Sep 29, 2018-
Devi Dutta Sharma knew his customers inside out. Seated at his desk in Jhochhen, he’d spend a large part of his day peering out the window, observing the steady stream of customers arriving at his shop. They came from all corners of the world but were looking for the same thing: an exotic, mystical Kathmandu, preferably with a side of cheap, quality hashish. And Sharma knew how to sell both and how to sell them well.
DD Sharma’s Eden Hashish Centre has today assumed a cult-like status among scholars and stoners alike as an institution that became a cultural cornerstone of the Hippie-era Kathmandu. As a government-licensed hashish dispensary based out of the aptly-named Freak Street, Eden proudly flaunted itself as the “oldest and best joint” in town—an exclusive tourist-only den offering free samples of “Tarai Flower Tops” and the iconic Nepalese Temple Balls. Down the street at its second location at Hotel Eden, you could order a Hashish Toasted Egg for $2.50 and wash it down with some Ganja Milk Tea for 75 cents. As a veritable hub for hippies travelling overland from Europe, via Afghanistan and India, Kathmandu at the time boasted over three dozen licensed hashish dispensaries selling a wide variety of strains and products. Yet, a cut above the rest, Eden quickly became the city’s leading retailer, earning its ambitious proprietor both fame and notoriety that continues to live on today.
Tomato Sauce to Temple Balls
In truth, DD Sharma lived in Kathmandu for just six short years. Arriving on a bus from Baitadi in 1967, 27-year-old DD, a seventh grade dropout, like so many others dreamt of making it big in the Capital. In the 1960s, merely a decade had passed since Kathmandu had opened up to foreigners, but it had already found itself enmeshed as the centre of the cultural and tourism revolution that was taking place in the form of hippies. By then, a notable number of lodges and restaurants had opened up in Jhochhen to cater to low-budget tourists. And this is where DD’s unlikely odyssey began.
“When he first arrived, the only sellable skill he had was that he could make a really good tomato sauce,” remembers a relative who worked closely with DD Sharma but did not want to be named, “He would spend the night cooking the sauce then hawk it to restaurants in the morning on his bicycle. On the side, he ran a little money exchange business for tourists as well.”
But DD soon realised that he would never make the cut with the marginal profits he was making—the tomato sauce could only be a stepping stone onto something bigger. On his delivery runs to restaurants, DD would invariably see tourists rolling joints with grass they bought from hawkers much like himself. Only, these hawkers didn’t need to toil.
“So much time and effort went into preparing the tomato sauce and selling it, all for a petty profit,” the relative says, “But you give a tourist a small pouch of charas and you make more money than you’d otherwise make in an entire day.”
And as it were, growing up in a village in Baitadi, marijuana was something DD was familiar with. He knew the hills of far-west Nepal produced potent strains of cannabis. He had contacts in these places. He could cut out the middlemen and possibly control both the production and distribution.
This, for DD, was a revelation. And it wasn’t long before Eden Hashish Centre opened its doors, promising the best cannabis handpicked from remote Baitadi, Humla and Jumla.
Housed in a traditional five-storied building at the mouth of Jhochhen, Eden Hashish Centre was hard to miss, thanks to the imposing signboards advertising its wares. While the ground floor of the building functioned as a warehouse, the first floor had been converted into an attractive showroom, its walls lined with air-tight glass jars flaunting an assortment of marijuana and hashish strains. Once a purchase was made, at Eden you also had the further option of heading up to the second floor that had a few small beds where you could sit, smoke, and hang out.
While Eden sold cannabis in various forms, it was ultimately DD’s specialisation in hashish that made him a favourite among tourists. Mark Liechty in his book Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal writes, “Whereas Nepalis knew about ganja (dried marijuana leaves and buds), charas (hashish)—the far more psychoactively potent resin-like product derived from the green plant—was less commonly used. But foreigners wanted it. By specialising in hashish, and opening the first such shop on Freak Street, DD Sharma cashed-in on the huge demand that Western youth brought with them to Nepal.”
