Why you should care
Because it’s all fun and games — until you start seeing dead people.
It’s a Saturday night at Elbo Room, one of the hottest bars just outside of Mumbai, and the usual suspects are present: Top 40 jams, a long line for the bathroom, and free shots for select ladies. But something else is also making an appearance, and some of the clubgoers I meet have the same message for me: Don’t touch meow meow.
Also known as MCAT, white magic, drone or mephedrone, meow meow is the latest street drug hitting Mumbai, and even those on MDMA, cocaine and a helluva lot of hash say this shit is — in their collective words — “bad fucking news.” It’s the older ones who’ve got the maturity to judge as such: Take 32-year-old Adi, whose last name we’ve withheld for obvious reasons and who’s an entrepreneur with generally positive feelings toward hash, acid and coke. But meow? “The worst fucking crash,” he says, his light eyes wide, Kingfisher beer in hand. “It’ll make you damn suicidal.”
Indeed, the unfortunately named drug — so christened for the CAT in MCAT — is this city’s biggest new plague, taking rapid hold among early-20-somethings and even those as young as 12 — “kids who don’t know what good drugs are even like,” Adi tells me. Some reports suggest there are between 120,000 and 150,000 users in the country and that the number is growing. Police have told local journalists that 80 percent of drug addicts in Mumbai are meow-meow-heads.
Meow meow wasn’t even on the list of government-banned drugs until February.
It’s ubiquitous, in part, because it’s the “cheapest drug available,” says Mumbai police spokesman and deputy commissioner of police Dhananjay Kulkarni: somewhere around $15 to $23 per gram, compared with around six times that for cocaine. It’s the scourge of poor teens living in mega-slums like Dharavi or Siddharth Nagar, says Kulkarni. (The police campaign has focused on those lower-class consumers rather than peddlers, Kulkarni says, resulting in arrests of addicts who commit crimes.) Meow meow is a club drug, generally snortable but also swallowable, comparable more to coke than ecstasy or MDMA but with a comedown to rival the latter’s. Its appeal: an ability to stay up all hours, increased sex drive and thrilling energy.
As for its marker: “Look for the zombies,” says Harsh, a 25-year-old at Elbo Room who’s swigging a whiskey neat tonight. No, he hasn’t done the drug himself, but plenty of his friends and their younger siblings have, he says. They’ve come down with hallucinations of death. Where Kulkarni describes them as “pale, thin, like sick people,” Harsh is more blunt: “They look, like, dead on their feet.”
Which is, sadly, how some end up after they follow the cat’s call. Mumbai psychiatrist and chair of forensic psychiatry at the Indian Psychiatric Society Yusuf Matcheswalla has seen and treated teens who lose weight, break down, drop out of college, steal, lie, cheat; they develop psychosis, lung problems and even die — all from this “very, very impure drug,” he says, in which makers “put any damn white powder.”
Meow meow wasn’t even on the list of government-banned drugs until February — one of the reasons for its prevalence, says Kulkarni. And then there are the sellers, who can make it in a home cooker and rake in the big money. Authorities arrested one such seller in March: Shashikala “Baby” Patankar, who’s in her 50s and accused of supplying mephedrone to a police officer. An alleged longtime seller of hash and so-called brown sugar who lived in the slum where she did much of her business, Patankar dominated the selling scene alongside a merry mess of addicts turned peddlers, according to press reports. (Patankar couldn’t be reached for comment, but her lawyer, NN Gawankar, tells OZY that his client is not guilty and that the seized mephedrone was “not even narcotics powder,” citing findings from a narcotics lab in Pune.) In the end, though, says Jayant Naiknavare, an officer with the city’s anti-narcotics cell, Patankar’s arrest makes little difference: For every 100 people like Baby Patankar, he says, 200 are ready to take her place.
Drugs are far from new in India, particularly in the urban centers. From opium (production of which is legal in the country) to heroin, the Mumbai underworld has incubated its share of narcotics. Mumbai is also no stranger to accusations of organized crime’s links with the police force, with corruption raging higher in Maharashtra’s departments than anywhere else in the country, according to reports in 2011 and 2013. Indeed, Patankar’s arrest was “an embarrassment,” says Naiknavare, because the cops found so many colleagues involved with her.
But the scene in the clubs — and the slums — is far from a romantic, languorous “Kubla Khan” opiate stupor or even the thrill of gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim, stories of which pepper Bollywood flicks and the Western-favorite novel Shantaram. Leaving Elbo Room, Madhav, a 26-year-old long-haired hippie sort, grabs my elbow. He tells me he’s a little too old for meow and that he tries to “stick to MD and coke. I mean, I’m on both — with just, like, a little bit of the meow in there,” he says. Madhav’s eyes are frightening. He stands too close. His youth is ugly.
Shruti Ravindran contributed reporting.