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Tuesday, August 17, 1999 Published at 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK

World: South Asia

Cuban cigars are big puff in India

New rituals in Delhi

By Rahul Bedi in Delhi

At $32 apiece - or nearly twice the monthly wage of the average Indian - Cuban cigars are the latest rage among the rich in India's capital Delhi.

Since early this year, Cuban cigars have become the trendiest prop for politicians, businessmen and even young society men and women. In a city starved of status symbols they are the hottest object to flaunt and the "classiest" topic of discussion.

"Cigar smoking is growing in Delhi. It's a lifestyle thing," said businessman Chetan Seth, the only authorised importer of Cuban cigars into India. He said it was an exclusive, niche market for rich Indians that has been growing almost by the week, since he began importing cigars into India in January.

[ image: A taste of the highlife]
A taste of the highlife
"Smoking cigars is an old tradition, like wine drinking," said Seth. And over the past few months he has been busy "coaching" people in the elaborate rituals of cigar smoking - how to cut, roll, light and savour them. He calls it "extending their knowledge".

Many novices, who now talk like cigar afficionados with years of expensive puffing behind them, had never even smoked before. But they lit up with Seth, realising the social mileage that could accrue from adopting such seemingly opulent habits in a city where expensive appurtenances carry weight.

Within weeks, aromatic Cuban cigars had become the currency amongst what passes for high society in Delhi.

So much so, that by the year end Seth hopes to sell over a million Cuban cigars ranging from $1000 for a box of 25 Montecristo's to $40 for 25 Quintero Brevas, all retailed through one or two five-star hotels in the city.

[ image: Cuban cigars in demand]
Cuban cigars in demand
And considering their growing popularity and the untold wealth there is in Delhi in the form of 'black' or undeclared assets, the Montecristo's might even end up being in short supply.

In a city where tens of thousands sleep on pavements every night and millions of homes go without electricity and water, simply because it is just not available, Seth also wants to establish a Cigar Club - similar to the ones that have mushroomed across the United States since the early Nineties when cigar smoking was re-discovered to become the rage - with each membership costing 100,000 rupees (US $2200).

Negotiations are reportedly at an advanced stage with one of Delhi's posh hotels where members will drink malt whisky, exotic coffees and smoke, Romeo y Julieta. Specialist cigar magazines too will be available as will be a host of paraphernalia like cutters, ashtrays and humidors.

Initially, Seth distributed cigars to potential smokers at small, select soirees. He organised a speical "cigar dinner" recently at 2500 reupees ($55) a plate for 25 self-proclaimed afficionado's at one of Delhi's five star hotels.

Another 40 eager smokers, he said, were on a waiting list. Sadly for them, there were no drop-outs.

Cigars dominated the conversation over Italian food and wine as candlelight shone off newly acquired silver and gold cutters many handled, rather clumsily and all too frequently with disasterous results.

But all 25 cigar smokers were gracious enough to acquiesce in each others pretensions. In Delhi's cigar circles, size and cost is what seems to matter.

[ image: Only cuban will do]
Only cuban will do
Many do not even know that there are at least a dozen local brands available, all from Trichunapalli in the south. For decades genuine cigar lovers have been sending out for boxes of well known Trichy brands like Java Dawson, Churchill or Tiger that are also despatched directly by the manufacturers by mail. And, even if one Trichy cigar turns out bad, the entire box is replaced free of cost.

Market researchers said rich Indians were merely aping the west where cigar smoking had recently become fashionable. 'The rich, and executives with fat expense accounts are forever chasing exclusivity' said Dorab Sopariwala, a leading market analyst. Cuban cigars happen to be their latest fad.

Delhi's society women, flying in the face of the majority were also stepping forward to flaunt their individuality by lighting up cigars. A handful had earned a quiet notoriety by puffing on expensive Cohiba Esplendido's at parties. Each was obviously thrilled that every man in the room was keenly aware of their boldness and dying to make her acquaintance, but was simply too intimidated.

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