In the foothills of the Himalayas lies a village run by a cartel of women who harvest and sell the most expensive cannabis resin in the world; men figure only as domestic servants and sexual partners who can be ‘divorced’ for 30p. By Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. Photographs by Jenny Mathews.
Since sunrise two middle-aged men have been struggling with heavy iron staves, chipping away at a pile of rocks in the middle of a small field. When they have finished this task, they must turn their attention to a basketful of dirty clothes that need washing. At the end of their twelve-hour day, their employer will pay them 100 rupees, the equivalent of £1.50. But there are many hours until pay time, and now she stands over them sipping sweet ginger tea.
Dressed in a red-and-grey wool blanket, Mennu may look like a frail grandmother, but she is no ordinary woman. Mennu is a ‘Daughter of Alexander’ – one of the 700 women in the village of Malana in northern India who believe they are descended from the Greek warrior, Alexander the Great, and who today run one of the largest marijuana syndicates in the world. It has made them fortunes and brought them a power over men that is unknown elsewhere in the country. They can choose their husband and have the right to divorce and remarry at any time. The men of the village keep house.
‘I have to watch them constantly,’ says Mennu, without taking her eyes off her ‘servants’. ‘All men are lazy and want to lie around and smoke hash.’ Mennu, who is in her late forties – but looks much older – stands in front of the house she built and paid for herself when she married 30 years ago. Her 100,000 rupee (£1,500) home is a blue, three-storey villa whose walls are hand-carved by local craftsmen.
Today, the house, which stands in the centre of the village in the foothills of the western Himalayas, is bulging with Mennu’s extended family: five children, their spouses and a dozen grandchildren. ‘I have paid for everything we have, and my daughter and granddaughter will run the business after me,’ says the matriarch. ‘You can’t trust men to look after the money, so I keep it inside my blanket. If I give it to my husband, he will spend it on drink or gambling.’ As she talks, you can hear the rattle of the keys to her house and moneybox, which hang around her neck. ‘My husband is better than most men, but if the beehives get broken or the goats run away, I am the one who has to walk ten miles to our fields to fix things.’ At Mennu’s feet, her two daughters, Biso, nineteen, Danni, nine, and her granddaughter Sumitra, are engaged in the trade that occupies all the women of the village.
Although Sumitra is only eighteen months old, she already knows how to make the resin that has made many women in Malana rupee millionaires. Copying her mother, Sumitra grabs fistfuls from the towering cannabis plants that grow in front of the family house. She rubs the buds between her fingers until black oil lines her palms. What was once used by their Greek ancestors as a cure for colds and stomach aches, is today the most prized marijuana in the world. There is now a global demand for the resin, known as ‘Malana Cream’, which is harvested from the 8ft-high bushes that surround the village, and which grow far up into the alpine pastures beyond it. Malana Cream is so sought after that the women have formed a cartel, controlling its production and sale. Buyers come from Greece, Italy, Israel and the UK, and Malana Cream has been traced to the streets of Amsterdam.
September is the busiest month for the Daughters of Alexander. It is then that they harvest the resin from the bushes, which are grown from seeds planted in May, and prepare for the arrival of their customers. Outside every kitchen and behind every pumpkin patch, bottle-green and yellow bushes grow like weeds. In a field just outside the village, the sound of women laughing comes from every direction. Bisu, fourteen, and her nine-year-old sister, Durga, have been sitting in a clearing since dawn. Their palms are coated with a layer of tar. ‘We only take buds from the female plants, and then, when our hands are warm and dry, we roll a bud between them,’ says Bisu. ‘After I rub each bud, I pick every bit of leaf and stem off my palm. Then, when my hand is black, I press my clean thumb on to my skin and pull off the resin into a little ball. It takes me three days to make one ‘toller’ (ten-gram piece) of cream from about 150 plants.’ Bisu can sell a toller for anything from 400 to 1,000 rupees (about £6 to £15), depending on its quality.
‘I like this time of year, says Bisu. ‘We only have to go to school once a week because the teachers know we are busy in the fields. They tried to teach us Hindi once, but we refused. I will only speak Kanashi, my mother’s language. We are not the same as other girls. Out here, I can sit with my sister and talk all day without boys interfering. They just cut down the bushes we can’t reach and then we send them away. At the end of this month, people – Indians and foreigners – will come to buy this resin. They say Malana Cream is the best because it is pure, silky and oily,’ says Bisu, reaching inside her blanket dress and taking out a plastic bag containing four tollers of resin. This is how many I have made this week.’
Bisu and Durga have never left the village and show little interest in the outside world. They have never seen television, and laugh at foreigners who climb for seven hours to reach their village wearing tie-dye clothes and trainers. ‘I would never wear clothes like that, they are so ugly. My dress makes me look beautiful and all the boys want me to be their girlfriend,’ says Durga. Negotiations between foreign or Indian clients and the women of Malana follow a specific ritual. The women pull their ‘stash’ from the folds of their dresses and throw it on to the ground. The buyer picks it up and the haggling begins. Both people involved in the deal remain in squatting positions and must not touch each other during the exchange. If the deal is for several kilos, the process is conducted inside the woman’s house. The men of the village play no part in the business.
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