There is a particular sort of conversation that can only happen in MacLeod Ganj. Here it is not considered strange when the person in front of you says things like “I used to be a practitioner of Austin Osman Spare’s tradition of magic for ten years and then I went into old solar traditions and sort of got stuck there.” You simply nod, offer a comment that could express either sympathy or admiration and turn to another group where two people describe their experiences with Ayahuasca, a South American vine distilled into a potent shamanic brew that takes the drinker on a journey through heaven and hell. Sometimes I was reminded of texts I had read about shamans who could lead conversations that moved effortlessly from a discussion of this world into a discussion of the other world, the realm of the imagination, and none of the participants would find this in the least odd or disconcerting.
In that way the place was full of neo-shamans, modern yogis and practitioners of odd and fascinating ritualistic world-views and magic. The veil between the worlds seems peculiarly thin here – meaning that one could never be entirely sure where madness lay and where reason hid. The mention of ketamine became a sort of yardstick for me. After a while the fact that at least half the people you would meet in MacLeod Ganj had tried every conceivable sort of drug and that again half of them were probably trying them right now became a little easier to accept.
Ketamine is a synthetic drug developed and applied during the Sixties and Seventies when America was dealing with the psychological aftereffects of the Vietnam War and turned to synthetic drugs both to alleviate the suffering of the returning soldiers and to fortify the minds of the soldiers in the field. Coincidentally this ushered in the short-lived experimental drug culture that, along with the social effects of a prolonged and hopeless war, gave birth to extremely liberal and alternative movements in the US. Ketamine is a strong anesthetic drug, dulling the sense to the point of disassociation or dissolution of the ego – one can no longer identify oneself. It is used as medical treatment and as illicit drug. Dissolution of the ego can lead to strong spiritual experiences – an all-inclusive identification with the world – but also to severe mental disassociation and loss of memory. There are a number of reports of people who have fallen into severe schizophrenia due to long term use or high dosages of the drug. Speaking in shamanic terms, plant drugs can potentially be used to lead oneself back to a connection with the world that is hard to describe in sober words, while synthetic drugs will take you for a ride across synthetic worlds and have little to no lasting psychological healing potential and increased risk of addiction.
Ketamine also happened to be Josh’s drug of choice. I saw him first from the distance when I visited friends in their guesthouse, just below mine on one of the many guest-house infested slopes off Jogiwara Road. He was standing alone in the guesthouse’s TV room, a look of intense concentration on his face, his body tense. He had his hair styled in a trimmed dark mohawk and was stringy and quite muscular and moved with the tension of a peculiarly annoyed predator on the prowl. I went up to chat with my friends on the balcony and suddenly a fierce shout pierced the courtyard and we saw Josh howling and pumping his fists, kissing the ground. My anthropological instincts took over and I was wondering what odd rite he was performing there. I got my answer when he sauntered up the stairs to us, still howling with joy. He flexed his biceps to show us the faux gothic letters covering his forearm. He was a die-hard supporter of FC Chelsea and they had just won a cup game decisively. He was basking in the joy of his team’s victory and the air had acquired a strange edge when he was there. He seemed quite dangerous, like a person willing to smash someone’s face in when Chelsea didn’t play as convincing as it did today. He was very sensitive, too, which is always a strange thing when combined with a temper. Soon he began talking about the Israeli who had a room on the opposite end of the courtyard and who had the nerve to make fun of him during the last match. He had mocked Josh’s shouts of joy and that was something Josh did not abide. “He tried to burst my bubble,” complained Josh repeatedly. Upon hearing that I was Austrian, he told me that my people had the right idea when it came to dealing with the bubbleburster’s sort. His racist views acquired a strange glow in the surroundings of MacLeod Ganj, where most people are what could be described as wooly liberals, at least in contrast with Josh. The women seemed quite infatuated with him, most likely because he had temporarily separated from his Yoga-loving girlfriend who had stayed in Bagsu to practice her lessons.
Josh was on a roll. He kept talking about this and that, always with a fierce intensity as if every topic had personally insulted his mother. He hated Indians, except for the guys around here who were alright. He described his passion for Chelsea, his adventures on the beaches of Brighton and other things with a compelling immediacy. At some point he started talking about Ketamine, his drug of choice. How it had helped him to keep “dark Josh” in the shadows and made him see the light because he used to be quite violent earlier. Strangely enough, as a redeemed sinner he suddenly seemed right at home in the strange world of MacLeod Ganj, where spiritual aspects of a person seemed to take on a somewhat starker quality. The dark side might have been temporarily banned by ketamine, but the wiles of the world or rather the many evil people in it still brought it back. Josh had experienced a rather unpleasant encounter. Probably being used to go for a drink with a stranger, he had accepted the invitation of two Indians for a glass of alcohol somewhere in a tourist area. This is almost always a fatal mistake and so it was in Josh’s case – the drink was drugged and he began to feel groggy and could only sway back to his room, his new friend close behind him. He tried grabbing the man, but was too weak and fell down on the bed. When he came to, he went through his things. Of course the man had taken his money and valuables, even his passport. All sorts of horrors ran through Josh’s head – how would he get his passport back? He couldn’t afford to lose it. He was on parole – if they knew that he had lost his passport…he already had two strikes against him, so he’d never be granted another passport. I couldn’t say whether this was maniacal raving or if someone who has been in prison is stripped of his passport when he’s losing it. Maybe he hadn’t been officially allowed to travel and had gone anyway, defying the mandates. Anyway, he lost his head and sprinted out of his room onto the street. He saw one of the guys sitting on his bike not far away from him. The man noticed him, certainly frightful when he was angry and lunging at him at full speed and he started fumbling with his keys, got the ignition going but was tackled by Josh. Josh (“It means strength in Hindi. Every single one of those…fuckers tells me that.”) was calmer now, calculating. He took the man calmly by the shoulder and said, in a friendly, almost sweet voice, “Come along. Let’s go to my room. I have to talk to you.”
Perhaps the man believed, confused by the sudden friendliness, that the irrational Westerner had suddenly become peaceful or that he didn’t think that it was him who had stolen his belongings. He almost smiled as he was led by Josh. Once inside, Josh grabbed the man by the throat and pulled his knife from his belt. It was a large knife, he showed us with his fingers as he talked. He put the knife to the man’s face.
“Thank god that I didn’t kill him, because at that moment I really would’ve.” Instead he explained to him that he needed his passport. Why would they want to take his passport in the first place? He didn’t give a shit about the money, but he’d be really, really pissed about losing the passport. The Indian was frightened to death and he had pulled out the passport, which had been in his pocket the whole time. Selling faked passports is, like many other things, a small but certainly lucrative business in certain circles. Perhaps he had hoped to sell the stolen Western passport for a bit of money. Josh breathed heavily as he finished telling his story. One could almost see the images that played and replayed themselves in his mind. What if he had lost the passport? What if he had killed the man? Did he kill the man and was it his memory that told him he hadn’t? He didn’t say it, but in those surroundings, with him standing close to me it was strangely apparent that he was thinking just that.