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Indian Opium
I was walking back from a beach market on the Indian coast, passing between a group of wattle and daub huts with thatched roofing that were arranged in a circle with a dusty track through it and a well in the centre, when I was accosted by a man with very dark skin. Much darker than the locals, who tend to be a mixture of Indian and Portuguese, so have a lighter skin than most Indians. This indicated the person in front of me was from one of the surrounding states and had travelled far to do the deal he was about to offer me. Or maybe he was Afghan and had journeyed over the mountains from the source. He began to speak in the seductive, semi-whispered voice which purveyors of drugs all adopt in that part of the world.

“You want hashish?” He intoned. This was a question I’d normally have answered in the affirmative, but having travelled to Goa from Manali, I wasn’t wanting for charas. I shook my head and began to walk away, then he said:

“Opium? Good opium.” He could tell I was interested immediately, smiled and began leading me to where his product was stashed, confident of a sale. It’s always best to ask how much things are in India, prior to committing to any purchase. But my repeated question was ignored. We passed along the side of the village, between two huts along a bed of extremely questionable litter from which a family of feral pigs scattered at our approach and reached the rear of the huts, overlooking a huge rice field still unplanted and awaiting the monsoon. Someone spoke to him through the wall of the hut and he answered in Hindi, but my knowledge of the local dialect was too poor for me to understand. His response was obviously acceptable, as their conversation ended immediately. He found a wooden box, which he stood on and began reaching into the thatching on the roof, eventually finding what he was after. He showed me five or six sticks of something brown, tightly wrapped in thick cellophane. It looked like opium to me. I smelled one of them, but couldn’t detect an odour. He sighed at my incompetence, took the stick from me and peeled back the cellophane from one end of the stick. “Smell now.” He said. This time, I noticed a sharp but sweet opium odour I recognised immediately from every fresh poppy I have ever encountered, together with that woodiness that always accompanies any resin. The stick was bendy and the resin clear, with little or no visible plant matter. This was very good shit I was looking at.

We began haggling, a process I was initially very uncomfortable with in India, but which I rapidly had adapted to. The trick is to understand that the reason you’re haggling is because you want the item. The seller also wants you to buy. Walking away is of no advantage to either of you, so you both need to push one another’s boundaries as far as possible without breaking anyone’s balls, bearing in mind that if you pay too much, you spoil things for the next buyer. We eventually settled on the equivalent of 12 pounds for what he said was one tolah, around 12 grams. I’d chosen the larger stick, which looked more like 20. This is a lot of money in India and I’d no doubt hugely overpaid, but I was pleased to have acquired opium at one pound a gram. He told me his name and how to find him when I needed him. I thanked him, knowing I’d make sure we never met again. I walked off down a road of red dust between the paddy fields, occasionally having to shrug off motor rickshaw drivers stopping to offer lifts for what was a five-minute walk. I could feel my heart thumping and had obviously been less calm about the transaction than I thought, knowing the penalties for opium possession, conditions in Indian prisons and the dirty tricks carried out by the underpaid local police. I went to show my purchase to my girlfriend who was waiting for the seafood I’d bought on the beach and was very much more familiar than myself with poppy products and their derivatives.

She squealed and all but fucked me on the spot, eventually promising to do so later, after she’d had some opium. She immediately rolled a small ball, which she swallowed, washed down with some limca and fenny, the local spirit with a lemon mixer. I was filled with romantic ideas of opium dens and Crowley books and insisted that I wanted to smoke it. We made a joint, having rolled the resin into very thin worms, which we smoked on the chairs just outside the room door. It quickly became clear that opium doesn’t so much burn as get scorched, turning into clinkers which expand and block the spliff. It made the sides of the joint collapse and eventually the thing became unsmokable. But the mild effects I had experienced even from this small amount made me know I would quickly find a way. We had no pipe, but we did have a chillum from Manali, a tapered clay tube with oriental designs on its surface, which is held between the fingers and smoked pointed upwards, with the other hand forming a seal and opening through which one smokes. I was smart enough to roll a ball that wouldn’t block the bowl when the clinker formed and bedded it down on some drum tobacco. Despite, or perhaps because of, it requiring repeated lightings, this method proved ideal. Though we needed to smoke it in the room, which was kind of boutique style, with cream bedding and lots of flower arrangements. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to defile with tobacco smoke. But we quickly established that the tobacco wasn’t really necessary in fresh form and that a bed of tobacco ash worked a lot better. Thus equipped, we smoked ball after ball, her grinning at the reacquaintance with something she’d loved, me filled with excitement on trying a new drug with such a powerful reputation. The effects were a rapid muscle relaxation, a marked slowing of thoughts and a tingly, pleasurable glowing of the extremities. And something else, which seemed to come on with eyes closed, but which I didn’t take full advantage of at the time. I liked it so much that I soon made several little pill-sized balls, which we began to consume. This ultimately became my undoing. But for the time being, everything was fantastic.

