Guest Star

A Poison that Makes Souls Sleep: Exotic Indian Poisons in Pop Culture and History

This month’s Guest Star Aditi Sen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Queen’s University, Canada. When she isn’t working or watching horror films, she likes to collect Bollywood cakes.

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In 1830, Colonel William Sleeman reported that a fakir and his young son were murdered in a Muslim shrine by dhutooreas or professional poisoners. Sleeman’s greatest claim to fame was in identifying and competently dealing with the problem of thugees in India. While the thugee cult (a gang of highwaymen) were most famous for murdering travelers by strangling them with silk handkerchiefs, it is believed they also used Datura to poison their victims. The thugees gained international notoriety because of films like The Deceivers (1988), Stranglers of Bombay (1959) and of course Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but their lesser-known, murderous brothers never really gained global acknowledgement—partly because they simply poisoned their victims and didn’t go for the cultish grandeur.

However, if we are to believe British accounts, these professional poisoners were fairly active in the Indian landscape, using poison to either render their victims unconscious or kill them. Sleeman distinguished between two kinds of poisoner: the dhutooreas and the bairagis. While the first category of poisoner chose to dress in civilian clothing, the bairagis dressed like mendicants, covering themselves in saffron clothing. They did their bit to make sure the evil mendicant trope stayed alive in the horror genre. Poisoning or knocking people out for days was a rather favourite pastime of Indians until the British intervened and took care of it.

I definitely don’t want to go into the whole Colonial exaggeration and their repeated claims of saving the natives. My interest lies in exotic Indian poisons and how they captured the global imagination.

I will start with my personal favourite poison reference, even though it’s not precisely a poison. In Tintin comics, we encounter something called Rajaijah juice, the poison of madness. In Cigars of the Pharaoh (1932-4), a character called “the fakir” uses darts to inject victims with this poison and drive them insane. The backdrop is the fictional Indian kingdom of Gaipajama, and the Maharajah needs Tintin’s help because his father and brother were victims of this poison. Rajaijah juice again appears in another Tintin series called, The Blue Lotus (1936), and eventually, professor Fang-His-Ying discovers an antidote to the poison. (It is important to mention that Tintin comics are phenomenally popular in India, particularly in Bengal. Bengali translations of the comics were widely read, and even today, Tintin holds a very special place for Bengalis. It is not an exaggeration to say that Bengalis consider Tintin to be “one of us.”)

However, Rajaijah juice is not a complete figment of the imagination. There are plenty of hallucinogens in India that can produce all sorts of madness. Hallucinogens have been an integral part of the Indian religious experience. The Rig Veda (the earliest text from South Asia tentatively dated between 1800-1600 BCE) devotes an entire book to Soma, the god, and the ritual associated with him. While even today, there are plenty of debates about what Soma is, the hymns indicate it’s a hallucinogen. It’s a plant that needs to be crushed with mortar and pestle, sieved, and then diluted with milk or water and sweetened with honey before drinking. It is through the consumption of Soma that one can see heaven and the divine.

Similarly, cannabis and the infamous datura have both been associated with the god Shiva. There is plenty of mainstream acknowledgement of the use of hallucinogens. We can see why the British were so baffled and how they exaggerated datura-based crimes.

India is also the home to Aconitum ferox. Its effects have been described in detail in an Unani text called Makhzan-al-Adwaiyah, which states,

Everything the patient looks at appears dark; he fancies that he really sees all the absurd impressions of the brain, his senses are deranged, he talks in the wild, disconnected manner, tries to walk but is unable, cannot sit straight, insects and reptiles float before his eyes, he tried to seize them, and laughs inordinately at its failure. His eyes are bloodshot, he sees with difficulty, and catches his clothes and furniture and walls of the room. In short, he has the appearance of a mad man.

Poisons that made people go bananas were not that uncommon in India. 

I now want to move to Bela Lugosi’s last film, titled The Black Sleep (1956). Lugosi only had a small role in it. The main character, played by Basil Rathbone, acquires a magic drug from Lahore called, Neend Andher, meaning. “deep, dark sleep.” The drug could put a man’s soul to sleep; his body stays alive, but he feels nothing because his soul is dead. Rathbone played Dr.Cadman, who uses this drug to carry out nefarious experiments on human subjects whom he has kidnapped and imprisoned in his castle, all to find a cure for his wife, who is in a vegetative state.

Interestingly, one of his victims is John Carradine, and Herbert Rudley played his unwilling assistant called Gordon Ramsay. Lugosi played his butler, Kashmir, and another victim is named, Curry. The film misses no chance to indulge in orientalism—good, old-school, in-your-face orientalism that I genuinely enjoy. 

