Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Ganja on the Ganges
by Peter Gorman
It was 1988 and I was already well into my 30s before I got to India. Everyone in the whole world arrived before me but I didn’t mind: India is just too damned India-ish for all the hippies, hypsters, gawkers or squalkers to change it much. Pale-skinned Hare Krishnas at the Bombay airport paled in comparison with real Sadhus—holy men—and their followers; St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a simple stone building when compared with the Taj Mahal; traffic jams on the LA Freeway were a walk in the park next to the camels, sacred cows, rickshaws, cars, trucks and sea of humanity that pushed through Pushcar during the annual Mela.
I’d been there about a month before I got to Varanasi, the most sacred city in India. During that time I was in a constant state of open-mouthed wonder at everything I saw and heard: 30 days wasn’t nearly enough time to completely eliminate the culture shock of being in a place where rats are sometimes worshipped while an entire class of people are considered untouchable. To ease my transition I’d indulged in several recently-outlawed-but-readily-available treats: I’d smoked pot in Bombay, eaten magic mushrooms in Kodaikanal, smoked bowls of opium in Madras, had chillum’s full of charras in Agra and drank quantities of bhang lassis in Rajasthan. Still, nothing quite prepared me for Varanasi.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it’s as holy for Muslims and Buddists as it is for Hindus. Shiva, according to one legend, is supposed to have laid down and where his body was the river Ganges flowed. It is a city of narrow streets and ancient buildings, the birthplace of Indian art and culture. In Varanasi there are 365 holy days a year and a temple exists to commemorate each. For Hindus, a Pilgrimage to Varanasi and a bath in its waters liberates the soul forever from returning to human form. To have one’s ashes thrown into the Ganges, along which Varanasi was built, assures one of reaching eternal bliss.
The city teems with life. Its markets overflow with the most beautiful saris and silk weavings in all of India. Bowls of fine powdered chalk the women mark their foreheads with come in colors that could make a rainbow blush. Wood carvers and fine painters abound. Sacred cows share space with roaming monkeys. Music from sitars and flutes echoes from every corner and down each alley; car horns blare in contest with the wailing of mourners carrying their dead to the ghats by the river to be burned.
I’d arrived with no place to stay but quickly found a cheap room in a ramshackle hotel, then headed out into the thick of it. In the street the hustlers asked if I wanted their charras and the beggars held out their hands for rupees. I ignored the hustlers and gave the beggars what I could. I was on a mission. I wanted to find the last legal government bhang shops in India. I was told they were not far from the Ganges, near the burning ghats, and that the government allowed them to stay open so the dead could be burned with a little treat to make their trip to the afterlife more pleasant.
I wound through streets and alleys in a slightly downhill fashion, and in perhaps an hour or two I’d reached the water. The sun was setting and the river was golden. It was also low, and I could see rows of people standing on a sandbar in the middle of it. Small boats lined the bar in front of the people.
I asked someone nearby if one could rent a boat for a trip on the river. The fellow, who spoke English, shook his head side to side and said “Yes. You can be having a boat. But not here. For getting a boat you must walk back up the hill to the first street, then down to the next street where they are having boats.”
I asked him if he knew where there were any government bhang shops. Again he shook his head ‘no’ while while saying yes.
“In the streets before the boats where there are the burning ghats there are several. But if you would like some charras I have a cousin who…”
I cut him off, thanked him and left before he had the chance to lure me to a carpet or jewelry shop where I would be stuck looking for hours at beautiful carpets or ornate jewelry that I didn’t want and couldn’t afford.
In no time I arrived at a row of little wooden shacks that were locked up for the day. I couldn’t read the writing on their signs but could smell the cannabis and knew I was in the right place. Down the street I could see a dozen or more boats moored to poles at water’s edge. I decided to come back at dawn then headed back to my room through the bustling streets.