Leichty further states that Nepal’s hashish was so famous in the West that foreigners learned of “Nepal’s very existence from the labels on Nepal’s hashish packets sold on the streets of New York and other big western cities.”
‘Let Us Take Higher’
Having established himself as a sought-after retailer, DD Sharma wanted to take business to a new level.
The first step towards that end was to make Eden exclusively for foreigners.
“There’d be Nepali youths coming in and pestering him for joints and hashish, but no matter how much they pleaded they were never entertained. He wanted Eden to personally appeal to foreigners,” the relative says. “‘You’ve travelled thousands of miles to come and smoke hash in Kathmandu, so I’ve created this space exclusively for you’—this is the kind of message he wanted to convey to his patrons.”
DD was also very good at interacting with his customers. In the short time he had been in business, he had made powerful connections with administrators and the police. He used this leverage to help anyone who needed their visas extended or had to get out of petty trouble.
Michael Palmieri, 75, an American who divided five years from 1970 to 1974 between his house in Goa, India and a rented room near Swoyambhu, remembers a shop that was never crowded but had a constant number of people streaming in. Many of them simply walked up to the counter and bought and left, while others stayed and smoked, and gingerly and quietly walked up the stairs and just lay down on the beds.
“He’d come down and greet his regular customers warmly,” Michael says. “He’d give us samples to try and was always nice.”
But what set Eden apart was the use of aggressive and witty advertisements that not only helped Eden stand out, but also took a life of their own in the ensuing decades.
At a time when advertisements were rarely used, DD made aggressive use of business cards, pamphlets, signboards and posters with sensational slogans in English that exuded swagger and confidence.
“Your Old & Favourite Hashish Centre in Kathmandu”, “Your Old & Favourite Joint” were slogans that were most commonly used. He also put up signboards proclaiming to be “The Oldest & Most Experienced Dealer of Hashish in Kathmandu”. In one witty scheme, DD took it upon himself to warn patrons of the ‘artificial hash’ flooding the city. The fear-mongering notice read:
WARNING—THERE IS MUCH ARTIFICIAL HASHISH BEING SOLD IN NEPAL THESE DAYS. IT CAN BE VERY HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH.
ASK HERE TO SEE A SAMPLE,
SO YOU WILL NOT BE FOOLED.
But DD’s marketing acumen is best reflected in advertorial calendars depicting large colourful posters of Gods and Goddesses that were produced en masse. DD clearly understood the hippies’ draw towards eastern mysticism and he cashed in, while also making powerful, impressionable statement for his business.
These posters became an immediate hit among customers and eventually took on an identity of their own—becoming as legendary as the hashish itself. Still sold online by collectors and even reprinted, the Eden posters and calendars have today become mainstays of cannabis museums around the world as emblems of a nostalgic yearning for a bygone Kathmandu. American David Heard, who bought these posters in bulk in 1980, sells them on his website, www.edenhash.com, where they are priced as high as $165 apiece. In another website www.dking-gallery.com, the posters are priced as high as $400.
But for all his success, it was also an open secret that DD’s riches came not just from Eden, but rather under its pretext. Liechty writes that although buying and selling cannabis was legal in Nepal at the time, “the real money was in exporting hashish, a practice explicitly banned by the Nepal government. DD Sharma made no secret of flouting export laws: a prominent sign in his showroom read ‘We ship ANYTHING ANYWHERE ANYTIME.’”
Joseph R Pietri, who spent several years in Kathmandu and describes himself as a ‘former drug dealer’, alleges in his book, The King of Nepal: Life Before the Drug Wars, that along with bottled hashish, DD Sharma also sold “pharmaceutical cocaine from Germany, sealed in brown bottles. It was of the finest quality and cost about $100 for a sealed one-ounce bottle.”