India is the home of two primary, sleep-inducing herbs that are very popular in ayurvedic preparations: Ashwagandha or somnifera in Latin (and the Latin name is hugely suggestive of its function) and Jatamansi. This plant belongs to the Valerian family. As a matter of fact, in the Indian countryside, it’s relatively easy to find herbs that can cause mild sleep and produce calming effects. My grandmother, who lived in a village in Bengal, would send my cousin and me to search for an herb called Brahmi (bacopa) that she would add to our food, and we would fall into a deep sleep in no time. Of course, none of these herbs would put our souls to sleep, but it made us sleep longer than usual. 

From the 1860s onwards, the British started maligning traditional Indian medical practitioners. Unlicensed frauds are what they called the vaids (trained in Ayurveda), hakims (trained in Unani medicine), and pansaris (not trained in any particular tradition but learned from both). By 1912, the medical registration act completely prohibited traditional practitioners from getting any license and their legal status became tenuous, although their popularity among the masses continued. The British accused the native practitioners of supplying poison to their clients and reiterated that they dealt in Aconitum ferox and strychnine. Nux vomica or the strychnine tree is also native to India and widely used in Indian medicine. The British were always suspicious of Indian practitioners and were convinced that Indian doctors sold narcotics and poisons and enabled criminals to go on their poisoning sprees. They were also mostly dismissive of the toxicology that existed in the Indian medical texts. 

Naturally, like all colonial relationships, the relationship between British medical knowledge and traditional Indian practitioners was one of ambivalence. And this is what pop culture reflects: a British person using native experience to harm and whose enablers are all natives. In The Black Sleep, there is not just the evil butler Kashmir, but the gypsy Odo, who does all the dirty work of abducting victims for Dr.Cadman using the Neend Andher drug. 

So, how does Indian pop culture deal with poison? Bollywood films always have conveniently labeled poison bottles complete with skull and crossbones in the cupboards. These bottles have appeared in many movies for a long time. 

One of my favourite murder mysteries is Kaun? Kaise? (Who? How?) (1983), in which poisoned ice cubes are used to kill the intended victim. Mithun Chakraborty played the detective, who solves the mystery by studying a similar case where the same poison was used. However, this handy, unknown poison that is so exhaustively used in Bollywood movies never captures the imagination. The poison I like in Bollywood films is diamond dust. 

When I was a kid, I used to think just licking a diamond would kill you. That first created my fear of and aversion to diamonds, and it has stayed that way. My first memory of diamond death was in a film called Chaudhavin ka Chand (Full Moon) (1960), in which one of the main characters dies in the climax by “licking a diamond.” I recall asking my father, is diamond poisonous? My father was clueless and replied, “we don’t have any diamonds; we can’t afford them; we are safe.” Again, in Mukkadar ka Sikandar (loosely translated as, Sikandar of Kismet) (1978), Rekha, who plays a courtesan’s role, dies by suicide after licking a diamond. Just licking diamonds does not kill, but diamond dust has the potential to be fatal, although that doesn’t happen immediately in most cases—it takes time. Considering Indians had aconite and strychnine growing nearby, why did they think of something so exotic and expensive? There is no apparent answer, except the famous Baroda poisoning case is remembered even today by many.

In 1875, the Maharajah of Baroda, Malharrao Gaekawad, was accused of poisoning the British Political Agent, Robert Phayre. Phayre liked a sweet sherbet made of citrus fruits (some say a milk-based drink) during the day. One day, his drink tasted odd and metallic, and he didn’t finish it. He could see some sediment at the bottom of the glass. He immediately sent the glass for testing. It turned out that the deposit contained arsenic and diamond dust. Phayre lived, and the Maharajah was arrested and tried but was acquitted. 

Diamond has always had a strange reputation. Pliny the Elder mentions its magical power, and some ancient texts contained references to diamonds as poisonous. However, it is a diamond’s association with curses that makes it popular. Diamond is considered a suitable medium for curses by many cultures, so it is a much more romantic choice than a practical one. A real poisoner sticks to aconite and strychnine. 

Last but certainly not least, Bollywood has no shortage of shape-shifting snakes and poison damsels (vishkanya). While shape-shifting snakes are more or less easy to comprehend, the idea of poison damsels is somewhat complicated; they are mythological women created as weapons to destroy men who give in to their baser instincts. The concept of vagina dentata is very much present in this trope. In Singhasan (Throne) (1986), Mandakini played a vishkanya who is used as bait to destroy men. Here, she is an unwilling participant. However, in the movie Vishkanya (1991), the elements of femme fatale and poisonous woman are blended. Dying in the arms of vishkanya is the sexual version of dying after eating poisoned Dundee cake. 

After all of this, I would still say the best poisoning ideas come from Agatha Christie. Stuff the turkey with greens but make sure you also add foxglove. Everyone is taken ill, and one person dies. It looks normal. No one will know that you slipped digitalis into the victim’s coffee, and an autopsy would show that X ate too much of the green.

Don’t just be a poisoner—be a clever poisoner. 

Reference:

Arnold, David. Toxic Histories : Poison and Pollution in Modern India. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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