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Going out With a Bhang

My serenity and sobriety ended abruptly when we boarded the train to Jaipur. The trip took ten hours. Jeff and I calculated our average speed to be hovering around 20 miles per hour. At least we smoked the cows.

Perhaps I didn’t yet tell you about the cows. There are cows everywhere. Sure, everyone knows that Hindus consider cows sacred. But sacred is relative. Nobody eats the cows, but nobody feeds them either. One of the most common tableaus is a cow munching on a pile of trash. Second to that might be a cow munching on a poster pasted to the wall. Not a lot of vitamins in those posters, I imagine, nor in the glue. Poor buggers. So you’ve got a lot of sickly looking cows wandering around just trying to make it to their next Bollywood release.

But back to the city. Jaipur is beautiful. It’s called the Pink City because of the pinkish-orangey wash that covers many of the old stucco buildings. Jaipur was once a feudal state and the lords built elaborate castles, or havelis, to protect their land and (I imagine) to show off. Now havelis line the streets and give the city an air of dilapidated regality.

In Jaipur we made another predawn arrival to a hotel fit for princes, or at least imperialists of some sort. Beyond the gates was the screaming, choking, electric city. And inside was a well-tended garden where whiteys of all types drank tea and smoked cigarettes, waited on by extremely attentive Indians. It was at once very comfortable and very uncomfortable.

Holi We arrived on the eve of Holi, the first day of spring. To celebrate the holiday, people throw water and “colors”—mysterious powered stuff—on one another. In the old days, fevers in springtime could be deadly, and the powder used to have curative properties. Nowadays the powder is often toxic and the ritual itself is more an excuse to get someone (a female most likely) really wet and really messy. Think Puerto Rican Day Parade, year 2000, New York City. Not good.

Before the colors, there were fires. The night before Holi, celebrators set fires all over the city, burning wood, brush, plastic bags, and whatever else fell into the pile. Jeff and I took a tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) ride through Jaipur, and every 20 feet there was another bonfire. It was like the Indian apocalypse. It was awesome.

The next day we decided to avoid the water- and paint-throwing and hang out with the wedding party for dance lessons. An auntie commandeered a minivan and cranked up the Bollywood hits on the sound system. The party raged. Which led, in turn, to the abrupt end of my sobriety. Did I drink too many Kingfishers? Did someone crack open the Bombay Sapphire? If only.

Along with setting fires and defiling innocent people’s clothing and skin, another Holi tradition is to drink Bhang, a potent distillation of the cannabis plant. I was absent during the sentence that included the word cannabis and simply accepted a class from Krishna, one of the groom’s father’s friends. There was some concern over the concoction, but it centered on the cleanliness of the ice cubes. All the old people were taking sips, so I figured it was some kind of harmless tea. It tasted like dirt, but in the spirit of cultural openness, I drank it.

An hour later, I was having lunch with one of the bride’s friends, whom I had met two hours ago. I started talking uncontrollably. What the fuck? And then I realized.

“I am so high,” I said.

A middle-aged dean of engineering had just dosed me. I needed to lie down immediately. An hour later I felt stable enough to wander down to the garden where I found the only other person stupid enough to drink his whole glass of Bhang, Jeff.

We confirmed that we both felt like we just ate five pot brownies. I have never been dumb enough to eat five pot brownies, but I’m fairly confident this was what it would feel like. Jeff had a big smile on his face and was taking it much better than I was. The two recurrent thoughts running through my head were, “I’m going to kill Krishna,” and “I cannot, under any circumstances, be high for the first wedding event tonight.”

I ordered a hot curry and sat down with Jeff and another friend of the groom, Michael Dean. I had never met this Michael Dean before and the first thing he said to me was,

“Man, that stuff lasts for ten, twelve hours,” in an Australian accent.

“He’s lying,” Jeff said.

“Ten, twelve hours,” Michael repeated.

The Bhang wore off about 4 hours later. Michael Dean turned out to be just that kind of prick. Somehow I ended up hanging out with him for the next week.

Riches and Rickshaws With that, the Indian wedding began: two nights and three days of sparkling outfits, rich food, and heartfelt professions of love. The bride and groom were regal in their embroidered finery. The marriage ceremony was held at the Rambaugh Palace, perhaps the swankest hotel in the entire country. Only in India would the men’s clothes be as much a topic of conversation as the women’s. In attendance were two camels, an elephant, and several horses. Tourists lined up to take pictures of the procession. Rose petals covered the pond and the ground. The opulence was stunning.

I thought about the poverty some miles down the road. Jaipur is a booming city. New construction projects appear on every block. But most people are still incredibly poor. Towards the end of the wedding festivities, the entire wedding party retired to the lovely minimalist house-turned-hotel where the newlyweds’ family was staying. It was the night of the marriage ceremony, and because there hadn’t been much dancing at the event, people definitely wanted to party.

I had a cold at that point, and had already gotten quite the chill in my own wedding finery at the outdoor ceremony, so I found a comfortable chair and parked myself in it. The group got rowdy pretty fast and soon bottles of Johnnie Walker labeled with colors I had never seen before appeared out of suitcases. The resident musician got on the Indian drums called tablas, toasts were given, and a few of the drunker souls started dancing. Then someone poured a drink for the driver of the bus that ferried us to all the events. It was the size of a glass of iced tea, but filled entirely with scotch.

The driver took the glass and the party continued. It could have been a few hours, or a few minutes—in any case, I had used up many, many tissues—when two of the aunties came downstairs in a tizzy.

“The driver has gotten drunk and is insulting people!”

“Where did he get the liquor anyway?”

“He must have stolen it!”

“Can you believe, he wanted to join the party?!”

“I knew he was a bad man from the moment I saw him.”

Later I was able to piece together that the driver had somehow (somehow?) gotten quite drunk and tried to join the rest of the guests in drunkenly singing and telling stories. This kind of headlong barreling over class lines might raise some awkward eyebrows in the states, but in India, it’s just not done.

After that, little Johnnie Walker stumbled over to the security gate and got in a kerfuffle with the security guards. The guards, indignant that a man of a lower rank was drunk and uppity, called the party’s hosts and the hotel management to complain.

Every wedding has some drunken drama, but this guy probably lost his job afterwards. And who knows what would happen to him, his wife, four children, sick aunt, and legless nephew? Okay, I made up the nephew, but in a country where half the children are malnourished—a statistic that has barely moved in the last decade—the truth can’t be too far from the fiction.

Next: The congested madness of Delhi

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