We finished our indoor session and went outside into the courtyard garden, which was formed from a dozen rooms arranged in a circled. The garden was filled with Queen of The Night bushes, kind of a Jasmine, but with larger, if anything even more fragrant flowers. They were in full bloom and releasing their perfume in the darkness. We sat grinning, with the effects of the opium slowly increasing, sagging off the benches until we almost fell and looking up into a sky full of stars. It was a perfect moment. A perfect matching of drug and environment. But soon, we started to nod, waking ourselves suddenly in full body jerks from seductive unconsciousness which would have propelled us onto the stone paving. It was funny, but we decided to go back to the room and lie on the soft, kingsize bed.

We lit candles and turned off the electric light. India has large candles that burn for many hours with their bottoms formed into broad bases which remove the need for any kind of holder. I decided and announced I needed to make and swallow more pills of opium, which I began to roll between my fingers and line up on the beside table. “Be careful” she told me “Its strong”. Always keen to heed the advice of others, I ignored her completely. At which she just laughed and said “You’ll see”. Despite her proffered advice, she wasn’t about to let me eat more of it than her and matched me ball for ball. I didn’t at the time understand she had an unlimited tolerance. Each of us ingested perhaps half a dozen of them, then laid back on the bed, ultimately relaxed and tingling with pleasurable waves of happiness. I closed my eyes and that’s when the opium really took me.

I’d read about opium pretty extensively, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” and “Diary of a Drug fiend” being two of my favourite books. But I’d assumed opium dreams happened during sleep or semi-consciousness. This wasn’t the case. I was fully awake, yet lost in visualisations which I could to a certain extent control. But I was only one layer under alert and present, the hypnagogic stage. The visions were truly incredible. It was like lucid dreaming, but with more guidance. Magnificence and glory were the themes. We’d already visited lots of temples during our travels, some of which were truly spectacular. But what the opium made me see was off the scale. Colossal constructions, unbuildable but through decades of slavery, columns soaring into vaulted rooves, hieroglyphs and Sanskrit writings carved into single blocks of stone stretching the full length of huge walls. Stone statues, hundreds of them, with Greek grace and Egyptian proportions. Staircases formed from huge blocks of lapis lazuli sparking in torch light. I saw whole buildings gilded and walled with red silks, their knaves extending into distances clouded by incense, which smouldered in brass censors swinging from silver chains. Music, from what sounded like wind and stringed instruments, shrilled from hidden places, bright and fantastic, filled with subtle cadence and tricksy rhythms. Time seemed to pass very strangely, sometimes slowing down so much that the incense smoke barely moved, but at other times passing so rapidly that the fate and destiny of the people I saw concluded as I watched. I was seeing through the eyes of kings, shapers of human lives, concerned with the activities of the entire race, my conclusions affecting all below me. And I was untouchable, a chosen one, my arrogance blended with an actual real superiority, the ability to formulate Solomon-like judgements. How was I seeing these things? Was it the result of the literature I’d read and my expectations? Or was this some kind of race memory or previous life? Certainly, despite my travels, I’d never seen any architecture that even approached the glory and proportion of these vistas. They seemed to be literally built to house Gods and giants. As though they were expressly designed to create environments within which such things could dwell in comfort. And I really felt that I deserved to see these things, that I was one and the same with their occupants, their architects.

Despite their extent, I saw markets within the building dwarfed by their environment, filled with never-ending tent stalls selling brightly coloured fruits I didn’t recognise, spices I could smell from yards away, which filled me with memories of things I hadn’t done yet. Street performers swung impossibly from sagging tightropes and jugglers threw huge knives and burning clubs into the sky. Dancers span like cloth tops on mounds of broken glass and musicians carrying strangely shaped trumpets which twisted in a double curve and ended over their heads, with the outlet shaped like the mouths of fishes and snakes and dragons, passed in procession through everything, causing those nearest them to dance in a dervish, spinning on the dusty red stone flags under their feet.