In the morning I awoke early and headed back to the little wooden shacks. As I drew near the streets grew thick with people, mostly mourners, carrying their dead. Some were carried on liters, their bodies wrapped in simple white cotton cloth; others were drawn in carriages with colorful silk burial shrouds adorned in flowers and beads. All of the groups were making their way down narrow lanes to the burning ghats. I let them pass and made my way to one of the now-open shacks.
Inside, a gaunt, shirtless man sat on his haunches on a raised platform with a rolling pin in his hand. On the floor next to him was a large, open newspaper-bound bundle of pale yellow-green cannabis stalks. A young boy placed a handful of the stalks on a sort of cutting board in front of the man, who began rolling them with his pin as if he were rolling flour. From a shelf behind him he took a container and poured a little of what looked like oil onto the stalks as he worked them: the oil mixed with the plant material and in no time he had turned the cannabis into a green, gooey paste. He scooped it up and quickly made about 30 little balls from it that he put on a tray and handed to another young man who was selling them to the passersby. I bought one and bit into it: it wasn’t very good and I swallowed as quickly as I could. The boys laughed and told me it was better in lassi, the yogurt drink.
I watched their father work for maybe half-an-hour before my body began to rush and the world around me begin to throb. The boys saw that I was getting high and laughed between themselves. I bought another ball, ate it, thanked them and began to make my way toward the dock.
The walk took more effort than Ianticipated: my legs were wobbly and the narrow passage’s walls seemed to close in on me. Worse, a family carrying a dead loved one was hurrying to the ghats just behind me and I couldn’t walk any faster—the rush was coming on strong—but I had no way to get out of their way. One of the men in front, a large man with a bushy moustache asked me something in a foreign language. I tried to answer but my mouth wouldn’t work. He began to glower at me and I leaned back against the wall, trying to become one with it so that he and his family could pass. It didn’t work. I was still in the way and there was no room for the men carrying the liter to pass me. Unfortunately, I was hardly able to move just then and stood where I was, an impediment to their beloved getting to his deserved bliss.
The man began to shout at me and the entire family picked up on the cue. I didn’t know what they were saying but the words were coming out like cartoon letters from their mouths, colorful and large and not at all pleasant. I was at a loss and feeling completely wretched that I’d interrupted someone’s shining moment with the thoughtless act of eating a bhang ball. Worse, it occurred to me that I’d eaten a second and that everything was going to get even more complicated when that kicked in.
The family’s now angry voices brought me back to the alley. I had to think of something or we’d be stuck there forever. Just then the god of cannabis came forward and gave me an inspiration. I pushed out from the wall and stood in front of the liter. I indicated to the lead man that he should lift the liter and that I would help pass it over my head as they walked by. He understood and did as I suggested. I helped raise the dead and then began to help pass it, hand-over-hand. I had a brief vision in which I saw myself dropping the corpse and nearly collapsed, but managed to hold it together until it was in front of me. To my surprise the family didn’t stop to thank me for the ingenious solution to the apparent impasse but simply kept walking to the river.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Behind me I could hear sounds and turned to see another family bearing another loved bearing down on me. I fairly forced my body to move. I couldn’t go through that again. I put one hand on the wall to my right to steady myself, and made my way down the alley. It couldn’t have been more than 100 feet but it took an eternity, what with the walls and floor breathing unevenly and the family behind me gaining with every step. When I finally reached the sunlight I lurched around the corner of the building and held on for dear life while the family flew by like a merciless locomotive.
In a few minutes the sunlight invigorated me and I could look around without feeling helpless. In front of me, to my left and right and not too far, groups of people surrounded the cremating corpses of their loved ones. White smoke rose from the fires to the heavens. Other families waited. Other groups carried bundles of what I supposed were ashes from other ghats to the boats, then piled in and the oarsmen took them into the river. Further off to the left and right I could see huge groups of people bathing along the banks of the Ganges, fulfilling their sacred obligations to make the once in a lifetime Pilgrimage to this holy place.
I don’t know how long I stood leaning against the corner of that building but I know I didn’t move until I felt I could make the short trip to where the boats were without falling. When I finally left my legs still wobbled beneath me, but did as I asked.
