Suraj Prasad* lives a slow, uneventful life as a hotel owner in a picturesque village near Kasol—a quaint town tucked away in the hills of Himachal Pradesh’s Parvati Valley. The middle-aged, well-built man exudes the calm confidence of one who is content with his life. “For you, city life will be heaven, but for me, this is our own little paradise,” he tells me, mounting a vessel carrying vegetarian momos on a gas stove in his dimly lit kitchen. “I once went to Delhi, couldn’t withstand the heat and ended up coming back with an inflammation. I now never think about leaving this ‘hash hotel’.” Outside, his wife is busy chopping carrots, onions and tomatoes for the day’s dinner for their guests, soaking in the afternoon sun, as snowfall from the previous night glimmers in the sunlight.
Among locals as also tourists, Prasad has earned the reputation of being a legendary hash peddler, farmer, manufacturer and distributor. The town, thronged by hordes of north Indian youngsters and Israeli tourists, is known as ‘Little Amsterdam’ for being the unofficial hash capital of India. It is a smoker’s paradise, where one can roll a blunt almost everywhere in public (with dedicated smoking sections in a few cafes and hotels). It is so normalised that one can ask most taxi drivers, restaurant owners, bartenders, waiters and guest house managers for marijauna, who will gladly sell it to you or arrange for it for a small commission. Currently, in India, possession, trade, transport and consumption of marijuana (among other narcotic and psychotropic substances) is banned under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985, and is a criminal offence.
In Prasad’s village, almost everyone knows his address. With a variety of hashish priced between Rs 800 and Rs 8,000 per 10 gms, he is known for his quality merchandise. Though weed grows naturally and abundantly in the nearby Parvati Valley, it needs someone with “an expert’s eye” to understand the difference between varieties. “With experience, you begin to identity the best leaves, sort them as per the species, and crush the leaves to make hash oil. The eventual quality of the stuff depends on the quality and quantity of the oil used,” he says, shuffling from Kishore Kumar’s Bollywood classic “Chingari Koi Bhadke” to some psychedelic rock music—the sorts most of his customers like.
The hashish Prasad sells is practically odourless, but most of his clients swear by the high it gives them. A major attraction is the fact that he sells his product much cheaper than in the main town. Though Prasad sometimes grows his own cannabis, he mostly relies on his judgement built after nearly a decade of experience to select the best strains that grow abundantly in the forests around. His clientele is mostly repeat customers, as also stoners spreading the gospel of his produce to others. Though he claims to not smoke up himself, he keeps giving away ‘friendly joints’ to potential clients. “Smoking up is the only way to identify the quality because everything often looks the same,” he says.
Lying on the outskirts of the town among its upper reaches, his hotel is a favourite among hippies and guests looking for some solitude. At a mere Rs 500 per day in the off-season (and up to Rs 1,200 in the peak months of April-May), he provides great food, cosy rooms, trippy music, and of course, marijuana. “I remember the faces of each and every person I have met and served. I also sell it to the distributors, but till it reaches the big cities, 10 gms hash has turned into 20 due to adulteration. They put in anything black in colour, even boot polish,” says Prasad, as Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” gives way to Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”.
Though some Indians—mostly non-resident Indians—also stay at his place for months at a stretch, the majority of his clients are Israeli and European tourists, who throng villages around Kasol in the summers. Most of them are polite, private and better behaved than Indian tourists, says Prasad, but they sometimes takes risks they shouldn’t. “They organise secret rave parties in camps deep in the forest around Tosh. Everything happens there, be it drugs, sex or rolls of hashish.” Their most favourite is Malana Cream, whose high oil content makes it among the most expensive hashish on Amsterdam cannabis menus. Prasad sells it at Rs 8,000; in the main town of Kasol, it’s priced at almost 30 percent more.
However, there is a darker side to what seems like idyllic, peaceful countryside. Scores of tourists have disappeared in the treacherous Parvati Valley and their bodies have never been found—earning it the sobriquet ‘Valley of Death’. After searches by Indian authorities, few of them have been found to have disappeared on purpose, not wanting to return to their homes. “Few also venture into the forests at nights without guides and under the influence of drugs, and end up getting lost. Many times, local villagers rescue them after hearing their shouts of help in the dead of the night. They are sometimes found hungry after not having eaten for days on stretch,” says Prasad. A significant population comprises of young Israeli men and women who come here to relax after the gruelling, compulsory military training in their home country. Many of them are known to "flip out", after the acute loneliness and existential crisis that envelops them post the military service, seeing them lean on drugs for solace.
Prasad grew up watching Isareli families holidaying with kids, though these have mostly moved on to the nearby Tirthan Valley and replaced by young people looking for some solitude. Now, his best friend is an old, bearded Indian-Amercian who calls himself Jack, and has lived at his guesthouse for close to a year. “You can say I am enjoying my retirement. I would have paid Rs 5,000 for a single night in a hotel in Delhi, an amount which would cover two weeks’ rent at this heavenly place. You’d understand only if you stay for at least a month,” says Jack. He has been in talks with Prasad to get a part of his property on lease, as people who are not native to Himachal can’t buy property there.
In the absence of higher education and industrial jobs, tourism is the only thing that acts as the major source of income for people in this area. “Few locals want to go out (of the state), and they do so only for government jobs. I got less marks (in school exams), so I started this hotel and never regretted (not leaving the place),” says Prasad, as psychedelic music on his sound system is now replaced by a Guru Randhawa number. He believes that even though it’s illegal in India, the marijuana trade has always been a massive contributor to the local economy, providing another source of livelihood to those running hotels and taxis. “Nobody, not even cops interfere, until and unless someone is taking a massive amount of stuff. Everyone knows it’s only due to hash that people have some money in their pockets.”
*Name changed on request
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