Like cannabis, which is both legal and illegal, Akshaya Bahibala’s exotic debut, Bhang Journeys: Stories, Histories, Trips and Travels, is both a tipsy rollercoaster ride and a forewarning. Packed in a rather slim-looking book are histories, mysteries, myths, life stories, and more. The handiwork of the author in interweaving multiple themes and issues surrounding substance abuse is praiseworthy.

‘The killer’

Beach Road, Puri. The vortex of all action. The place of inspiration, romance, conflicts, and of course, intoxication. Bahibala refrains from making this book a cautionary handout or a conduct book for de-addiction. That is precisely why this reviewer thinks he doesn’t spend too much time recounting “reformation” tales of personal transformation after the decade of 1998-2008 that was engulfed by and under the uninterrupted control of cannabis. No moral lessons on the benefits of turning “sober” are guaranteed in this book. What is, however, achieved is the urgent need to have serious discussion, investigation, and introspection on the impact of growing, selling, and consuming bhang, ganja, magic mushrooms, opium, and other drugs on the social and political economy of India.

What is quite interesting is how Bahibala calls his book, Bhang Journeys. The plurality of expeditions or escapades emerging from the singular substance – cannabis – lends uniqueness to the narratives in this book. Even though recounted through the lens of a recovered and reformed author, who was once a “slave” to bhang and ganja, the stories, anecdotes, and research-infused accounts have protagonists of their own. In his retelling, the author willingly takes a backseat and lets the memory of an episode he is describing take centre stage. He might be the owner of that memory but the chief characters of the retold story are someone else.

This is the beauty of Bhang Journeys, where Bahibala is in the background and the foreground is the subject. For instance, when he is reliving the days of accompanying the officers of Odisha’s Excise Department in carrying out surprise raids in regions like Koraput, Malkangiri, and Gajapati (which had Maoist stronghold) to destroy acres of lands being tilled for ganja, the voices that assume prominence are the farmers’ who express their anger, dejection, and helplessness at being robbed off unfairly of their hard work in growing cannabis for their sustenance and survival. After the completion of ganja destruction, the plants are incinerated by brushwood and petrol, informs the author, thereby raising questions on the ways of waste disposal and the serious environmental effects such demolition raids could trigger.

‘The saviour’?

The demolition drives add misery and distress to a farmer’s life. Women curse, argue, plead, protest, and lament, “Why are you killing my crops? Are you going to pay for my children’s food and education?”; “How can we survive the year without money?”; “We are not making liquor to kill people, this is just a natural plant.” It is easy to suppress and oppress the poor Adivasis who are often mistaken for Maoists and gunned down on several occasions. Moreover, the tribals do not make enough money because the middleman takes away the lion’s share. What does fall in the lap of the local tribals are false accusations leading to their eventual arrest. To the other end of the spectrum is the precarity of a “salaried” opium cutter appointed by the Excise Department to process hard opium into tablets. Here, even with the government’s sanction, the opium cutter lives like a “nearly dead” daily wage worker. The remnants of hope in these daily wage workers are nourished by a belief and an eternal wait that maybe, someday, the government will “regularise” their service and grant them benefits like a pension after retirement. Generations have passed on. The dream of becoming a permanent government employee seems to remain only that. A dream.

With this book, Bahibala has opened a can of worms. He is not writing a book that limits itself to glorifying the mythological, historical and geographical supremacy of cannabis. He is also, quite deftly, probing in his own way the lives dependent on the substance. Yes, lives are destroyed by addiction. But there are also lives saved by that very substance of addiction. It is a moral conundrum. A dilemma which is not adequately addressed by those in seats of power – the government or the judiciary.

While documenting the story of the woman who “survived cholera by eating opium”, Bahibala points out how gender norms operate in the drug society too where a woman is made to feel ashamed of herself if seen consuming it. “Look! A woman is eating opium,” recalls Parvati in the book who lost her father to a heart attack and almost lost her own life to cholera when opium miraculously saved her.

‘The healer’

On the paradigm of religion and divine legitimacy attributed to the consumption of ganja and bhang, Bahibala subtly pushes in the age-old issue of caste and class barriers that lie shattered thanks to the substance which is a great leveller. While describing a carnivalesque scene from the Trinath Mela in the author’s own village, readers get a sneak peek into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple where the stone idols of “Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwara and Ganesha” are worshipped with crushed ganja during the puja. Lord Trinath, the villagers tell the author, is the “god of the poor” for whose puja, “you don’t need brahmins”. Performing religious rituals is not a prerogative of Brahmanical hegemony alone. And what liberates the people of Odisha from caste hierarchy, at least in the realm of religion, is ganja, which they offer to Lord Shiva to keep him pleased so that peace is restored and sustained in the world.

And just when you think everything has been discussed and probed and there is nothing new to explore, Bahibala gifts a pleasant surprise by coaxing you to discover your mixology skills. Interesting and mouth-watering recipes of Paanmadhuri Bhang Mishri Sharbat, Bhang Laddoo, and Pista Badam Kesar Sharbat are interspersed between the leaves of this book which sometimes reads like a page from a crime reporter’s notebook and at other times offer the indulgence of discovering a guarded secret in a personal diary or journal.

As author Jerry Pinto has aptly described the book as “delightfully picaresque”, it is a futile exercise to give this book a genre or box it up into categories. One can seize quintals and quintals of ganja. But one cannot possibly cage its smell which blends with the air to stir up a heady mix invisible to the naked eye. Much like the aroma of ganja wafting through the fields, plantations, beaches, and dark smoking dens, Bhang Journeys travels through the routes and en-routes of the reader’s mindscape promising a high.

This is somewhat aligned with the goals of Walking BookFairs too, probably India’s only bookmobile which reaches the unreachable. This “travelling library” or “books on wheels”, started by the author and his partner Satabdi Mishra, has travelled thousands and thousands of kilometres across states without being bogged down by the impediments of borders, check posts, and bureaucratic hurdles. The intent was clear as Satabdi Mishra writes in Scroll, “we wanted to make books accessible for people all over the country, especially in rural areas and for disadvantaged communities.”

Bhang Journeys is more than just a piece of social commentary presented through the lens of an ex-addict’s memoirist writing. It is an exploratory revelation that sparks curiosity, encourages compassion, and ignites deep reflective thinking about our own lives in a hierarchical world where justice, equality, and freedom are promised to all but granted to a handful. Ganja – the magical “herb” with “medicinal” properties for some, a “wonder” drug for those who wish to forget the world and feel light-headed, or the only source of income for the poor – is also a potent symbol of the multi-layered tales of human survival. It kills some, it cures some.

Bhang Journeys: Stories, Histories, Trips and Travels, Akshaya Bahibala, Speaking Tiger Books.