History & Culture

The height of addiction

ALL FOR THE HIGH: Painting of afimchis and chandu-baaz displayed in Red Fort museum  

In these days when drug use has become a menace to society, particularly in States like Punjab, with murder and rape being committed with impunity, one would like to trace the history of the addiction. In the 11th Century the Hashishans of the Old Man of the Mountains (Hasan ben Sabbah) in Iran were plied with opium and other intoxicants so that they could dream of the pleasures of paradise with its houris and go into a trance in which they killed with impunity (like the fanatical Taliban and ISI) on the orders of their vile master who was a contemporary and schoolmate of Omar Khayyam. It is from hashish (cannabis consumed by the Hashishans) that the word “assassin” was derived.

In India, Akbar smoked the first pipe of tobacco in the late 16th Century. The tobacco was brought from China and the emperor’s physician forbade him from smoking the pipe but Akbar persisted in puffing it. He would have been rudely surprised at the growth of present-day hookah bars because in his time only the privileged few had access to tobacco-smoking.

The Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jehangir were also fond of opium. They mostly consumed majoon. Humayun’s brain was dulled by its use and that’s why he had periods of lethargy and over-activity, when he shrugged off indolence and launched his campaigns to conquer new territories or retake the ones that had been usurped by his opponents. Finally, it led to his death in a fatal fall. In later life, Jehangir got over his opium addiction and began to drink heavily, leaving the government in the hands of his wife Nur Jahan.

One remembers that opium was more in common use in the pre-Partition days. There was a shop in Karol Bagh’s Deshbandhu Gupta Road where opium was sold to licence-holders. Now the door of the shop seems to be always closed. At that time one was curious to know as to what lay behind it and the result was an article. As far as opium is concerned, it was mainly brought from Afghanistan where poppy cultivation is widespread. Maharaja Ranjit Singh got addicted to it in late life to combat ageing problems and also those caused by domestic disharmony in his harem of 17 wives, of whom the youngest, Rani Jindan was the most ambitious after giving birth to the Maharaja’s heir Dalip Singh. Now to recreate the 1990s scenario on the opium outlet in Karol Bagh: There’s a door which seems to be forever closed, much like the great door of which Omar Khayyam speaks – the one to which he found no key. Incidentally, there is a gate in Timbucktoo which in reality never opens, because of the belief that if it were to do so untold miseries would be unleashed on the region.

The door in Karol Bagh obviously opens at times, for there it a board on top which proclaims that it is a licensed Government opium shop where perhaps habitual opium eaters, and those who need it for medicinal purposes can get their meagre quota allotted under the rules. There was a time in Delhi when there were no such controls on opium and people consumed it as and when they wished. In the old museum of the Red Fort is a painting with the caption, ‘Chandu baaz aur Afimchi’. Chandu is not opium but the effect is similar – it dulls the brain and lulls the senses and the addict is lost to the world in all senses of the term. In the Walled City of Delhi during the last century servants going on errands, people on their way to work, husbands returning home, tailors, barbers and hawkers making their rounds just walked into an opium den-afimkhana and did not emerge for days, much to the despair of their families.

Religious and social taboos attached to the consumption of liquor led to the popularity of opium in medieval India. Some ate opium on the quiet, others in dens and the affluent in their pleasure gardens. Mercifully, these dens have disappeared now, though the clandestine trade in opium and other drugs continues at railway stations, bus terminals, parks and even in the streets. In the War years (1940-45), Chinamen who came to sell cloth dealt on the sly in opium too. An addicted tailor, Mannu Mian bathed once a year at Id-ul-Fitr and probably changed his clothes at that time too. But he could recite the complete Admi Nama and Roti Nama of Nazir Akbarabadi, without so much as pausing for breath. Mischievous people stopped him on the roadside, not only to hear these two masterpieces of the 18th Century Urdu poet but also colourful passages from an imaginary wedding night dialogue.

Years ago, while passing by the door one used to instinctively think of the Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which the great detective is found by his friend Dr Watson in a Chinese opium smokers’ den. Holmes was lying on an easy chair in a room full of opium smoke, his face drained of blood and looking ghastly pale in the dim light of that dingy corner of England. All around him were Chinese addicts with eyes half-closed as though in a lotus-eaters’ paradise. However, in the small kothri where the opium was sold in Karol Bagh, there was only room for the one or two babus who disposed of the licensed stuff. Hafeez, the bucktoothed dependant of the Nawab of Dattoli, once took an overdose of opium and went off to sleep, of all places on the namaz platform in one corner of the kothi. He slept the evening, night and day through and got up only the next evening, without knowing that the sun had dawned on him and then set after a blazing June afternoon. That’s what opium does!


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 12:36:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-height-of-addiction/article23950250.ece

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