You might remember Ken Kesey from of his 1963 novel ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and it’s more famous film adaptation. By the time the movie was released in 1971, Kesey was already creating a stir within conservative America.

Kesey was quite a piece of work. He was the kind of guy to whom if something looked weird, he was probably going to try it. He volunteered for the testing of a psychotropic drug that was later to be known all over as LSD or simply acid. He ended up loving the stuff, happy that he was getting paid to do a fun thing like getting high on it.

For the tests, Kesey had to be kept under observation in a hospital ward. One night he crept out of his bed, broke the lock of the infirmary and stole as many vials of LSD as he could lay his hands on. Fortunately there was no inventory list and his nocturnal raid went unnoticed. For the rest of his hospital stay he was perpetually zonked out of his mind, even on days he was not administered the drug, leading the researchers to draw entirely erroneous conclusions. And Kesey? Yikes, he was hooked. Cuckoo’s Nest incorporates some of his own experiences inside that hospital.

Ken Kesey became one of the symbols of the counterculture hippie movement that began in the 1960s. By the time I became a part of the counterculture scene, it was no longer that counter. Heck, I had pot-smoking professors in engineering school. Everyone was stoned. While I drew the line at an occasional Saturday night pre-movie joint of Trichy weed or fresh moist ‘Tal hash, the other guys were doing pills like mandies (Mandrax), lippies (Lippitone) and dexies (Dexedrin).

In 1970s Chennai in southern India, where my engineering school was situated, you could get powerful ‘downers’ and ‘uppers’ over the counter fairly easily. All you had to do was find a bent pharmacist and mumble a phony doctor’s name to him which he made a note of and then charged you a rupee a pill. For a broke student in those days, a rupee was a fortune.

The go-to guy for pills was a pharmacist near Moor Market, a cavernous building right next to the rail station, which housed hundreds of tiny stores crammed together, selling stolen and second-hand stuff – books, household appliances, electronics. Even the pennies there were bent. (Don’t try looking for Moor Market now, it doesn’t exist anymore).

The pharmacist himself was a heavy user, stoned out of his mind on mandies most of the time. Mandies and Lippies were very strong sleeping pills and the kick came when you resisted the drowsiness. If you took two of them, they could put you in such a tailspin that when you finally stopped resisting the snooze and let go, you ended up sleeping the next 48 hours, dead to the world.

I tried a Mandy once but found that when I spoke, the words came out funny. For example, if I wanted to say, “lets go for a movie, dude”, it sounded more like, “leh wo foah yayy mooo, joo”. After that one time, I decided that those kicks were not for me. Talking like a retard was not my scene.

Dexies on the other hand, kept you awake. I tried dexies too but like mandies, it was just once. Boy, did they keep me awake. I was stark, raving awake. The downhill after the drug wore off, was really downhill. I slept for a whole day.

Pills were very much in the scene at college, oh yeah. Guys took dexies going into class and mandies and lippies coming out of class. At any given time of the day, around half the population in campus was staggering around.

I didn’t mind getting high on weed occasionally those days, but I got stoned only to listen to music with friends, within the confines of my dorm. I had to have control, even when I was zapped. If I went out in public, stoned, there was a possibility I might start behaving like a jerk and that I could not tolerate.

Bands like Jethro Tull, Jefferson Starship, Uriah Heep and Pink Floyd were great music to get stoned with. Here’s the thing about marijuana, for those who have never tried it – even the crappiest music sounds like the work of a genius. Every tinkle, every note and every beat is sort of embedded into the consciousness through some sort of osmosis. The most mindless lyrics sound intelligent and deep. If you are lying down, the bed will seem to float up after a while. Even movies….if you are watching something really crappy, like one of those old KL Saigal films, it will seem like an edge of the seat masterpiece.

But if you are tired, depressed or stressed out and if someone passes you a chillum, don’t go for it. Just as it enhances the good, weed will amplify the bad too and your trip is quite likely going to turn into a nightmare.

Here are the other things weed does to you…. it makes you really hungry as hell. You’ll want to eat just about anything you can lay your hands on. And then there’s sex. If you are with someone who is stoned too, sex after a joint is just beautiful. You will turn into the world’s greatest lover. And she, Raquel Welch. Yucky stuff, like going down on her that you wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise will seem natural for you to want to do. Cross-eyed, sniveling, skinny, flat-chested, bad breath, smelly armpits, they will seem overpoweringly sexy to you.

In the end, after the effect of the marijuana wears off, you will fall into a deep restful sleep and if you haven’t had one too many joints, you will wake up fresh, without any hangover or any other after effects at all.


