|Opium (Papaver somniferum) fields ready to be harvested.
Time has this irritatingly disarming quality of making one get used to anything. In its characteristically flippant manner, it obliterates hesitation, smoothens out initial hiccups, steam-rolling even the most novel experiences into the mundane plateau of routine. And so, after spending an action-packed initial three months in Pratapgarh, the distinctly unheard of district in south-eastern Rajasthan where I have been staying for the past few months, I watch the peaks of novelty fade into a familiar pattern. But listening closely reveals that if I want to, I don’t have to look too hard for the charm of a new thing learnt.
* * *
“What is for dinner today?” I ask my landlady, partly to make conversation, and partly to drown out the noise my stomach is making. A jolly matronly, she is one of those women who firmly believes that a hot meal can soothe a tired body, mend a broken heart, and fight boredom and lethargy. She delights in feeding me local foods and every meal is an interesting lesson in the gastronomy of southern Rajasthan.
“Afeem ka saag aur makke ki roti”, she says, holding her rolling pin in that assured convincing manner only a seasoned chapatti maker can.
Afeem? Did my landlady just tell me that I was going to eat opium for dinner? My innocent dinner, and suddenly life itself, started looking rather interesting. No matter which side of the bed you get off from, or levitate from, if that’s your style, do you expect to hear you’re having opium for dinner. Reading my look of incomprehension, she quickly clarified, “The leaves don’t have any hallucinogenic properties. The farmers pluck the extra plants when they are very young to avoid crowding in the fields.” Aha, so much for my mind’s immediate expectations about dinner unleashing psychedelic hues.
* * *
For most of us, opium usually paints a picture of the messy tangle of the narcotics trade, undercover dealings, Afghanistan’s poppy fields and sometimes, a withered Chinese lady smoking a pipe. However, it is quite interesting to know that Pratapgarh is part of the Malwa-Mewar opium belt, the world’s largest legal opium producing area. Here, the government issues strictly monitored licenses (locally known as afeem patta) to farmers to grow the much-maligned opium. Only trusted farmers with adequate land and water resources are issued the coveted licenses. In return, they have to sell their produce, the precious milky latex extracted from the plant’s fruit, back to the government, at a fixed rate. The minimum amount of latex harvested from each unit of land is fixed and if unable to produce the requisite amount, offenders, the farmers ensure me, are not let off easily. Rich in morphine, the dried latex, a yellowish-brown shadow of its former milky white self, goes on to be used to prepare medicines. Seems quite straightforward, I thought.
But growing opium, I learn, is not for the faint-hearted or light-pocketed. Weeding and insecticides alone can cost Rs. 25,000/bigha. Add to that the cost of specialised labour, who have mastered the precise art of slitting the fruits and collecting the precious milky substance, not a drop can be wasted – it is not in vain that it is called white gold. Labour costs for milking the opium pods usually work out to a ridiculously high Rs. 50,000/bigha in a season!
“What if you are unable to harvest the required amount?”
“There is no relaxation. We have to arrange the shortfall from neighbours or our license is not renewed the next year.”
“And what if the production exceeds the government’s fixed amount?”
“That,” he smiles, “is when the opium begins to make a profit.”
I stop my questioning for the time being for I am treading on dangerous ground now. The farmer has hinted at what is ‘common knowledge’. Every year vigilance agencies catch illegal opium traders, but as in any trade as lucrative as this, even the most stringent of punishments fail to serve as a deterrent. For ten people jailed, you will always find another ten willing to engage in the dangerous trade, willing to gamble on how far their luck will help them get away with it. And with the dried latex selling for at least Rs. 20-30,000/kg, I am not surprised that the farmers, so conditioned to gambling their fate on something as fickle as the weather, choose to take the chance on the dizzying opium market.
* * *
Once again I bring my attention to the incessant ticking of Time. The verdant landscape is slowly changing its shades. I watch the wheat sway, a sheet of sparkling emerald, keeping in time with the vagaries of the wind. The pods in the chana fields have filled out and I munch a few green gram as I make my way through them. The streams are still gurgling with rain water, this year the wheat won’t whither dry. And against this idyllic setting, I watch poppy heads dance at a distance, their gangly heads resting uneasily on their slim stalks. They nod at me, deceptively innocent in their clothes of white.
First published on Helter Skelter.