It all started with a little hash. Or rather, it all started with no hash. Or was it Old Monk? No, that’s not it. I’m not starting far back enough.
I arrived in Calcutta on a Thursday night. I had come with one friend, let’s call her Betty, and was planning to meet up with another, let’s call him Martin. I had just spent three sober months in Delhi and wasn’t expecting much from Calcutta by way of a change of pace, unless that meant eating fish curry and seeing a river that wasn’t open sewage infested with Hep A. Before I left, a friend tried to warn me/give me hope: “I’ve got three words for you,” she said. “Red light district.”
My first night in Calcutta passed without much event. I met my friend at the airport and, based on the nothing that we had gathered from Lonely Cunting Planet, hit up a cab to Sudder Street, the Pham Ngu Lao of Calcutta. The first thing we did was swerve around a bunch of hippies, and the second thing we did was have a beer. Then the following events took place: we checked into a hotel. We had some fish. We tried to get a cycle rickshaw man to find us an open bar. We went to sleep.
The next night proved much better, thanks to an especially cheap, not especially foul domestic spirit called Old Monk Rum. Thanks should also go out to an unknown Chinese restaurant that would not allow us to drink said rum in the restaurant, even after we had tried to discreetly pour some into our drinks, thereby forcing each of us to chug several shots-worth of Old Monk. (Or, several for Martin and two for me.) I am also thankful for a club called Tantra, where, despite a thorough frisk and exorbitant cover charge, we were somehow able to slip by with the rest of the handle, thereby enabling us to huddle in a corner and finish it off between the two of us. (Or, mostly between Martin and himself.) Honorable mentions to a healthy dose of alcoholism, escapism, and stupidity. Martin blacked out the entire night after 10 pm.
Saturday night was my turn to forget my identity and social security number for a while. The details are hazy except I remember waking up in a plate of something rather saucy and fishy in yet another Chinese restaurant, without any idea how I got there. It was around four in the afternoon. I thought I vaguely remembered something about a chemist and then a few gin and tonics—but there was no way to tell. “Eat your shrimp, sweetheart,” Martin said, before I passed out again.
The next time I opened my eyes it was Sunday morning. After Martin left that afternoon I was in a sad state so Betty and I ate some chicken. I told Betty I needed to forget my troubles and she said a cycle rickshaw man outside had offered her hash.
I didn’t opt for any hash but couldn’t turn down the chance for something different, nor did I want to leave my friend high and dry (or not high and dry) so I agreed to accompany Betty on a hashish hunt around the backpacker’s district of Calcutta. (Anybody who has ever been to a touristy third world country will tell you that the best way to find drugs is to roll up to any third world cabbie equivalent and whisper “mareewana?”. “Flower power,” “ganja,” and “charas” have also been known to work in India. Strictly hearsay.) This hash run ended up consisting of Betty and me on a human-pulled rickshaw going in circles for forty minutes within a one block radius around Sudder Street. It started raining. Not high, not dry. Betty paid too much and we went back to the hotel.
Just a few short hours later Betty and I found ourselves in a rather empty American country-themed bar. The band was doing a Shania Twain cover. I bought three beers: one for me, one for Betty, and one for our new friend Gaurav. Turns out it was Gaurav’s birthday but being the sweet 115-pound Indian boy that he is, he had “already had two beers that day” and couldn’t finish the one we bought him. Bless his heart. But then we met Arin and “Peter,” two nice boys who work at a call center uptown and were “just celebrating life, man!!” According to Peter, “If Bon Jovi comes to India, I will leave my job!!!” Bless his heart, too.
After a while, some guy was touching Betty too much, and we were out of money, and there was no more Shania Twain, so kya kare? Off we went back to the hotel to finish another bottle of Old Monk. Except apparently it’s not okay to show up at 3 am with two random local boys (“Family members!” Peter yelled indignantly from the other side of the now locked gate) at a hotel where the curfew is 11:30 pm. I had also apparently failed to see the sign informing guests that visitors are not allowed past 9.
Due to various unknown reasons I was in a fight-a-bitch mood, so suddenly there was lots of yelling. The hotel management started yelling so I started yelling so the boys started yelling and the next thing I knew one of the managers was taking out the guest registration book and muttering something about “those crazy kids and their shenanigans…and their dumb dog too.” The manager handed me a pen. “Please check out now.”