Wait, before you begin to think smoking pot is great, there are long-term side effects to regular marijuana use. Besides medical issues such as BP, lung cancer and pulmonary problems like bronchitis, prolonged use also affects you psychologically in tiny incremental stages. It makes you lethargic, impractical, unrealistic, aimless and generally unconcerned about your future. It makes you edgy, impulsive and easily excitable. Prolonged marijuana use is also known to play havoc with short-term memory and is believed to be responsible for a sizable number of incidences of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Nowadays I see how marijuana is becoming more and more socially acceptable and easily available and legislation is being tabled all over the world, to legalize it’s use. Frankly, I do not think that legalizing marijuana is a responsible thing for governments to do. Look at cigarettes. It might sound crazy now, but back in the 1930s, doctors actually recommended smoking ‘to remain fresh and alert’.

“Give your throat a vacation,” says this doctor in the 1931 Camels ad. Yeah, right.


ThIs fun and frolic-themed Peter Stuyvesant ad was a fixture on the back cover of Time magazine right up until the early 1990s


”You’ve come a long way, baby,” says this 1970s Virginia Slims ad, attempting to link feminism and emancipation to smoking


Clean and healthy living never had a chance. Having an icon like James Dean model for Marlboro got millions of teenagers across America hooked.


The pendulum has swung. Today, cigarette ads are banned outright, everywhere across the world. In Quebec, stores are banned from even displaying cigarette packets on shelves. They now have a kind of hinged flap behind the counter that, when down, hides the packs from the eyes of a customer standing at the counter. The aim is to keep minors from seeing the cigarette packs and wanting to smoke. Seems a bit stupid if you ask me but any effort to reduce smoking is welcome. Look what banning cigarette ads, prohibiting smoking at public places and constant anti-smoking campaigning has done – cigarette smoking in North America has fallen from 45% among adults in 1950 to 19% in 2010. I am one of the 19%. I left smoking a decade back. Yay.

Cigarette shelves with their flaps down, behind the counter in a Quebec convenience store


Then there was hooch.

Back in the 1970s, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where my engineering school was situated, was under prohibition. Regular liquor brands were available on the black market but penniless college kids like me couldn’t afford them. And as 1920s America showed us, the moment the prohibition began in 1972, our own Al Capones, Joseph Kennedys and Dutch Schulzes came out of the woodwork with their bootleg liquor – Arak, an often lethal concoction.

Just outside the Velacherry gates of our college campus was a sprawling slum that had a hooch den. It was a ten by ten wooden platform in the center of a clearing in the palm trees. In one corner of the platform sat a massive, menacing lady with huge jugs, a dirt-caked drum of hooch by her side. For the villagers she had a look that said ‘you get outa line by even a micro-inch and you’ll get your butt kicked outa here’. She plunged the glass inside the drum with her grubby hand and handed the customer the spilling and sploshing drink.

Everybody called the woman Amma (‘mother’, in Tamil). She operated the den under a single light bulb that was connected by a long wire which traveled overhead supported by branches and palm fronds to a nearby hut that had electricity. The lamp threw long eerie shadows.  Scrawny, inebriated day laborers staggered up to the woman with their hands clasped together in supplication, imploring her for one last slug for the road, signaling that they had run out of cash. For her financial well-being, Amma was mandated to keeping them hooked but she decided who could have one more and who could not.

A typical Indian hooch den. The Amma is off camera.


Students like us were given the red carpet treatment by Amma. Somehow she felt legitimized and honored by our presence (the way Kim Jong Un must feel when he gets to meet world leaders). Rickety steel chairs were hastily arranged for us and we were served the Arak in glasses that had been equally hastily washed in a nearby stream which didn’t exactly originate from a Swiss mountain spring. Twenty pairs of drunken eyes then watched us spellbound as we downed the stuff. The taste was terrible and if one of us made a face like a grimace, there was raucous laughter all around.

The liquor was colorless and if you looked closely, you could find stuff floating in it, some of the stuff multi-legged, able to propel themselves on their own. If you were desperate to get high as we sometimes were, then you closed your eyes, took a deep breath and downed it in one shot. Quite honestly, I am lucky to be alive and disease-free.


But in all this, there never was any of the really hard stuff like crack or heroin going around in our college dorms, at least not in my time there. Thank the Lord or I would have tried that too and who knows, I might have gotten hooked.

Eventually after five short years of merriment and bliss, I graduated with a bachelors in Mechanical Engineering with honors. I recognized that I had to earn a living and so I left all the stuff we got high on, behind. Thereafter I touched only beer occasionally. No, make that every weekend, until June 2013, at which point I stopped even the beer. I am now a teetoatlah. Yay.


Sometimes I think back on my college days and wonder what made me pull back from the brink of addiction while so many of my classmates succumbed. I recall with sadness a dear hostel-mate, a promising undergrad, who plunged to his death when he climbed out onto a 3rd floor window ledge of our dorm completely stoned, lost his footing and fell out head-first.

But I Didn’t end up splattered on the concrete. I think my holding it together had much to do with the company I kept at college, the circle of friends who coalesced around me and matured with me through engineering school. Like me, they experimented and got high but knew when was enough.

I don’t know if the Virginia Slims girl managed to get there, but I’ve come a long way, baby.