Among the believers
19 April 2013
An account from Varanasi, where bhang and thandai struggle to survive the onslaught of LSD and Coca-Cola.
Not far from my hotel in the Assi locality of Varanasi was Pappu’s chai shop – a trifling, box-shaped affair, among the hundreds of similar looking places on both sides of the bustling road which leads to Assi Ghat. During my five days’ stay there in early March, I found myself spending more time at Pappu’s shop than anywhere else. But – and this, I suspect, was because of the stories that I had heard, both real and apocryphal – when I first went there on the morning of my arrival in Varanasi, I had prepared myself for an anti-climax.
Even in a city with a legendary flair for milk and cannabis products in all their variants, the young Baldev Singh – who had a short stint in a lowly-position in the imperial army – didn’t have to try very hard in 1948 to come up with a rather unique and unusual combo: a place which served dollops of bhang, alongside strong milk chai. The shop, now popularly referred to by his son’s moniker, continues the tradition.
In his acclaimed, if somewhat controversial novel Kashi Ka Assi, Kashinath Singh captured the despair and nostalgia of Varanasi of the 1990s, from the vantage point of this shop. His work was a satire on the lethal trio of Mandalisation, Hindutvaisation and globalisation, and the havoc they unleashed on this city of Lord Shiva, where people prided themselves on their phakkarpan, or carefree life. The protagonists of his novel, most of whom were in the sunset of their lives, sat here every day without any sense of urgency. They sipped chai, gobbled a few golis (balls) of bhang, refuted history and mythology and hurled slang at one and all. The latter they did in the tradition of a true Banarasi – always with the finesse of a poet.
On the morning I arrived, the customers had devoted themselves to discussing the fate of Raja Bhaiya – a local goon-turned-politician, who had been implicated in the mob killing of a police officer. The talk, with time, shifted to the officer’s wife, who was dubbed bahadur – brave – for demanding a probe into her husband’s murder. “Aur kitni khoobsurat bhi hai! She is so beautiful too!” an elderly gentleman uttered innocently, in the midst of what was becoming a rather languid conversation. There he was caught: “Looks like Masterjee knows a lot about beauty!” someone mumbled. “But we heard he spent his jawaani – youth – using his right hand, didn’t we?” another added with a wink. For a moment it seemed that the old man might take offence, but instead everyone laughed heartily. All their jabbering, one of them later told me, was strictly “aff the recard!”
Every time someone new arrived, the shop’s benches were adjusted to accommodate the new entrant. From nearby came a sweet, strong, and somewhat sticky, but overall pleasant aroma of the brewing chai. In a while the trademark dark brown brews arrived, which they cherished together, before everyone disappeared again into the traffic-clogged roads that the shop overlooked. The bhang, on the other hand, had been prepared beforehand. There was a separate counter for it, where the entire clump was kept casually in a bowl, giving the impression of neglect, at the expense of the more popular cult at the shop.
Stories of bhang’s origins are as old as they are diverse, and it shouldn’t matter which one is the most authentic, as long as they all refer to it as Shiva’s favourite food. So widespread was the use of bhang in colonial India that a commission was appointed in the 1890s to look at the social and moral impact of its consumption, and the possibility of its prohibition. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894, after several years and many volumes of research, concluded that it was impossible to forbid its use. An appendix read:
By the help of bhang ascetics pass days without food or drink. The supporting power of bhang has brought many a Hindu family safe through the miseries of famine. To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so holy and gracious a herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to the large bands of worshipped ascetics deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences.
More than a century later, in 2011, a British drug product company, G W Pharma Limited, filed an application with the European Patent Office to secure exclusive rights to bhang for its properties to treat coughs and bronchitis, but were foiled by the Indian scientists.
In 1980, bhang had been declared by the Indian government as illegal to grow, sell, or consume without permission. Now, it is grown in the name of medicinal use by the government, to be sold only at licensed shops across the country. At Pappu’s shop, however – and indeed anywhere in Varanasi – people consume bhang, legalities notwithstanding, and mostly for a simple, more fundamental reason: mauj-masti, pleasure.
The procedure for making bhang is a simple, ancient one: the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant are ground into a green paste with a pestle and mortar. In Varanasi, bhang is most commonly mixed with thandai, the ‘signature drink’ of the city, a cooling concoction made with milk, sugar, almonds, cashews, and spices like cardamom and saffron. Bhang is also often mixed with lassi. If one can afford a more gourmet affair, there are also pakoras and piquant chutneys made from bhang, none of which, unfortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of devouring.
