Ah, well, even India changes. The country which brought you the hookay, chillums, hashish and the word ganja, the country Karl Marx had in mind when he compared religion to opiates has finally closed the doors to its government-run ganja houses. No more strolling up to the counter and ordering a tollar of opium or a 10 rupee chunk of hashish. Not that dope isn’t to be had easily enough: hashish, charras and opium vending is the standard sideline of nearly every taxi driver and holy man in the country. But the heat has been turned up to stem the use of cannabis among both the masses and tourists alike and a political campaign continues throughout the country to educate the population to the perils of substance abuse.
The problem with campaigns like the one currently in vogue in India is that it’s basically a reactionary campaign with a wild sense of overkill: Heroin and cannabis are frequently depicted in the same light in educational pamphlets and on billboards which dot the Indian countryside and clutter the cities from Madras to Jaipur, sending a message which is not only confusing but just plain wrong.
Which is why it was pleasantly surprising the discover at least one state in India that refuses to go along with the government ban: In Rajasthan, the desert state, bhang—cannabis—in various forms remains a legal, if somewhat downplayed, high.
Before I left for India friends had said I had t try the bhang lassis there—lassi is a sweet yogurt drink—and I asked for them in several restaurants in Bombay, Kodaikanal, Calcutta and elsewhere but over the course of my first several weeks in country I’d had no luck. Most of the waiters simply shrugged, nodded their heads and said, “not possible.” So I’d stoped asking for them. But then one day in the holy city of Pushcar, a tiny Rajasthani city on the fringe of the desert, at the Shiva Restaurant I saw them on the menuy and ordered one for lunch. The cook, a stoned freak, disappeared into the depths of his dark kitchen and returned in a moment with a light emerald-green drink in a semi-clean glass.
“Want to smoke some hash?” he asked, sitting next to me and lighting a chillum.
“Not today. I want to see how high I get from the lassi.”
He laughed. “Weak shit.”
I drank the lasi and made my way down the street from his rooftop restaurant. I figured a 30-minute kick-in time and walked to the edge of the desert where thousands of camels had been brought for a trade fair. The camel field was extraordinary, but after half-an-hour nothing happened. Or an hour. At an hour-and-a-half I gave up and returned to the Shiva. Maybe it was me. Maybe they made them for tiny people and I needed two.
“I’ll have another,” I said.
“How is it?”
“Not much of a buzz.”
“I told you. Hash?”
“I’m sticking with the lassi today.”
He made me another and I drank it down, headed back to the camel field and waited. The camels, yellow, brown and black, were huge and beautiful beasts with lovely large brown eyes and long graceful eyelashes. The young ones playfully wrestled with one another, arms and legs and long necks a tangle of muscle. The older ones took the sparring more seriously: They faced one another, bellowed and charged, crashing their necks together over and over until camel boys with long sticks could break them up. But the bhang lassi was still a bust.
It was nearly evening when I returned once more to the Shiva. I figured that the bhang was illegal and that was why the cook was serving me bhang lassi which was the equivalent of a margarita without the tequila, but I also figured I owed it one more shot.
“You want another?” he asked incredulously when I’d made the stairs and sat.
“I thought they were supposed to get you high.”
“You want a strong one? Five rupees more.”
“No problem,” I said, reaching into my pocket.
He called to a young boy sitting at one of the tiny tables. The boy took my bill and disappeared down the winding stairway. I watched from the edge of the roof as he emerged onto the street and ran—all arms and legs, just like the young camels—to a cigarette/sweet stand. In a moment he was flying back, a package of cookies in his hand, one in his mouth.
“The five was for cookies?” I asked.
“No problem,” the cook answered.
The boy reached the top of the stairs and disappeared with the cook into the kitchen. When the cook emerged he handed me a dark-lime colored lassi. I drank. It tasted like hashish milk. I’d hardly finished when I began to feel the kick.
“More like it,” I laughed.
“Don’t get run over by a sacred cow. Remember what direction your hotel is in.”
I thought he was being overcautious until I tried to walk. My legs were rubber on the stairway and the sacred cows milling about on the streets were a bit more dangerous looking than they had been. This was what my friends were talking about when they told me to have a lassi, I thought as I stumbled about.
