Sammy Mamdani was working in Florida in 2000 when he smoked his first cigar. “I was trying to bond with the father of my girlfriend at the time. I hated it. But I kept doing it, and after some time, I became a cigar aficionado,” he remembers. Now, Mamdani loves cigars for their taste but his passion also extends beyond that. “Anyone who works with cigars is so passionate about what they do. Cigars are like good wine. Each one is different, but equally special,” he says. Mamdani lives in Mumbai now where he co-founded the Bombay Cigar Club along with a bunch of friends.
The British are back?
“Cigars were the big thing when the Britishers were here,” says Kamlesh Duggal, 64, a retired civil servant who lives in Bangalore. Duggal was one of the handful of people whose love for cigars compelled them to pay the high export duty that was levied on them at the time. “We didn’t have the option of picking them up at the duty-free in Dubai, as people do now,” he laughs.
Switch to the present: with an almost religious fervour, photographer and writer Aneesh Bhasin rattles off the differences between Dominican cigars and Honduran cigars, the smaller Robusto versus the larger Churchill, and why we shouldn’t judge the quality of a cigar company just because its name is Rocky Patel. Bhasin is a co-founder of the Bombay Cigar Club, a small but enthusiastic group of Mumbaikars, who meet once a month to smoke cigars and sip on good whisky. “Whisky is a good pairing for a cigar because you need an alcohol which won’t overpower the cigar, and vice versa,” he explains.
Growing a cigar
Jaydeep Bhalla is a Delhi-based chemical engineer who has been smoking cigars since he was 21. “Every cigar is different based on where it’s from, how it was grown, the kind of leaves that are used, and even how the leaves are chopped. Two cigars made from tobacco from the same area can taste different because the amount of shade they received might be different,” says Bhalla, who is 36 now.
“Cigars are also different since you don’t inhale the smoke, it is bound to be less toxic. Also, cigar leaves are fermented for longer, and there is a lengthy curing process which sucks out bad toxins. “
His “cigar-smoking accomplice” is his sister Fatima, who comes to her brother’s home to smoke an occasional cigar. “I have a four-year-old son,” she explains. Fatima studied in Chicago, and while she was there, she worked for a cigar club aptly named ‘Havana’. “Our manager taught us everything about cigars so that we could explain it to the costumers,” she recounts. “So we learnt about the soil and the seeds, as well as how to describe each cigar — nutty, cocoa, fruity, and so on.”
“There are two reasons why cigars are now popular in India,” Fatima says authoritatively.
“First, ITC has started importing them. They supply clubs like The Lazy Dog and Dolce Vita with humidors. Secondly, people are very enthusiastic about trying new things, especially in the luxury department.” This is something that Danny Carroll, an English expat who has been living in Mumbai for the past few years, agrees with. Carroll began the ‘other’ Mumbai Cigar Club, and this one has over a thousand members.
This club, however, tends to tilt more towards socialising and less towards cigar smoking. “My friends and I would meet at the Breach Candy Club to smoke cigars, and then it just grew like a virus,” he remembers. “Cigars are very aspirational by nature. Also when the smoking ban came into place, it became difficult to smoke and drink together, so people moved to private locations, which encouraged cigar smoking.”
But before your imagination conjures up images of men in suits and loosened ties smoking cigars and discussing politics, Bhasin chips in. “We have a lot of women joining us — I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise,” he laughs. “We aren’t sitting around discussing equity and stocks. I don’t even know where half the people work after a year of meeting them every month.”
Mamdani concurs: “I think I’ve shown up in trousers once — otherwise it’s always shorts. I’ve never seen Aneesh wear anything other than shorts and sandals as well.” Mamdani also remembers an incident where a friend of his, a blogger, handed out her business card. “She was discouraged. The club is not really that kind of gathering.”
Legendary cigar smokers
British politician Winston Churchill, credited with the practice of dunking a cigar in port wine or brandy, was rarely seen without a cigar. He smoked so many cigars (according to some, eight to ten a day) that cigar manufacturers eventually named a cigar size after him. No surprise — it’s on the higher end of the scale.
A famous story goes that American comedian Groucho Marx’s wife, who hated his cigar-smoking habit, was once so disgusted by his ‘stinky old cigar’ that she ordered him to extinguish it or go find a new wife. Considering that Groucho had three wives over the course of his life, and divorced each of them, we’re pretty sure we know how this story ended.
The director (and actor) of the classic film Citizen Kane, Welles loved the the good life: cigars, champagne, and beautiful women. He loved cigars so much that he used to write cigar-smoking characters into his films.
The father of psychoanalysis Sigmud Freud reportedly puffed through an average of 20 cigars a day without batting an eyelid, even though his friends constantly warned him of the negative effects of smoking. After he was diagnosed with mouth cancer and had a lump growing in his mouth, he totally gave up smoking! Just kidding, he kept smoking anyway!
Cuban leader Fidel Castro gave up cigars in 1985 after he faced serious health issues. But so ingrained were cigars in his mind that he regularly found himself dreaming about smoking them. Castro’s profound love for his homeland’s most famous export was no secret to his arch-enemy, the United States, that once tried to assassinate him using a cigar primed to explode.