The sight of bhang on that morning reminded me of an immensely likeable character from Kashi Ka Assi: Dr Gaya Singh, an intellectual, who owed his everyday wisdom to bhang. In the book, he comes to rescue Pappu from a police inspector who had come to arrest chai sellers like him, who sold bhang without a license from the government. While it’s hard to make the music of Varanasi’s vernacular mix of Hindi-Bhojpuri flow in the Queen’s language, this is how the scene would be translated:
Sharma…Jee! Do you see my head? This scalp? There isn’t trace of a hair on it! The blows from your lathi will have their maximum brunt on it! Hit me, if you want to! But Sharma bhonsri ke! You think you have the power to destroy the millenniums of culture and tradition of Kashi? Policemen like you have come and gone – Assi has, and will continue to remain, as it has always been.”
Gaya Singh then let out his meticulous flurry of rhetoric to explain how bhang was essential to the abohava [air] of Banaras: bhang is essential for everyday divya niptaan, [a gratifying bowel movement]; bowel movement is closely related to health; health is closely related to very idea of human existence. Sharma, who had come with his policemen holding lathis and guns, scuttled off.
While I did see a few Gaya Singhs among the chai drinkers, I was surprised to see that the customers at Pappu’s chai shop were almost all proletarian. They held out a few rupee coins or a ten rupee note. A lump of bhang was rounded off into a goli and passed on to them: they gulped them down with a lota, or pot of water, somewhat uneasily, water dripping on their clothes; or else they carried it, carefully wrapped inside a leaf.
My restrained, fly-on-the-wall approach to the chai shop didn’t work for long. Sharma, an 80-year-old wisp of a man, with a pristine white, Socrates-looking beard, had seen me scoping the place out, and was affectionately curious to know from where I had travelled. I expected him to give me more on bhang than a few lines, but I sensed he wasn’t interested, and therefore dropped the conversation.
“Aaj kal yahaan har cheez sirf foreigners ko nazar mein rakh kar banayi jaati hai. Everything in Banaras these days is made keeping foreigners in mind,” he had started a new topic. He claimed, “Joh Banarasi silk ki sari yahaan milegi, who aapko New York mein bhi mil jayegi. You can easily find the Banarasi silk sari that you see here also in New York.” This cultural homogenisation meant that the production of saris was now done on an assembly line, he said, juxtaposing the status quo with the fine pasmina work produced by artisans in times gone by.
“Aaj kal ke logon ko ye bhi pata nahi ki Bhartendu ke baad kaun aaya! The young generation doesn’t even know who came after Bhartendu [Harischandra]!” he asserted in a sarcastic tone, as we talked about literature. “But it’s not completely the market’s fault. More generally, it is the moral corruption that the market has unleashed that is worrisome.”
“Take, for example, a magazine like Hans!” He explained to me the story of poverty amid which journal was initially published. “Today, they dole out sex in the name of ‘freedom for women’; they carry out Dalit politics in the name of Dalit literature. Sometimes Lalu [Yadav] would give them advertisements for ten thousand rupees!” I could never know if he was picking a bone with the editor of Hans, who, also, happened to be a ‘Yadav’.
If I generally find it hard to talk to the elderly, it was doubly so in Varanasi. In that moment it was hard to know if these were merely the sentimental yearnings of an old man or if Varanasi had really changed as much as everyone around me wanted me to believe. Then, suddenly, Sharma caught me by surprise: “Faayde bhi hain market ke – wahaan koi caste nahi poochta. There are benefits of market too – no one asks you your caste there.”
“Bhang is not harmless – indeed, it is an addiction like drinking,” Nita Kumar, a soft-spoken academic, told me when I saw her in Nagwa. “But, in the overall contested philosophy of Banarasipan, it has a place!” Kumar’s association with Varanasi went back to the early 1980s, when she had first come to conduct fieldwork on the artisans of Varanasi, for a PhD in history at Chicago. After tracking many of the artisan families back through three generations, she concluded they were “doubly disadvantaged”. Since artisanship had become a poorly paid profession, the families didn’t want new generations to enter into it. But due to the lack of academic training, information and opportunities available to them, most had to fall back on the old trade of artisanship, or poorly paid jobs as manual labourers.
“School children are taught to despise family,” she asserted, explaining that modern education and their native assets – arts, crafts and language – had become inextricably antithetical to one another. She told me she was invited at a fancy dress competition recently where the loudest applause went to a vegetable seller who hawked in Bhojpuri. “Everyone thinks Khaike Paan Banaras Waala is a cute song,” she said, but went on to explain that the image it projected was that of “an uneducated, illiterate person of the street”.
