Cocaine, Colonial Calcutta and Byomkesh Bakshi

Published: June 9, 2016 - 13:12 Updated: June 14, 2016 - 16:08

The Udta Punjab controversy is emblematic of the state of denial regarding the drug menace in India. However, this is not the first time that India finds itself in such a situation. Long before heroin ruined the youth of Punjab, there was another drug which was coursing through the veins of the common man. Nearly a century ago, cocaine had flooded the streets of Calcutta. So great was the scourge of cocaine that only a fictional character could put an end to the menace. Hardnews presents a leaf out of real and reel history books

Abeer Kapoor Delhi

It was a planned entrapment. Ram Laxman walked, with the 180 rupees given to him by the Excise Superintendent, to a house on Amherst Street in Calcutta. It was February, 1925, and he was going to buy some cocaine.

He knocked on the door and was greeted by a short woman. After he handed the money over to her, he was directed to a paan shop on the corner of the street. As he walked away, some officers marched up, knocked on the same door and conducted a raid. Two packets of cocaine were found; intent to sell had already been established. The woman, Batassi Moni Dassi, was arrested and put on trial.

During the hearing, a witness said, “…her reputation for years has been that of one of the most notorious cocaine dealers..” In another cross-examination of one Babu Kritso Lal Dutt, it was revealed that “she possessed some of the finest equipages in Calcutta and three motor-cars; and exemplary punishment is necessary.” It was alleged that Mrs. Dassi was at the centre of an extremely large syndicate that procured and sold cocaine in large quantities all over the country.

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Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the illicit trade of cocaine had caused nothing but trouble for the Excise Department and the British Government of India. The trade and consumption of the narcotic was so prevalent and considered such a social evil that it found its way into one of the most successful detective stories written during the Raj, the Byomkesh Bakshi series by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. It was only an imaginary character who could help save the city from the grips of the drug.

Cocaine and Calcutta

The case of Batasi Moni Dassi was one among the hundreds against cocaine traffickers all over colonial Calcutta. In a short span of twenty years, from being unheard of to being the most consumed, the story of cocaine is one of how experiments by the colonial government could go awfully wrong.

The drug came into India in the late nineteenth century and there are several versions of its entry into the country. According to historian Dominic Streatfeild, an urban legend had it that a famous Bengali businessman was prescribed cocaine for a toothache, brought the plant in and grew it in his garden. However, a 1925 issue of The Statesman mentions more significantly that “Sir George Watts in his Commercial Products of India prints a remarkable account of the introduction of the plant into this country and Ceylon.” The coca plant was brought in from Kew Gardens, London, to Ceylon in 1870, and six years later it travelled to India. The British Indian government brought this drug in large wooden boxes but didn’t quite know what to do with it; they sent the seeds all over the country to be grown in plantations, but subsequently lost interest or just plain forgot. The plant grew like a wild weed. Needless to say, once Indians came to appreciate its intoxicating properties, they were more than willing to include it in their daily diet.

If the reports in the British India Medical Journal are to be believed, cocaine consumption spread like an epidemic. As early as 1904, articles detailed the way in which the drug was consumed and the detrimental effects it had on families in Calcutta. Folded in betel leaves, it was chewed like paan. Reports from the 1910s make it clear that it was readily available in the Punjab. One could buy it from the local paan shops

Going through these reports makes it seem like the entire country, from Calcutta to the Punjab and Mumbai, was hooked. Reels of newsprint were devoted to the debilitating effects of the drug and how it was slowly eating away at the social fabric of the country. These articles were syndicated and wired all over the empire, with newspapers in Singapore and Australia carrying stories of raids, seizures and the peculiar habits of the ‘native’ and his consumption of the drug.

Controlling Cocaine

The British Government were twenty years too late when they began trying to regulate the drug, but India was one of the first few countries to witness restrictions on the sale and procurement of the drug with the inclusion of strict laws under the Bengal Excise Act of 1902, which demanded that retailers have licenses.

Despite the clampdown on the consumption and sale of the drug, it managed to flow into the country from within and from outside. Large shipments were seized, amounting to lakhs; if we were to adjust the estimate for inflation over time, it would stand at multiple crores’ worth of the drug today. No amounts of legislation prevented cocaine from coming in, going out, being sold or consumed. Consumption only grew manifold, and it slowly assumed the role of a serious social crisis meriting discussions in Parliament, London.

Minutes from House of Commons sessions reveal great anxiety amongst Members of Parliament (MP) sitting in England. Colonel Day raised in December 1925 the issue of cocaine trafficking, police involvement and the presence of a large number of cocaine dens in northern Calcutta.

Earl Winterton, the Undersecretary of State for India, replied to his queries and pointed him to the reports of the Excise Department of Bengal; he alleged that the department was doing all it could. This did not seem to satisfy Colonel Day, who pressed on, accusing the police of complicity in the smuggling of cocaine in north Calcutta. An extremely miffed Earl Winterton responded by saying that he did not “very much like the term complicity” and he thought it was a monstrous allegation.

But this discussion in the House of Commons was not the only time allegations of police complicity were raised. In another newspaper article in The Statesman from 1925, the reporter claims the general sentiment was that the inefficiency of the police was a direct consequence of their involvement.

Byomkesh to the rescue

‘There was a police raid in our neighbourhood again last night.’

‘That is a daily affair,’ Anukulbabu smiled. ‘Where was this?’

‘Quite close actually, at number thirty-six; the house of one Sheikh Abdul Gaffoor.’

‘Really? I know the man. He comes to me often for treatment. Have they mentioned what the raid was for?’

‘Cocaine. Here, read this!’ I handed the Daily Kalketu to him.

(Excerpt from ‘The Inquisitor’; ‘Picture Imperfect and other Byomkesh Bakshi Stories’, Penguin 1999)

Written in the early 1930s the Byomkesh Bakshi stories present a compelling picture of late colonial Calcutta with all its social dynamics. It was no mystery that the police were ineffectual and unable to apprehend or curb the growing trade of cocaine. Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, the author of the series, was a lawyer by profession and would in all likelihood have witnessed the way the substance travelled from the streets to the courts. He then helped it along into the pages of his detective stories.

It seems almost natural for the detective, at this point a detective who embodies a national identity, to take up an issue that the colonial apparatus has been unable to solve. And he, a ‘native’, is able to rectify that. More importantly, throughout the story there are subtle allusions to symbols of the empire that do not show it in good light, such as a lock of British make that is of poor quality and is falling apart.

Satyanweshi (The Inquisitor), chronologically the first Byomkesh Bakshi story, was set in 1925, the year Batasi Moni Dassi was arrested, an event that saw a spurt in newspaper reports; a year that can be seen as a peak in the cocaine crisis, understood as a year the inability of the police became most visible. The author here also becomes a historian, recounting important years of his life and, in turn, of the Raj.

In the story, Byomkesh moves into a boarding house in the heart of Calcutta, with the sole purpose of penetrating and busting the drug racket. He does this independently, unlike what the first scene of the television retelling has to show. The boarding house, unknown to the detective, is the hub of the entire mafia and the owner Anukulbabu is the kingpin, not a sword wielding ninja, as the movie would have us believe.

It is the Indian sleuth who through his cunning outwits the entire syndicate and the police in unravelling something that had foiled the state for nearly a quarter of a century. He becomes in the process the bridge between the colonial legal code and the Indian populace, saving them from themselves.