Crime and Punishment for the Stoner Soul


Crime and Punishment for the Stoner Soul

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré

In all my 26 years of living in various Indian cities, I’ve realised one thing: Only two people are happy to see me walk into a room. One is my dog, and the other is the police officer who used to patrol past my college. The first is almost always fiending for something salty; the second is almost always on a salty look-out for fiends.

The cops usually mark me, or at least people who look like me, as prime suspects on their “drug-addict eradication mission,” mainly because I weigh a grand total of little more than my backpack, and because my hair defies Newtonian laws of gravity. Mumbai cops have been looking for people with a similar “look” since the turn of the millennium. In their parlance, it is “charsi sala”, although I prefer to describe my personal aesthetic as “drug dealer chic”.

Usually a dazed expression on my face and a half-burned cigarette dangling from my lips, is all it takes for two cops on a bike to pull over. This is usually followed by them rubbing their hands in glee, and then driving over to me so they can make a month’s worth of chai-paani. They stop me on crowded roads, outside colleges, in my friend’s car, on Marine Drive, and even this one time I went to buy bread from the shop 50 metres from my house. They all open with the same phrasing — “shaq aa raha hai” — and my Pavlovian response is to put everything in my bag on display.

Not satisfied with sifting through everything I own, I’m often subjected to various degrees of questioning: “Maal kahan hai?” “Maa-baap zinda hai?” “Tumhara kingpin kaun hai?” My feeble responses are usually drowned out by the sight of one police officer mining my bag like he’s expecting to find a hidden gold reserve.

Now, I must admit, I am quite the “Jazz cigarette” aficionado — the kind of librandu who boasts about the medical qualities of marijuana while coughing up a lung — and the cops are often correct to suspect me. The problem is they often expect me to be the missing piece to the grand Mumbai drug empire, when the fact is I’m actually pretty careful. I have never been caught with enough “cheez” for them to even take me to the police station, or bother putting me through a drug test. This kind of caution irritates them to the point where they just take a simple bribe of everything in my bank account before leaving me in the city with ₹500 in my pocket as a show of sympathy.

Often, the invasive searching continues until they have sourced details of my uncle’s business in West Bengal, my grandmother’s actual place of birth, and that one time I peed myself in kindergarten. Once they have declared that there’s nothing to connect me to the drug cartel that synthesises cocaine in Munich, I’m castigated for being stupid enough to get caught by law enforcement despite being a “good boy”, or smoking hand-rolled cigarettes because I should just consume the gunpowder in normal cigarettes like the average Indian. Sometimes, for a change of scene, they leave me with a little air kiss to confirm I haven’t been mixing some heavy-duty alcohol into my rampant drug addiction.

Usually a dazed expression on my face and a half-burned cigarette dangling from my lips, is all it takes for two cops on a bike to pull over.

One time, I was accosted by five police officers at Mumbai Central railway station because apparently “tip-off aaya,” but basically because I was carrying a backpack that made it look like I was going trekking to the mountains with all the other hippies. The search commenced; three police officers were called in to deal with the menace that was my skinny legs. My bag was overturned on the platform revealing my choice in protection, an offer letter from a company that was actually willing to hire me, and my turtle-print underwear. The underwear lay on the ground ignored as the cops sifted through everything else.

Suddenly a woman officer found what they were all looking for — a pack of rolling tobacco — and the crowd went wild as if Shaggy had just walked into the house. Back-up was called for, and I was escorted into the room that the police officers call an office. Three intimidating men stood around me while I was made to strip. No glitter was provided, and no cash was deposited in the elastic of my chaddis. After some very liberal patting, the cops confirmed that I was just a degenerate who rolled his own cigarettes and sent me back to the platform to pack up my stuff. All they had managed to find at the end of this thorough search, was my dignity lying in the corner of the train station.

If there’s one common thread through all these encounters — cops are nothing if not consistent — it’s that they always, ALWAYS, end up making some money, even if it isn’t enough to last two chai rounds. One time, I was patted down while smoking a cigarette 20 feet from college, and was actually accosted into giving them some kind of bribe at least, you know, because they had bothered to take time out of their day to check me and all. So I handed them all the money I had in 2011, a grand total ₹90 — and they left me with a lecture about being a bad influence to other college students in the vicinity. Thanks, cop dude, for caring about guys who call themselves “magic stoner” and roam around in cars playing reggae music.

Many people term this personal connection I’ve formed with police officers to be extortion. But I’ve kinda grown fond of it. The cops have switched approach from the time I was a meek boy who had no idea what weed meant, to the adult I now am who has more money ripe to be extorted.

My approach has changed too. I’ve gone from freaking out to being more respectful of a cop who can look at a person from a distance and know that his bag is likely to have some residue from some herb once consumed five years ago. It takes a special level of skill to identify that this residue can be used to supplement his family’s income by anything between ₹100 to ₹5,000 that month.

Now when I do the time, I commit the crime.