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A Travel Story from India
We were sitting in a darkened room in rural Rajastan, the government drug dealer and me. "Is it legal?" I asked. "Sure it's legal," he replied. There was a hatch in front of him that occasionally opened from the street, a disembodied hand coming through holding some money, which he wordlessly exchanged for what looked like dried leaves wrapped in newspaper, putting the cash in a big trunk. Business, it seemed, was booming. "This is a government shop," he said, proudly. "This is my job." I wondered what it said on his passport.
I'd heard cannabis was legal in some Indian states. Or, rather, that certain people were given licences to sell 'bhang' - low grade marihuana, sometimes rolled with other (allegedly) psychoactive herbs. It sounded positively wholesome - the law approves, so you could lose your marbles in all good (un)conscience, with none of that niggly paranoia associated with the small matter of arrest that spoils many a decent session. Yes, bhang was a guilt-free drug, and this was to be my first experience of getting state-sanctionedly stoned. A swift half, really.
My search, however, hadn't gone quite as smoothly as expected. I knew the popular method of consumption was by drinking 'bhang-lassi', a sort of psychedelic milkshake. I thought, by being legal, the 'government shops' would be flouting their wares like brightly lit ice cream parlours, advertising both the flavours of the drinks and their different mind-bending properties. Maybe they would even have smiling staff in smart uniforms to make you comfortable as you slipped into oblivion. I wanted nothing less than Willy Wonka's Drug Factory.
My first attempts at finding one proved fruitless. "Bhang-lassi?" was met with blank stares. I was to find out later that in 'traveller' ghettoes like Pushkar, such places would be difficult to avoid, but I was in small-town Rajastan and rather than popping into my local Oddbins for a cheeky Cabernet Sauvignon, it was more like cruising the backstreets of Peckham looking for crack. Not polite. After an unsuccessful hour, I got lucky - a hatch on a blank wooden door opened to my left. "Bhang?" said a friendly voice. I peered into the darkened opening and saw a smiling face. "Come in," said the smile. He opened the door and I stepped into a gloomy, bare looking room - the government dispensary.
The guy was sitting cross-legged on a platform next to the hatch. Near him were a set of scales, a trunk full of money and a big basket full of drugs. Or at least, some wizened looking leaves and twigs I assumed were drugs. "What do you want?" he asked, all the world like I'd come in for a new pair of trousers. "Er...drugs?" I replied, cautiously. "Of course. How much?" He then casually reeled of a list of weights and prices, all the while attending to the clamouring hands coming through the hatch, expertly wrapping amounts of weed up into twists of old newspaper. His pile of crumpled noted grew higher by the minute. "Actually," I said, "I fancied a bhang-lassi..." He looked at me like I'd asked him for a Babycham. "You don't want a smoke?" he said. "Not really..." I replied, a little embarrassed. He shrugged, then gestured to a little old man I'd not noticed sitting in the corner, who shuffled over to take my order. He picked up a battered steel beaker and shuffled out through the door. McDonalds employees worried about their jobs can breathe easily.
"Er...is it all right then? With the police and that?" I asked. "Sure it's okay. I grow it. I sell it. Government licence. No problem." So that's all right then. Fifteen minutes later, the old boy shuffled back through the door, handing me the steel cup, which was now full of what looked like mud, and asked for ten rupees. Whether this murky brown liquid could qualify as a lassi - a tasty and refreshing yogurt based beverage - was debatable. I swigged it down quickly, so it wouldn't touch my taste buds. Time passed and we made small-talk while the never ending hatch-transactions continued monotonously. My man had obviously not entered the drugs trade in search of glamour and excitement. Eventually, feeling decidedly bored, I got up to leave. "Thanks, but I think I'm gonna go now." I said. His concerned look worried me slightly, and his parting words added to my growing unease. "Are you sure?"
I walked out into the street. I wasn't sure, but didn't the street look a bit brighter than it had before? Maybe they'd switched on the street lights - it was after dark, after all. I then realised there were no street lights. Out on the main road, I momentarily forgot where I was as I became engrossed in the sight of a cow rooting through the rubbish in front of me. It was strange looking cow - its legs were too short for its body, and the hump on its back listed alarmingly. I tried to dismiss it - after all, I'd seem other animals in India that had stretched the narrow British definition of "a cow" to breaking point. But the more I looked, the more fantastic it seemed, a look of complete bovine unconcern and serenity on its face. Its 'face'? The cow had a face?!? Oh dear. To be honest, it went down hill from there.
After five minutes, or perhaps five hours, my hotel seemed to find me. Coincidentally, it now seemed like a really good idea to lie down. I shut and bolted the door behind me and, without switching the lights on, lay on the bed. That's when the muttering started. I became aware of a low murmuring outside my door. Part of me knew it was just some fellow guests chatting, but why were they chatting about me? The discussion became more intense - I'd obviously been a very naughty boy. Then, a babble of voices outside my window joined them. The whole town knew! As I pulled the bed covers over my head, I thought about my ten rupees and congratulated myself on my bargain...
After two hours of the worst paranoia attack I'd ever experienced, I felt confident enough to venture out from under the covers. A couple of hours after that, it seemed safe to switch the lights on, but leaving the room seemed best left for another day. Willy Wonka had worked his magic. The bastard.