The Hype Men of Hemp

People

The Hype Men of Hemp

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

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ativa, Indica, and Hybrid, the conference rooms in this office, situated in one of Mumbai’s newfangled industrial compounds, proudly bear scientific names of that controversial genus, cannabis.

They are not afraid of that word here. In fact, it was in one of these conference rooms that the magic word “legalisation” was uttered a few months ago.

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In November, the founders of Bombay Hemp Company met the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat, with a surprise package. Inside were cannabis products and the man was floored. Shoes, shirts, and a new superfood, hemp seed; all this from the jhaadi which grows wild in the valley. When they saw that the chief minister himself was wearing a bandhi made out of hemp fabric, they knew that they had come to the right man.

Two days later the newspapers announced it, then it became a maelstrom of discussion on social media; Uttarakhand may become the first Indian state to legalise cannabis production. But the fact that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, already permits the cultivation of hemp for horticulture and industrial purposes was overlooked in this game of Chinese whispers. But such is the villainy associated with cannabis, that its illegal status is always assumed uncontested.

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The hemp fibre is being beaten after an ash treatment.

Courtesy: Bombay Hemp Company

The topic died down after its 15 seconds, but everyone now knew of the tiny start-up which was trying to make cannabis happen.

“We are not whacktivists here, you know,” Yash Kotak is lounging on a bean bag in the new offices of BOHECO and the topic of legalisation is being discussed. He is one of the seven 25-year-olds who are at the helm of this start-up which aims to make cannabis a household name. They are not looking to cater to stoners. Instead, this group of young entrepreneurs is trying to flip the script on cannabis and they are well-skilled hype men.

“Did you know Cleopatra only wore clothes made out of hemp?” “Did you know hemp ropes were used in the construction of the Pyramids? That’s cool right?” “Did you know that American conglomerate DuPont lent its support to the war on drugs because they knew that hemp was a superior product than the nylon they manufactured?” “The 1936 film Reefer Madness was part of a fear campaign to convince Americans that cannabis was the devil itself.” “Hemp was banned not because it was bad, but because it was so good.” The theories about how the versatile plant was villainised in popular culture fly thick and fast as the young men expound on how the blameless plant became the enemy of the state. But Chirag Tekchandaney, Jahan Peston Jamas, Sanvar Oberoi, Delzaad Deolaliwala, Yash Kotak, Avnish Pandya, and Sumit Shah are ready to change the narrative and sell cannabis to the world again, in a new, PG-13 avatar.

Their cannabis comes from a cloister of 25 families spread across a hemp-growing belt which sits on the border of Punjab, Kashmir, and Uttarakhand. The hemp plant, tall and sturdy, grows abundantly over those hills. They were almost a nuisance to the village. Once the rice had been harvested, the weed sprung up. Unlike its shorter, darker cousin, bhang, these leaves could not be smoked to get that light-footed sensation and neither did the plant yield that dark, expensive resin, ganja, courted by Naga sadhus and rap stars alike. But strong fibre could be coaxed out of its stalk, its seeds kept you warm in the colder months, and the dried plant served perfectly well as fuel.

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A woman can earn upto ₹750 a day by weaving hemp fabric.

Courtesy: Bombay Hemp Company

So, when BOHECO came, offering 150 rupees for every metre of fibre made out of this prolific plant, many families signed up and began supplying the company with the bounty from their fields. The men of the village are responsible for collecting the right stems. Then they are handed over to the women who are tasked with converting them into pliable fabric. The stalks are dried and then boiled to mush. The pulp is then beaten into submission, treated with ash and then soaked again until strands emerge. These then head to the loom, a primitive contraption which is also used to weave cotton and wool. After six to seven hours of intense labour, a woman can have up to five metres of cloth ready. The entrepreneurs have collaborated with a local NGO and pay the women for the cloth they bring in. Money given to the men may get wasted in vice, but handing money to the women means that it will actually help the families. “It is our way of empowering the women who make our fabric,” they explain.

The fabric is turned into shirts which are sold online under the company’s label THC. That’s short for tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary ingredient in marijuana responsible for the high – the moniker has been reinterpreted as The Hemp Couture by the company.

On their website, a shirt retails at three thousand bucks and hemp seeds cost ₹1,000 a kilo. But the founders justify the price. These young men see the infamy of the plant as the perfect sales pitch. It is not just the piece you are buying, you are buying a story here, they say.

But the story may be a tough one to peddle. The legalisation of marijuana may be a fashionable cause for the one percent but a TED talk will not be enough to convince the multitudes that cannabis is anything more than a cheap high or a sinful habit. But the hype men of hemp are confident that they can sell anything.

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