Before I even reached the boats several men approached me with the glint of tourist money in their eyes. “Boat tour?” they all seemed to ask, their faces slightly misshapen in my altered vision. They all looked like people I did not want to be with just then and I waved them off, pushing through them to an old man who was still sitting in his boat, eating.
“Can I rent your boat?” I asked. He kept eating and didn’t answer. I thought that maybe the words hadn’t actually come out of my mouth so I repeated my question. He still didn’t answer. I leaned down and touched him on the shoulder and he turned his head just enough to indicate with his eyes that if I was coming I should get in. I did, crouching low so as not to fall off the other side as the boat lurched with my weight. I managed to stablize and sit.
The man still hadn’t said a word and he didn’t stop eating. He had chapati—flat bread—and a sort of stew in an aluminum pot and he was scooping the stew with the bread. It looked wonderful and I wanted some. I was ravenous. I stared at him, hoping he’d get the message that he should share that wonderful pot of food. He ignored me. I began to wonder if I’d misread his eye signal. Maybe he hadn’t invited me into the boat at all. I began to get a little edgy that perhaps I should leave, but was much too comfortable to move, so determined to sit until he either asked me to leave or began to row.
Fortunately, he eventually put the pot down, stood, untied the boat from its piling and pushed off into the river.
“Do you want to go close to the burning?” he asked suddenly, unexpectedly, in good English.
“Um, what? No. No. I don’t. That’s private. Just the river. The river’s good.”
The words tumbled out and clattered together. The man laughed.
“Bhang. Not talking good.”
He turned so that his back was facing me and began to row us out toward the sand bar. We nearly reached it when he turned the boat and began to row parallel to the city on the river’s bank. I stared in near awe: There, rising up on a hill was what looked like a wall of ancient building close on each other. Dozens of temples painted white and blue or left the color of clay rose next to homes and old military buildings. In front of them at the river bank were funeral pyres and boats moving goods and hundreds of people bathing in the river. It was as if I was looking into a sort of heart, throbbing with life, and motion and bustle. It was at once magnificent and wretched, beautiful and awful. It was inspiring. I felt a rush of joy. I might have been looking at the center of the universe. This was truly the most holy of places. Many of the people I could see bathing had probably waited years to be able to step into that water. The plumes of smoke rising from the burnings meant everything to those families. Good for them, I thought. Good that they'd made it. I hoped they got everything they wanted.
“Beautiful, my city,” the oarsman said, waving his hand at the sight.
“Very,” I answered.
“Shiva lives here.”
I couldn’t do anything but grin. Shiva lives here. Of course.
“Budda came here.”
I remembered a story I’d been told about Budda. When he first came to the Ganges, the nine Nagas—the snake dieties that hold the world together—who lived by the river each made themselves into a bridge so that Budda could cross. Budda looked at the nine Naga bridges and, not wanting to offend any of them, made himself into nine Buddas and crossed them all.
“You are here,” the man said. “Too bad you are not Hindu or you would be promised everlasting life.”
We rowed in silence for a little while. The bhang’s effect was beginning to abate and I was thirsty. I reached over the side of the river and scooped a handful of the water and drank it. It tasted wonderful. I scooped another handful. Even better. On the third handful though I came up with what looked like a piece of finger and tossed the water back.
The boatman must have seen me because he burst out laughing. “Don’t drink that. It’s full of body pieces. Not everyone can afford the wood to completely reduce the bodies to ash. They still throw them in the river. Watch.”
He quickly brought the boat near the sandbar and began to stir up the sand with his oar: bits of bone, whole bones, body parts began to float around in the water. I began to feel sick.
“You are looking like you are going to vomit. Please vomit over the side and not in my boat.”
I didn’t. In a little while we began to head back.
By the time we reached the dock I felt strong enough to walk easily. I paid him, disembarked and began to head back to the alley.
“Don’t forget,” the boatman called after me. “Shiva lives here. Welcome to my city.”
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