Being only my second or third tryst into the forest of please-vacate-the premises, and being my second or third or fourth beer deep, I became very indignant. Soon Betty and I found ourselves in the hotel room, packing all our shit, ready to check the fuck out. That is, until we got to the front gate (Arin and Peter still outside) and realized we had already paid for the night. Power of the purse my ass. We went to bed.
Monday was our last day in Calcutta. After an obligatory cultural visit to Shantiniketan to see the home of Rabindranath Tagore, leader of the Bengali Renaissance and Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, Betty and I returned to our hippie haven and tried to figure out what to do next. We had a 6 am plane to catch and also a 11:30 pm curfew. Luckily we didn’t have to think very hard, because soon we found ourselves in Calcutta’s Cave of Wonders, or some other culturally insensitive allusion, or the alley across from our hotel. Street fucks mixed with smelly hippies, very drunk preteens with very drunk old men (also touching Betty), East with West, old with new. Oh, have you heard? India is a land of contrasts.
Due to the 6 am plane Betty was trying to get rid of our hash and I was trying innocently to finish my dinner.
A skinny boy in bell-bottoms topped with a shiny, spinning belt buckle scoffed in our direction.
“I want hash? You want hash? I have hash. I don’t buy hash. I give hash.”
“What else do you have?”
“I have anything. What you want?”
“You tell me.”
“You want, I give. The cocaine? The heroin? I have. I give.”
“No, I think we’re good for now. You want our hash?”
“You want hash?”
I picked at my chicken. Someone plucked at a guitar. It started to rain.
“You know the chillum?”
“You know it?”
The boy produced a small clay cone that fit in his palm. His skinny friends, the drunk mountain men, the German hippies all heckled us.
“Chillum?” he repeated.
“It’s just a pipe?”
“I show you chillum.”
One of his lackeys produced a sack and started packing a bowl. Betty rolled a hash joint. I asked one kid how old he was.
“Fifteen,” he mumbled from behind red eyes.
“What do you do?”
“He makes fruit lassis down the street,” Betty interjected. “I saw him yesterday.”
“What do you guys do?” I asked the others.
“We are tour guides,” the guitar guy said. He produced his card. Skyway Forex and Travel (P) LTD. He crossed out the number printed on the card and wrote another number on the back. Underneath he wrote “no drugs.”
“During the day we give tours. But now it is nighttime,” he said.
“How old are you?” I asked Spinny Belt.
“What do you do during the day? Are you a tour guide?”
“No. I do this. Day and night. I am Boss.”
“You want some hash?” Betty asked the fifteen-year-old.
He nearly vomited at the sight of the jay in an outstretched palm.
“No more,” he managed.
“Now chillum,” said the Boss.
He demonstrated for Betty. It wasn’t even 11:30 yet.
I was staring off into the distance when Betty said, “Yo, you want ice cream?”
To our left a very old shirtless man had appeared selling kulfi.
“Oh, not really.”
“He’s already putting it in the bowl.”
“How much is it?”
Betty handed me a leaf bowl with several chunks of pistachio and a small spoon. I handed her twenty rupees. I took a bite. When she next handed me the bowl, there was a lump of black dirt in it.
“Is that shit?”
“I’m not…sure…” said Betty.
“How…did it get there? Did we just pay 20 rupes for pistachio shit?”
“I’m not…sure…” said Betty.
“What is this?” I asked no one in particular.
“Uh…black grape,” said one kid.
“It looks like something else.”
“It is black grape.”
I broke off a piece and ate it.
“This isn’t black grape.”
“It doesn’t taste like black grape, it doesn’t look like black grape. It looks like marijuana mixed with cream and ghee. It looks like this shit could fuck you up. It looks like bhang.”
Betty took a bite.
“This tastes vaguely familiar,” she said after a moment.
“What does the Boss say?”
He stood over me, hands on hips, belt shining under the dim light of the streetlamp.
“Boss says it is black grape.”
“What does the Boss really say?”
“It is bhang.”
At midnight Betty and I retired to our hotel. After a few hours we rose from our slumber, flushed the hash, packed our bags, and got in a taxi. As we waited for the plane to take off and take us South, we said goodbye to Calcutta.