Talking of Varanasi’s relationship with modernity, she said, “In a capitalist world, things are measured by only two criteria: money and discipline.” “I don’t want to romanticise it, but it goes against the philosophy of Varanasi. Banarasipan is freedom, undiscipline. Civilisation here consists of a balance between labour and pleasure”.
“Bhang, is best avoided. Am glad I did. Those who didn’t, well, they provided entertainment for the party. And hv [sic] nasty hangovers now.”
Thus announced the author Chetan Bhagat on his Twitter account towards the end of 2010’s Holi celebrations. Oddly, this was also the time when Bhagat was researching his next novel, based on the life of three young friends in Varanasi.
The protagonist of Revolution 2020, Gopal Mishra, is born into penury, but has two major ambitions in life. First, he wants to become rich by any means; and second, he wants to court his childhood love. Unable to crack the engineering entrance exams, he is helped by a corrupt politician who mentors him, investing his money to help him become an entrepreneur and starting his own engineering college. At 25, Mishra’s achievements go beyond the wildest dreams of even the most successful of liberalised India’s children: the directorship of an engineering college; a black Mercedes; a mansion; and, most importantly, the girl he loves. Well, almost. Mishra becomes a gourmet too, the proud possessor of the “finest whisky in the world.”
While I tried rather unsuccessfully to locate a black Mercedes in Varanasi, I did see people who could probably have played some of the more minor characters in Bhagat’s novel: boys and girls who frequented the newly opened malls; feasted at Domino’s, momo joints and Café Coffee Day; rode bikes and scooters and prepared for medicine or engineering entrance exams. I wondered what these people made of Bhagat’s novel.
“I liked it in bits and pieces,” said Akash Dutt Dubey, a student at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), when we met that evening over lemon masala chai on the stairs of Tulsi Ghat. “But overall,” he said, “it wasn’t Banarasi enough.” I was beginning to understand what he meant. Bhagat’s novel relayed none of the camaraderie or sense of humour that the customers in Pappu’s chai shop displayed. Bhagat, in between a mildly superficial narrative, had copiously doled out the same mix of pop history and clichés that outsiders are sold in cheap guidebooks. Sample: “Hindus believe that if they die here, there is an automatic upgrade to heaven, no matter what the sin committed on earth.”
“Of the few private colleges that I know of, one is on the verge of being sold – these colleges have no exposure, very poor placements,” Dubey told me, stopping to brood for a second. “Then there is also lot of bureaucracy here – people on the ghats keep waiting for a bureaucrat’s ambassador to arrive. Only then the aarti begins!” I was trying to make sense of him – what he meant, probably, was that it was still unviable, contrary to Bhagat’s story, to become a superstar in Varanasi merely by opening a private college at the age of 25.
Talking of food, Dubey told me of a relative who had opened a restaurant serving local cuisine. Bati-chokha – made of flour and stuffed with chana daal – had turned out to be the most popular item on the menu. But Bhagat’s book made no mention of bati-chokha, chaat, kachori-jalebi or thandai – food and beverages Varanasi is known for. Indeed, the one time bhang found a mention was when Mishra had to rebuke his friend for talking nonsense. Banarasi paan was relegated to a mere mouth-freshener used to hide the smell of an intoxicant, and mentioned to mock the boatman’s “paan-stained teeth”.
Stories of a conflict between a dazzling capitalist and a radical à la Che Guevera – very often residing in the same soul – have become depressingly common in popular Indian narratives. While Bhagat manages to transplant those caricatures to Varanasi, his engagement with the city, its people, traditions – or even my subject of enquiry, food – is superficial at best.
Earlier, along with our friends, we used to cross the river, to go the other [eastern] side of the river: We used to walk down the open fields, clear our bowels, and bathe. Then we would sit down by the riverside at a clean place, prepare thandai-bhang, distribute it among ourselves, and enjoy the evening before heading back home. These were the things we enjoyed. All this has reduced now. With urbanisation, open spaces have reduced.
Before I saw him, I heard a gentleman in the chai shop inviting his middle-aged friends to visit his village, 40 km from Varanasi, for a bati-chokha party. Soon, someone offered the use of his vehicle to bring them to the village. Another gentleman had a name for the event: “Khet se pett tak! From the fields all the way to the belly!” But what do young people do for leisure now? “If you go to the Lanka area [a nearby locality], you will see three alcohol shops in one place. You won’t see one elderly person standing there. It will all be people of your age. Today’s young generation has no time – they prefer beer, liquor.”