One reason DD could engage in illegal export of hashish was that he was well connected. Quoting DD’s brother-in-law, Liechty writes, “He had taken everyone under his control, even the king’s uncle, a Rana. He had good links with the royals, with the police, and with the administration.”
The money DD made was in turn funneled back into expanding his empire. At first, he converted a part of the original building into a lodge, the Inn Eden. When that wasn’t enough, he bought a plot of land in Ombahal, a block south of Freak Streat, and built the nine-storied, luxurious, three-star Hotel Eden that even boasted an elevator. The building, at the time, was considered the tallest privately-owned building in Kathmandu.
‘Shiva’s justice rendered’
The opening of Hotel Eden in 1973—the edifice of DD’s quick turn of fortunes—however, coincided with larger geo-political rumblings taking place half way around the world. Kathmandu was increasingly gaining notoriety as being a hub for the countercultural movement and as a source of the hashish flooding cities in the west. By this time, the US President Richard Nixon had already launched his global War on Drugs, and Nepal, understandably, was on the radar and under pressure to criminalise cannabis.
It was in this context that the then American Vice-President Sapiro Agnew travelled to Kathmandu in 1970 to conduct negotiations. In Far Out, Liechty writes that “Agnew’s entourage was sauntering through Basantapur, when the VP noticed DD Sharma’s prominent hashish showroom and took the occasion to publicly berate his Nepali hosts.”
Inadvertently, though perhaps not without merit, Eden came to represent to the US Vice-President the embodiment of all that was awry with Nepal’s lax drug laws.
The Nepali government finally relented in 1973, with Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista announcing the government’s decision to ban cannabis starting July 2, allowing a two-week period before it would be implemented on July 16, 1973. On July 9, however, a week before the enforcement, Singha Durbar was engulfed by a massive fire, in what the hippie poet Ira Cohen wrote to have been “Shiva’s justice rendered one week/ before the revoking of all hashish/licenses in Nepal (July 16, 1973)”.
When hashish was criminalised, DD—who even donated Rs 21,000 for the renovation of Singha Durbar in a bid to halt the decision—showed no intention of backing down. Liechty writes that he instead painted the walls of the Eden Hashish Centre black in protest and took his business underground under the protection of the police and administrators he continued to bribe.
Things, however, would never be the same. In time, DD began to face increased harassment from authorities who continued to demand more money. Often he would be picked up from the hotel, only to be released shortly after. Chris De Bie, a German national who was in the process of becoming a cook at Hotel Eden, alleges in his blog,
The Hippie Trail, that on one instance, the police “questioned DD for days,” after which, “he showed the officers where he was hiding 3.5 tons of hashish, asking ‘I had a license, was I supposed to just throw this away?’”
Liechty writes, “The story circulating among Freak Street area merchants holds that these bribes went on for several years until Sharma finally snapped. According to one version, officials kept raising their demands for bribes. Another variant claims the police refused to drop an unrelated lawsuit against Sharma without another massive bribe. In either case, the story contends that Sharma’s response was to confront the police officer bearing requests with a pistol, promising that he would get a bullet before he got a bribe. This proved too much even for the police. With new charges brought against him, Sharma fled the country to India, never to return.”
Not much is known about DD Sharma’s life in India thereafter, apart from the fact that he passed away in New Delhi in 2008 from a heart attack, aged 68.
Today in Ombahal, Hotel Eden remains open, though its once gangly demeanour no longer sticks out like a sore thumb. In the damp, greying living room on the third floor, a framed black and white photograph depicts the boy from Baitadi who dared to build the tallest building in a city he had so quickly learned to bent to his will.
“Yes he did a lot for Nepal’s tourism sector, especially in making Freak Streat what it was and catalysing it to spill over to other parts of the city, like Thamel,” the relative says, “But in the end, he was a drug dealer. People may not be black or white—they are often a whole lot of grey. But if you make a fortune selling charas, that is ultimately what the world will remember you by, regardless of the contributions were.”
Published: 29-09-2018 07:04