Tripping on Bhang Lassi
Varanasi: considered one of the oldest surviving cities of the world and a place not to be missed if you’re spiritually inclined (or so they say).
I arrived late afternoon the day before Holi with a small bunch of people. We caught the train together from Kolkata to Varanasi where we talked of things we were expecting to experience upon our arrival, Bhang, being one of them.
Bhang – a degraded form of cannabis – is ubiquitously available in Varanasi and has been for centuries in the name of Lord Shiva. It’s traditionally consumed with milk or curd (lassi) and taken religiously, especially around the time of Holi. And so the dudes, being dudes, decided that the Bhang was to come before anything else; before we did any exploring, before we ate, and before even thinking to note down the address of our hostel. Once our beds were secured, we started our mission to the Blue Lassi shop, infamous for its specialty and, as a result, supposedly not too hard to find. Knowing the general direction only, we began walking down the main road towards the Ghats and Old City District. The road became heavily congested and our preconceived expectations became actualised – cows, touts and all.
It didn’t take long before we were approached by a guy who offered to lead us the way. He gave us little chance at denying his service, but we were looking for guidance anyway. Allowing eagerness to outrule uncertainty, we followed like sheep through the twists and turns of the old city, our footsteps cast behind us – lost in amongst the litter.
We made it to a dingy shop front, the words Blue Lassi nowhere to be seen, and were directed inside and out to the back where we entered another dimly-lit shop. It was dark now. Seated within were a couple of other tourists and a man spinning curd into lassi towards the front —we figured we’d made it to the right place. The shop owner handed us the menu and turned on some blue fairy lights, as if to emphasise the place’s legitimacy and evoke a sense of mystery of our night ahead.
The owner wasn’t overt about selling Bhang, and called a couple of the guys from our group away secretively to “secure the sale”. Our lassis were made in front of us and taken out back to be “gifted by Shiva”. They came out in terracotta vessels that held about six times more than the average chai cup, the milky green liquid held inside, shaded and disguised by the blue lighting and the wedges of fruit that garnished the top. They looked lush and tasted sweet, but not quite sweet enough to mask the grassy, hay-like flavour of marijuana. We devoured them, then ventured out into the streets again through the galis and down to the ghats where we saw the river Ganges for the first time.
My friend Nora and I stood for a little while, gazing at the river, trying to embrace reality and discussing the surreality when it hit me — literally, in the face, in the form of a fat water-bomb flung from above by a mob of young boys getting into the spirit of Holi. I ran away like a little kid and they chased me, throwing colour and giggling at me – the helpless foreigner. They didn’t seem too phased about Nora, the lucky bitch. The ruckus caused a nice amount of distraction for us all in the time that passed while we waited for the high to hit. It took about an hour and a half, and by this time we were back on the main road, escaping my attack and feeling the hustle and bustle of the street, which was more crowded and rampant than ever.
Slowly and steadily, we became induced – inside and out; our eyes started turning red and starry as we were struck by THC and sensory overload. Visions was heightened and time slowed down. Gold ornaments sparkled on the street like little mirrors reflecting sunlight through the cloudy mist of smoke and pollution; cows lay on the streets like kings of the jungle and motorbikes powered through so loudly, pushing us aside as if we were being pulled by the tide of their forceful sound waves. My legs were lagging behind me, as if the vehicle that functions as my body was shutting down in preparation to part with my rising consciousness. Shiva was pulling me up, up and away into Varanasi astray.
We eventually stopped, weary of losing one another and started discussing our plans. We decided it best to head back, laughing nervously about the change taking place inside of us that was now out of our control. Unsure, we jumped into a rickshaw and asked the driver to take us to the train station—the closest memorable landmark to our hostel. His friend jumped in for the ride, filling up the auto to its brim; there were four of us, so one (Spencer) had to share the front seat with the driver and his friend. I’d been warned never to let your driver bring a friend along, but we were in a big group, so I pushed that advice aside.
We sped off into the darkness, watching the road roll away behind us as if we had made a fast and efficient escape from the madness of the streets but paranoia begun to amalgamate within us and the journey home became one of fear and fret. The driver and his friend kept on mumbling to each other and occasionally turning their heads to look back at us, as if planning attack (but probably just noticing the sparkling of our eyes and shitty attempts of acting sober). I noticed Spencer making jerking movements in the front and moving as far away as possible from the driver and his friend. He kept asking him what was going on, but got nothing more than a slight wobble of the head in response and I remember wondering if maybe the driver’s friend was touching him…
Spencer pulled out his GoPro, as if to record the moment for future evidence, which made the driver start asking questions about its worth. His eyes had this devilish glimmer and the closest he got to a smile was a single-sided smirk. I watched Spencer become increasingly on edge; my friends Nora and Henry sitting beside me assumedly noticed the same, but said very little. We were all saying very little. I asked the driver to stop, saying I needed something from the pharmacy as excuse, because I had got it into my mind that we were going to be trapped and soon would have no means of escape from whatever was to come. Everyone got out and Spencer immediately insisted on getting another rickshaw, so we gave the driver his money before moving on to find another. I asked Spencer what went on, but he palmed off an answer with an assertion to leave.
We started walking in what we gambled was the right direction. Of course, it wasn’t long before another rickshaw rolled on up, its engine chugging fast and abrupt like the beat of our hearts. The guy driving it was wearing a long, black Pocahontas wig —headband, fringe and all—and was smiling so widely I thought his eyes were going to pop out. For a second I thought he might have been the Cheshire Cat and couldn’t work out whether to be afraid of him or not. He spoke very little English, just enthusiastically smiled and nodded his head in urge for us to get in. Coincidentally, two guys on a motorbike stopped to translate for us, but being in the state that we were, we stood listening to the conversation wondering if this was yet another evil plot send us to our death beds. Varanasi seemed like one of those places one could become lost forever. At this point, we laughed at our twisted states of mind and decided to surpass madness in favour of reality and make a rational decision by getting in the rickshaw.
We made it back to the security of our hostel, migrated to the couch, exhaled as a collective and attempted to form a recap of the night whilst thoroughly enjoying the blankness of the walls around us and giggling like little kids. What seemed like an entire evening had actually consisted of three or four hours, and it took me a good 24 to feel normal again. As a result, I missed Holi the next day. Ironic, some would say.
All I can say is that if you’re planning on trying bhang in Varanasi, go out and familiarise yourself with your surroundings first, eat something, note down the address of your nearest safe haven and do it during the day, when the sun is out and the world is smiling at you. Maybe then, you won’t fall into the depths of anxiety and paranoia like I did. But no promises, hey…
Cover by Tom Maisey