During one overcast Thursday afternoon last month I made my way to the Karwan Bazar rail gate, through the spice market, where the air was filled with an unfamiliar pungent aroma.
As I turned right, nearly a 100-yard stretch of rail tracks lay ahead, and built alongside those tracks stood roughly built hovels. This is where the stash comes from, I was told, and this is the biggest spot in downtown Dhaka from where cannibis is sold.
These tiny hovels made of polythene and tarpaulin sheets, and bamboo, were built one after another, eight feet by eight feet at best. The cooking was done on the outside, on an earthen stove the size of a rice pot; scrap wood and leaves were being used to keep the fire going.
The place between the tracks and the hovels was so congested that three people could barely walk shoulder to shoulder. One would wonder how these people survived living in such proximity to trains passing by several times a day, but they said their children know better and they do not die.
“Do you need some tamak?” asked a woman in her thirties. Wearing a salwar kameez that was too glitzy for the location, she was sitting on her haunches in front of a hovel. She looked irritated. There were no children around; only a few women standing four or five yards away. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t need it, but telling her the truth that I was looking for a story about their life might cause her to react and hide everything.
Yes, I said, I need some tamak. (I remembered tamak was what it’s called around here.)
Pointing towards the women standing, she said, go ask them.
I walked past her and saw a lungi-clad man sitting on a small bench. He was cutting some cannabis with a blade to smoke with a bamboo kolki (pipe) that was lying nearby. He looked at me with suspicion when he realised I was starting at him. “Do you need some tamak?” he said. I said yes in an attempt to dispel the confusion. “If you are looking for deshal, walk further ahead,” he said. “There are two kinds: Deshal and non-deshal, which one do you want?” he asked. I figured deshal is the more coveted and asked for that, to which he gave me a sullen look and went back to working.
I continued walking and saw the same setting in front of every hovel. Someone was cooking outside, some middle-aged men or women were sitting or lying huddled inside, some selling one pellet of cannibis or two.
The buyers were few and far between. “Things get better in the evening,” a boy named Zahir (not his real name) explained. I had already given him a Tk100 tip for helping me out. The seller could also be a woman. In fact, Zahir went on, it is better that way as women can resist being frisked by the police. He took me to a woman whom he called “khala.” I lied to her blatantly, saying I was looking for some seller as I needed a big supply. She assured me that she had the best deshal available in the entire city. Then I asked her why she chose this profession, she turned pale and her brows furrowed. “Did you bring a policeman here, Zahir?” she asked and disappeared behind a door.
“Are you a policeman, Sir?” Zahir charged me. I said, no, I’m not.
I decided to walk back to where I had started. Zahir accompanied me, answering a lot of my questions. Most people here sell cannabis, he said. I asked how or why they got involved in this profession. A question he had no answer to.
It was impossible to know why they did what they did, as they clammed up the minute that subject was brought up. Their replies were curt, their faces stoic. They were, as if, always poised to face the worst.
As I kept walking, a stench of garbage grew stronger. An assortment of materials was rotting undisturbed for a long time, narrow puddles in front of the hovels, or between the tracks, causing the stench to permeate the air. Surrounded all over by dirt and grime, crammed into a murky “jhupri” swarming with people, anyone could tell they did not get into this profession by choice; they were rather soldiers of fortune who were meant to take the hit when there was a raid or some other crisis.