I made my way to the camel field and sat beneath a lonely pipal tree—about all I could manage—and spent the next couple of hours listening to the bellows, shrieks, bleats, cries and sighs of the camels as they settled in for the night. Some of their owners came around and offered to share hashish or opium but I was too high to consider it. It was a beautiful night.
I found my way back to my room some time later and in the morning woke up wondering what the hell that boy had bought at the sweets stand. After coffee I made my way there but once there realized I didn’t know what I was after.
“I can help you?” the proprietor asked.
“I’m uh, looking for…” I started, fumbling around. I looked around a moment more then just blurted out my request. “Can I get some bhang here?”
“Why not?” he asked, shaking his head ‘no’ in that peculiar way Indians have of shaking no when the mean yes and vice-versa. He pointed to a large glass jar on the counter that was filled with little candies wrapped in yellow plastic.
“No. Bhang,” I said.
“Yes. I have heard you very well. I am telling you yes.”
“I didn’t want to seem completely lost so I pulled one from the jar. The wrapper read Rocket Munakka. “This is bhang?”
“I am telling you and telling you.”
“I paid him and one rupee he wanted and opened the wrapper. The candy was a little black ball of goop covered in sugar but when I broke it open sure enough it smelled like cannabis.
“You can you sell this like this?” I asked. “Hasn’t it been made illegal?”
“My friend, in India it’s illegal. In Rajasthan, it’s legal.”
I looked around. No police nearby so I bought 20 of the little Rockets. The cookies I’d seen the boy with must have just ben a tip for running the errand.
“I tell you, it’s no problem. This is Rajasthan. Enjoy.”
I wlaked back to my room, ate one and stashed the rest. The taste was awful, bitter and dry, but 20-minutes later I felt the same buzz comeing on that I’d had the previous night. It was smooth and easy, like hash brownies but without all that sugar and flour to slow things up. Just a coog, clean head and a thorough body rush. Knowing what was coming this time I was able to handle the streets and spent the entire morning and afternoon strolling about and smiling, even at the insistent rug-sellers.
But I still didn’t get how they were legal here when bhang had been made illegal throughout India. I mean, this was on the str eet in factory packaging and it was curious, so that night I walked into the local police station and asked about them.
“Excuse me,” I started. “I’m a reporter and I’ve got a question you might be able to help me with.”
The three officers on duty all shook their heads no and waited for me to continue.
“I’m wondering about the legal status of bhang here in India…” I began.
The three of them laughed. “So, you have found our lassis?” asked one of them.
“Well, I’ve heard about them…” I lied.
“Or is it the Rockets you have found?” asked another.
“Well, I’ve heard that they might be found here…”
“Not to worry. Very good, no?”
“Are they legal?”
“Not in India, no. But here in Rajasthan, yes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Again they all laughed. “As we say. Here in Rajasthan, yes.”
“What my friends are saying,” said the one who had been silent, “is that here in Rajasthan the bhang is remaining legal.”
I looked at them quizzically, wondering if I was still high or if perhaps they were.
“It is this way,” the policeman continued. “When this most recent campaign to rid our country of drugs was started everyone but the smugglers was happy. Until it was discovered that bhang was also now considered a drug.”
“Yes,” chimed in one of the others. “And then there were changes in the emotional climate throughout Rajasthan. Bhang has ben with us so long a time, and it is harmless, more or less. And so when the time to make it illegal came Rajasthan threatened to secede.”
“What?” I asked. “From India?”
“From where else? And then our Parliament saw what was the right thing to do was to avoid a civil war.”
“Now you know,” said the third officer. “Let the people have bhang is the idea. And it is so. Here in Rajasthan we are an independent people. We would have gone to war. And of course, the people would have ignored the edict anyway, so why should we be having bloodshed over this?”
“Are you saying I’ll have no problem whatsoever if I manage to get some bhang?”
“What else? Only don’t step into traffic after you have eaten a Rocket. And don’t be petting the camels. They are a useful but filthy animal and they will bite you.”
I laughed and left the station, went back to the sweet shop and bought two boxes of Rockets. In the morning I mailed them home to New York.
At the post office I ran into one of the policeman from the night before. “Ah, cha,” he said as he saw me wrapping them. “I can see you have had your luck with finding our Rockets. If you stop by the station later we will be having some lassis. It is recommended that you try them while you are here in Rajasthan.”
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