"Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real."
I woke up this morning with what felt like several metric tonnes of lead in my head, a couple wads of cotton up my nose and a whole colony of fire ants which have somehow taken up residence in my throat over the night. Step throat, I reckoned, and possibly a touch of garden variety flu as well. It's understandable, considering that the local clime boasts a height of 50 degrees centigrade at its peak with zero percent humidity at its deadliest - and I was breathing dust as much I was breathing air.
I went up to the rooftop restaurant of our guest house for a quiet spot of breakfast (and a small pot of mint tea for my poor pharynx, thank you). Somehow, I ended up with a couple of unlikely table mates - the Swiss couple, Eli and Fabian (Fah-bee-ahn) - and talked about where we all came from, and where we are planning to go after. With the indomitable Mehrangarh looking down sleepily on us from its rocky perch and the incessant burping of the auto rickshaws emanating up to us from the streets below, I felt like a character in a travel novel. It made me forget about my sore throat for a little while. Just a little while.
The first on the day's itinerary was the Umaid Bhawan Palace. commissioned by the Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur as a drought relief charity effort for 300 of Jodhpur's local inhabitants - paid only with food and water. It took 15 years to complete and if I may be honest, it's not worth the bother (or its price of admission for that matter) to see. Less than a quarter of the sprawling complex was open for visitors while the rest of it had been converted into a luxury hotel with "No Rabbles" practically etched over every entrance in the physical form of turbaned guards. Then again, it could just be my uncooperative nose, throat and cranium which disposed me to foul moods.
I took in the Jaswant Thada next, a beautiful marble monument built by the queen for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II after his death. It is in effect, a smaller, reversed version of the Taj Mahal. Halfway around the memorial, I felt near-death and I wondered feverishly if they would erect a cenotaph for me if I die on site - like they did for the rest of the not-so-recently departed royalties.
By the time we were seated within a cafe inside the Mehrangarh at mid noon, I was quite inclined to ask for an ambulance from the waiter standing by to take my order. I settled instead for a glass of orange and a tomato-and-cucumber sandwich. When the rest of my group wanted to start their guided tour around the fort, I insisted that they should go without me. A nap in the cool, shady cafe seemed a heavenly prospect indeed.
I only woke up again when a mustached and portly Indian gentleman tapped me on my shoulder - introducing himself as my group's guide. From his pocket, he produced a small packet filled with the broken pieces of what used to be a rather large pill, telling me that it would make me well again within the next five monutes. "Paracetamol" he proclaimed cheerily, and from how quickly it kicked in, I'd say it was an industrial strength one. You just got to love the lax dosage regulations in India.
Mr Suresh (whose name might or might not have been changed to protect his identity) is one of those rare individuals who can make historical narratives a pleasure to listen to. Sure they have this audio tour thing as well where you tote around a bulky player and a set of headphones as you explore the fort but nothing beats a real live human guide, in my humble opinion. It cost a little bit more but it was well worth it. Besides, having Mr Suresh on board came with a certain extra something which would not have come with a talking device.
I spotted this bearded man with a hookah sitting in a niche in a wall bordering the coronation courtyard and Mr Suresh said it was for some opium ceremony.
"Opium is an important medicine in our culture," he said "we used it for weddings, religious ceremonies and a lot of other things."
"May I have a go on the pipe?" I asked, not without hope.
He said yes, to my surprise - but not immediately so. He told me that he would introduce a man to me who eats a kilogram or more of the stuff every month who would have been happy enough to give me a taste. If there's ever one thing which I can say about Mr Suresh, it's that he's a man of his words.
At the end of the tour in the middle of the women's palace, he beckoned an elderly, turbaned, pot-bellied man wearing the uniform of the fort guards to join us. He hobbled drunkenly towards our group and looked as if he was liable to keel over at any given moment. After a rapid exchange in Hindi, the Opium Man (which henceforth is what he shall be known as in this journal) took a small, dirty plastic bag filled with some black goop from his pocket while taking great care not to be seen doing that.
"This will make you strong," he said in broken English with a smileful of opium-stained teeth
Two of my travel mates dipped their fingers in first, and I went last - digging my finger deeply into the disgusting concoction, instantly drawing forth cries of "That's enough!" from both Mr Suresh and the Opium Man.
I found it to have a bitter smell and an even bitterer flavour - and it left a thoroughly unpleasant impression on the back of my tongue long after it went down. We each handed the Opium Man ten rupees for the sample - pretty cheap for a once in a lifetime experience, I opine.
5 minutes later, the remainder of the dull ache residing at the back of my head have completely dissipated.
10 minutes later, I felt healthier than I have ever felt in years, I kid you not. I feel light in the head both my nostrils were unblocked (which is saying something since I suffer from chronic sinusitis), and my sore throat was a vague memory belonging to another lifetime. In fact, I felt so good about myself that I went and bought an overpriced souvenir T-shirt from the gift shop for myself without even thinking about it. Potent shit, that was.
Fearing that the sensation of wellbeing would eventually wear off, I had a sudden small urge - a jolt, really - while I was leaving the fort to try to buy some for the road. I managed to check myself, of course, but not without some small measure of regret.
Oh, drugs are bad by the way, kids. Don't try this at home.
Try it in India.
Really kidding lah.
P.S. I heard marijuana grows wild all over the countryside in Manali.
No stranger to strange experiences,
k0k s3n w4i