These effects didn’t so much fade away as become more difficult to access. Eventually, and the experience was truly timeless, I became aware that I needed to piss badly. I struggled back to full consciousness with the same amount of effort it takes to climb up out of a well using the bucket rope and found my girlfriend smiling at me. “Are you OK?“ she asked. “Yeah, this is excellent” I replied. “I need a piss though”. I got up, rather wobbly and careless of navigating any part of my body below my neck. The bathroom was en suite, so it was perfectly simple to continue our conversation as I relieved my bladder, which we did. I’d read about the different parts of the human brain and their likely functions, their hierarchy and appointed tasks. But the part of my mind that evidently had a big responsibility for my stomach managed to catch me entirely unawares as it noticed I was standing in front of the toilet and made me projectile vomit, in mid-sentence, directly into the bowl, repeatedly and with much gusto, until I was croaking bile onto the semi-digested remains of what had been a delicious lunch. Her loud laughter from the bedroom wasn’t helping either.

I reached the second expulsion of bile, which I’d come to realise was a sign of conclusion and washed my mouth, then brushed my teeth. Vomit-breath is highly unattractive. I got back onto the bed besides her and saw “I fucking told you” clearly in her eyes, blended with a sick amusement that irritatingly only made her more attractive. “Are you sure its all out, because it can happen again” She said. I told her I could feel when I was empty. She took the remaining opium from the bedside cabinet on my side of the bed and said she’d be in charge of it from now on. I felt a small rush of complaint, having been the one who’d purchased it, but she was the kind of girl you’d rather fuck than fight, so I swallowed my pride and granted her wish.

Round about this point, just as the tiny muscles in my sides recovered from the intense vomiting, the itching started. The experience so far had been characterised throughout by a delicious tingling all over my skin, which now turned into intense, burning itchiness, requiring immediate scratching. Scratching one area seemed to increase the itches in the others, so I found myself moving from one body part to another, playing itch whack-a-mole on my skin. The universal presence of shit-dust and general filth throughout India had long since stopped me biting my nails, or even putting any part of my fingers into my mouth and I was fully grateful for every millimetre of my fingernails now that they were needed. I soon developed the technique of starting on the crown of my head, working my way over my face, the back of my neck, extending each arm and working from fingertips to shoulder, paying special attention to the armpits, before using both hands to scratch every surface of my torso, including my back as far as I was able, then my buttocks, then my legs slowly and completely from thigh to toe-tips. Occasionally, the skin over my spine on my back where I couldn’t reach started itching and I had to request assistance. Having someone else do it was of course much better. As soon as I completed my full-body scratching, the process needed to be begun again, and after an hour of it, I could see she was tired and needed to sleep. My requests for a spine-scratch were growing less and less favourably received. 

She said she needed rest, blew out the candle and said “Good luck”. I laid down beside her and tested my ability to grow unconscious. There was no way. Ignoring the itches became unbearable difficult. They burned and prickled in waves of irritation, fading when ignored and seeming to pass away. But they were simply gathering their forces and came back ten-fold. The only time I’ve ever itched this much was when I had chicken pox as a child. A kind of hot, prickly itch, almost indicative of skin damage, the body insisting that resources of the mind are brought to bear on the problem immediately. It lasted for hours. I adopted a yogic asana called the thunderbolt, with my spine straight, upright on the bed fully naked in the Indian night, scratching myself carefully from scalp to toe tips, over and over and over again, making certain not to miss a spot as doing so seemed to make the part jealous, so that the area flared up angrily. Though very necessary, the scratching gave only temporary relief. My capillaries seemed electrified with a prickly, crackling current that continually recharged itself. Occasionally, she turned over for comfort, realised I wasn’t laid next to her, said “Are you still scratching?”, then laughed at me and went back to sleep.

It was almost dawn when the itching subsided, reducing to intermittent flare-ups on isolated body parts, something I could deal with laid down. Sleep eventually took me, with dreams I recall were strange but not identifiable. We hadn’t planned on doing anything much that day and she woke me around noon, with a dish from the kitchen that we’d taken to calling breakfast prawns. “So, did you like the opium?” she asked. I overlooked the vomiting and itchiness and recalling how magnificent the dreams had been, how total the relaxation and feeling of godlike untouchability, I said I thought it was incredible.

She laughed and said “but I’m in charge of it from now on” and I said OK.
'If you're one of those who can, make certain that you do."

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