On one wall of the shop, I saw two dust-ridden, garlanded portraits hanging on the wall, both of smiling, middle-aged men. One of them looked quintessentially Banarasi: grey beard, expressive eyes, vermilion mark on the forehead, sunglasses, and hair parted symmetrically. Below it was a caption plate, which read “Sushil Tripathi (18.07.1956 – 04.10.2008)”.
Tripathi, I later found out, had been a senior journalist with the Hindustan newspaper. He was also a painter with a few exhibitions to his credit. “He used to be a regular here, and we were very close friends, almost like family. He died in an accident – he was taking photographs when he slipped [into a ravine] from Vindh mountain.” Suddenly, his eyes glinted. “Very recently, they have found remains from the Buddhist era there, which is what he’d been researching back then,” he said, proud of Tripathi’s legacy.
What did he think of the controversy surrounding the real life characters of Kashi Ka Assi? “People did halla-gulla at his back. No one had the courage to come and refute what he had written.” He added, “Waise bhi, woh sahitya kya jiss par tipanni naa ho? Of what use is literature that doesn’t provoke?” But no one in Assi felt offended for long; the characters represented in the novel and the writer, he said, had become friends once more.
Everyone I met in Varanasi believed that it was only after the city had become a spiritual supermarket that LSD and heroin had become household names here. But when it came to intoxicants, Varanasi had a fine distinction: bhang is considered sattvic – sentient in the Shaivite tradition (as, indeed, are milk products like ghee or lassi) – where as LSD and opiates are not.
“Banaras is an inexpensive city – a foreigner can easily live here for seven or eight thousand rupees [approximately USD 150] a month,” said Ashok Singh, a professor teaching Hindi to foreign students at BHU when I saw him at his house in the Lanka area. Over the last two decades, he knew many foreigners into drugs, some of whom had later undergone rehabilitation.
What did he think they came here for? “I don’t know, I never probe,” he said, “though sometimes I hear of failed relationships, or a broken marriage, disenchantment with family, their mechanised world.” For such people, Varanasi still represents a static, primordial and bucolic society, uncorrupted by their modern, Western societies. “There was this Japanese girl who had a very serious case of food poisoning. She was admitted in the Heritage hospital. When asked about informing her family, she said she would rather die here in Varanasi, all alone, than inform them.” Such cases are common, he said.
“He’s a journalist,” my host told his wife, who taught English at BHU, “he wants to write something on bhang.” I saw a momentary frown on her face, which mellowed into a smile. “In Assi, you’ll find lots of people who’ll tell you about bhang,” she told me, serving the two of us coffee, before she again disappeared again into the privacy of the house, concluding with something I dwelt upon for some time afterwards: “Assi also has good street literature.”
Nandlal is a slight man of 35, but he looks much younger. He was born into a poor family of Banarasi silk sari weavers in Mehdiganj, a village 25 km from Varanasi. Since 2003, Nandlal has also been spearheading the campaign in Mehdiganj for shutting down Coca-Cola’s bottling plant there, in operation since 1999.
The protests, he told me, had started soon after the plant opened: first it was intended to garner permanent rather than temporary work for its employees. Then, because the villagers were duped into using the plant’s waste material, a kind of toxic sludge as a fertiliser (which is now being dumped into the Ganges). But the most serious allegation against the Coca-Cola plant was the declining water level in nearby Mehdiganj which, as of 2013, Nandlal told me, had been declared by the Ground Water Board as a “dark zone”. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Limited, on the other hand, had been seeking permission to dig new bore wells to extract groundwater from deeper down.
Companies like Coca-Cola performed corporate social responsibility programmes to make them sound authentic and responsible, he said, when in reality they did all they could to hide their unethical practices. “They have plenty of these programmes: they sponsor schools and music concerts.” Interestingly, before he got involved in activism, he used to voluntarily teach the child labourers who helped their families make silk saris, which was how he earned his surname, ‘Master’.
Of course, Coca-Cola has also always had loyal brand ambassadors. “In Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan had an episode over the use of pesticides in agriculture. There he quoted Sunita Narain’s [Centre for Science and Environment] report!” Nandlal added,
But when, in 2006, we showed the same report on pesticides to the Coca-Cola people here, they wrote it off as unauthentic. Back then it was the same Aamir Khan who had come forward in the defense of the brand. Do you remember the advertisements where he testified that Coca-Cola didn’t contain pesticides?
“They mock our allegations of environmental damage, they say we are not scientists. Tell me, are Aamir Khan and Tendulkar scientists?” He kept chuckling in a half-mocking tone as he spoke. “We surely know our village, and the damages Coca-Cola has made to them, better than these celebrities!”
