‘All of my girlfriends have gone,’ says Ravi, as much to the hot desert wind as to myself. He is reaching an age where he feels some pressure to settle down. We let the words travel on the dry breeze for a moment. They drift across a box of red tomatoes carried by a perspiring man crossing Gopa Chowk. They fall among the grains of sand blown around the edges of the tarmac. Life creaks by in a haze of 113-degree heat. I drain the last slurps of my lassi, which is goblin-green, a shade that could be called ‘Hail Macbeth’ on a paint swatch.
The consumption of bhang – ground cannabis leaves and seeds – dates back 3000 years in India. I’ve seen enough Bollywood movies with heroes glugging down bhang-laced lassis and dancing with rakish abandon to get a little curious. Travellers experimenting with bhang have mixed reactions, a concoction from a disreputable source being a dicey choice. These contain who-knows-what-else, and an erratic level of cannabis, which is why I’m trying it today in a mild form, at a government-authorised store, from a family with three generations of experience.
The small shop is enjoying its 47th year in the shadow of Jaisalmer’s fort. Staff carefully ask questions to gauge tolerance, and the drinks are thoughtfully prepared. What I hadn’t expected was a delicious taste. Ravi tells me this is thanks to thick, creamy milk from the family cow. Apparently, I can expect an effect in about an hour.
I head out into the street, hovering for a moment in the market place. From here, narrow lanes jut out like raggedy spiders’ legs into the depths of the old city. Delving in amongst the crowds and 19th century sandstone havelis might prove a sensory kick, but I resist. If I do get the urge to dance euphorically, it’s best that nobody else is subjected to it.
My hotel room is shady and cool, equipped with a rabidly spinning fan. I settle down to write, and when an hour has passed, wonder why I feel no change. After two hours, I’m seeing a lot of my eyelashes. I suspect my eyes might be half open, like the nutmeg-hued cow I passed in the street earlier. Images of the cow float around in my mind. I smile broadly. Cows are wonderful.
I’ve given up on this whole ‘bhang experience’ but I’ve had to stop writing on account of starting sentences then forgetting what I’m writing about. My mouth is as parched as the Thar Desert so I drink two litres of water. And then going for a swim is all I can think about.
The hotel pool is refreshing. A male sunbird flits around frangipani so pink it assaults the retina, his metallic blue feathers as bright as Broadway. I mean to swim 10 laps but realise I’ve done 40.
Come early evening, I walk to the local museum. It is crammed to bursting with local folk art. The nightly puppet show is usually bustling, but I have come to Jaisalmer in low season. Normal people don’t visit the desert in June. I had presumed a few others would arrive, that I could blend into a little crowd, but the rows of plastic seats in front of the stage remain empty. I get my own completely private showing of traditional Rajasthani puppetry.
I clap in – I think – all the right places, and thank everyone heartily for going ahead the show. I may have had a slightly funny smile plastered on my face for part of it. I found the camel puppet very pleasing and perhaps funnier than he was meant to be. Outside, he quintuples in size. I’m walking along Gadi Sagar Road when a man two-paces away suddenly unleashes a vast camel, as though from his pocket. It lopes right across two lanes of traffic as trucks and motorbikes swerve to accommodate its progress. I stride on, questioning whether that really happened.
When night falls, floodlights illuminate the fortress. It wears different shades throughout the day, but always seems drenched in maple syrup. I find myself thinking of the kind gentleman and puppeteers at the museum, putting on a performance for only one guest. Meeting people whose passion is infectious, whose generosity unflinching, is common in this country. It’s one of the reasons I’m always planning the next itinerary before boarding the flight home. India is a complex destination that keeps on giving and I keep coming to the table, although tonight is the first time I’ve eaten an entire kilogram of chana masala. When the sugar-coated fenugreek seeds arrive, to be nibbled as a palate-cleanser, I munch the entire bowlful. The waiter blinks at the empty dish. I smile, all innocence and oh-so-fresh.