Cannabis is a historical tradition in the subcontinent.
“Being intolerant of intolerances
And allergic to allergies
He spent his time entangling himself
In reflexive infinities.
A skeptic of skepticism
Negating double negatives
He hoped in the depth of consciousness
That infinity forgives”
From Khadi Boli to Hyperbole by Bachchoo
Mumbai, where I am for a few weeks, has been declared by statistical institutes as the city which consumes the sixth most tonnage of “pot” — cannabis sativa.
I am disappointed, feeling what cricket fans would if their team came sixth in the World Cup. I console myself by contending that the abstainers of the vast population of this, my metropolitan island, can’t be counted as “my team”.
Cannabis takes three known forms. There is the crushed fresh leaf, known as bhang, and in my childhood indulgences in Pune, among the rude culture of the streets, as “banta”. When the leaves are dried and smoked, they are known as ganja or grass, and when the resin is extracted in liquid form and solidified, much as the juice of sugarcane turns into jaggery (goodd), it’s sold as “pot”.
Human ingenuity has dealt with this gift of the gods — notably Shiva, to whom we wish victory after we pull on a chillum full of ganja by pronouncing “Jai Shambho” — in very many forms and recipes. At Holi, Indians of all religions and ranks including, I expect, top politicians and Cabinet members, ignore the law of the land which bans the drug and prescribes a fine of Rs 10,000 and even prison for its consumption, drink cannabis dissolved in lactic concoctions. Some call it “thandai” — so cool yaar!
The majority probably don’t know they are breaking the law and it would be a sad day if we watched on TV a home minister attending a Holi party and being arrested and subsequently sentenced to six months in jail. It can’t happen of course, as Shambho would keep the police away by getting them stoned in their own Holi parties.
(The difference between the UK and Saudi Arabia? In the UK you get stoned and commit adultery. In Saudi you commit adultery and get stoned!)
Cannabis is a historical tradition in the subcontinent. The survey puts Karachi in second place, defeated only by New York — and awards Delhi third, with Los Angeles and Cairo intruding to push Mumbai to sixth. Three subcontinental cities proudly uphold our reputation as “stoners”. Justice prevails.
My historian friend Charles Allen, Kipling’s biographer, has conducted research into the ancient Aryan drug which the texts call Soma. His researches have yielded evidence of an intoxicating substance which has now disappeared. As the history books of my tender youth put it, the Aryans did this and that and “quaffed the exhilarating soma”. These amateur British text-book-historians didn’t say what this stuff was and as teenagers we wondered. I subsequently concluded that if it was a drink, and wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc or some other grape, it must be a cannabis derivative. It could have been the concoction India drinks at Holi or, less likely, it could be the elixir West Indians make by pickling cannabis in rum bottles and drinking the infused nectar. Charles disagrees, but who am I to pull race and nationality over his genuine historical research?
I came upon the half-respectable nature of cannabis very early in my life. I must have been seven years old when I sat watching my maternal grandmother and her Parsi lady friends mixing an ingredient into a to-be-preserved sweet called “vassanoo” while cooking it in the backyard of our house in great big saucepans on improvised, open fires. I can swear, to this day, that they sent our household cook, Hukam Ali, to fetch a secret ingredient in a newspaper packet to pour into the mix.
Hukams dutifully fetched the stuff and mamaiji and her friends poured the powder into the mix and looked very conspiratorial, exchanging glances and smiles as they did. The reason I am convinced it was cannabis resin was that Hukam Ali stole some of it and, later on, when he and I were alone and he trusted my discretion, he extracted a small scrap of newspaper folded into a packet and mixed the powder he had stolen from the order with tobacco and smoked it in a chillum, grinning the while and exhorting me never to tell.
I told! — but only in later years when my mother and her brother sternly castigated me for admitting I had consumed some ganja and I recalled that they too must have eaten it in granny’s vassanoo. My uncle and mum, suffering from the innocence of the generation between granny and me, said I was talking nonsense and their mother could never have dealt with drugs. And yet all Parsis know that there is a quality to vassanoo which bestows shrouded, mysterious exhilaration — attributed by consuming fools to powers inherent in root ginger.
My adolescent experiences with cannabis were never pursued with any feeling of illegality or guilt. It was something one was offered as a special paan, not anywhere as rare as a peg of whisky.
One was evolutionarily acquainted with the verse, which said:
Charsi kadhi na marsi
Agar Marsi, tho chaalis aadmi aagey karsi.
So, it was something of a comedic mystery when at university in Britain “pot” was treated as a clandestine substance and a mark of advanced social defiance.
Later, living in the black community of South London, one heard the reggae lyrics extolling ganja: “Legalise it, and I will advertise it…” etc.
Looking down the list of top ten consuming cities I am disappointed to find Amsterdam nowhere in it. I believe, just as the Jesuit Alphonso bred the delicious hybrid mango, the Dutch synthesized the deadly “skunk” — so named because of its powerful, distinctive odour. I think the Netherlands were the first to legalise cannabis and yet their cities don’t figure in top consumption.
Is there then a yet unformulated proverb about the undesirability of unforbidden fruit?