner, posts a fiery statement on women empowerment, counts her 20 likes and makes a plan for Wednesday, its ladies night after all.
    Drinks are free for the Ladies! Yay!


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