“Earlier, reporters came to me looking for soundbites – now they don’t. And sometimes when they do, they call it a protest against a sheetal peya, cold-drink company, but never name the brand itself.” How did that happen? “Jitendra Pathak [a local reporter], who used to write about it, confessed to me that they were under order from Lucknow not to write anything on the Coca-Cola protests. Coca-Cola pays them for advertisements. What can you expect out of such media?”
During the freedom movement, native consumer goods were dubbed inferior to colonial ones. The nationalist fervour there made native goods sacred and morally superior. In this case, however, thandai and lassi weren’t just referred to as morally superior, but also as healthier.
Although Nandlal told me that protests like his had played a part in exposing the hypocrisy of the firm, and that their market had been affected internationally, the truth was that soft drink consumption in the country over the last decade had increased exponentially. Indeed, Nandlal’s activism had rung bells in Coca-Cola’s Atlanta head-office, but his team had failed to gather much support outside Mehdiganj. Barely anyone I met in Varanasi had even heard of him.
So what was the solution? “The youth will have to understand. There is a need to make them aware that without the help from the West, we aren’t capable of manufacturing a needle.”
I had an invitation for the evening from Pappu’s shop. “Aaj toh aapko khana hi padega! You’ll have to eat it today!” Manoj told me, passing on a lump of bhang, as I was halfway through a glass of thandai. I protested, but eventually, and somewhat uncomfortably, gobbled up the herb.
“Bhang Banaras ka antibiotic hai, samjhe. Bhang is Banaras’ idea of an antibiotic,” an Assi resident told me at Pappu’s shop. He was one of the few people I met who wasn’t ashamed of admitting to having bhang regularly. “Ab kya hai ki aaj-kal log batate nahi hain, lekin gaur kijiyega toh pata chal jayega; these days people won’t tell you, but if you notice carefully you would see!” See what, I asked? “Abhi bhi yahaan aadhe log aksar bhang khaate hain! Half of the people in Varanasi still have bhang regularly!”
From there I headed to the Godowlia area where the procession for Shiva’s marriage had taken off. Jhanki of different themes kept passing by: on one of the chariots sat a blonde couple dressed as Shiva and Parvati, waving to the crowd, feeling every bit privileged. Opposite to them sat a local girl, dolled up, virginal shyness all over her face, who – I couldn’t help imagining – secretly nurtured ambitions of becoming a Bombay actress.
From another chariot operated a disk jockey, playing Bollywood and Bhojpuri remixes, behind which a bunch of young men danced frantically under hallucinatory bright blue-green lights. Interestingly, in one of the Bhojpuri songs – a cross between a sleazy and a devotional song – “Ganesh ke papa” asked “Ganesh ki mummy” to serve him some freshly prepared bhang. An on-duty policeman standing near me played with a few bhang balls in his palm which, it appeared, he was saving to down with thandai at one of the famed Godowlia shops.
Then came a garishly shining chariot on which a man – who looked like one of those drug peddlers with whom my hotel-staff had unsuccessfully promised me a meeting – sat cross-legged on a throne, his sherwani glittering in the bright lights. The master of ceremonies went on:
Inke paacket mein ekko paisa naa. Rikso waala manna kar diin – ‘naa bhai, naa jaaim!’ Tabbo baithal baa raja jaise. Hum inkaa bhi swagat karte hain! He’s got no money in his pocket! Even rickshaw pullers refuse him a ride – ‘sorry, brother, can’t let you sit!’ But look at him – there he is sitting, like a king. We welcome him, too!
And then, quite unexpectedly, Vishwanath’s chariot appeared. He wasn’t very creative with his choice of characters – another blonde couple beamed from the chariot as Shiva and Parvati. At the front of his chariot, however, I noticed a large portrait of Sushil Tripathi much larger than the one I had seen at his shop, about whose friendship, and death, I had asked him the other day: From the image, Sushil Tripathi smiled affectionately to his city’s crowd.
Every city has a private grammar: Varanasi, especially, reveals itself to the outsiders slowly, stealthily, reluctantly, almost ashamed of an ancient past largely written off by modernity. The story of bhang or thandai is no different. Feeling slightly dizzy from my earlier intoxication, I took a cycle-rickshaw back to the hotel. I boarded a train back to the kritrim, artificial city of Delhi – as everyone in Varanasi had told me! – early next morning.
~ This article is one of the articles from web-exclusive package for ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’.
~Abhishek Choudhary is a journalist and researcher, presently based in Delhi.
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