What would the diary of a recovered addict read like? Would it glorify drug addiction and the addict, or reduce addiction to being a crutch for an extra sensitive person or simply a time pass? Thankfully, Arjun Nath does neither in his book White Magic. He de-glamourises his relationship to his favourite fix heroin instead, and admits that this served as a crutch to help him evade boredom, low self worth and the deeper, messy stuff that relationships involve. He’s tried to chuck the habit several times, but the potency of the white powder always overwhelms. “The danger in heroin, the really scary thing, is not what she does to you but what she doesn’t. You don’t get jittery like on coke or speed; or hungry and horny like with marijuana- your chest heats up and you’re thinking, hey, this could be bourbon anywhere,” he writes.
Naturally, Arjun is skeptical when he heads off, yet again, to a rehab clinic called Land. He has low expectations of both the facility and his own chances of recovery. In the beginning, the congenial, almost happy atmosphere at the centre is scary. Unlike other rehab clinics, Land – founded by Dr. Yusuf Merchant- takes only 30 people at a time (not all addicts), who must consent to stay for one year. During this time, the inmates make periodic group trips to their homes and exotic destinations like Pattaya, Rome, Barcelona, and Paris.
Drug de-addiction and rehabilitation is a sticky business worldwide. Though the problem is taken more seriously in the West, and addiction is viewed as a disease that merits a separate branch in medicine, the Indian view lags. Despite the growing number of addicts, facilities and professionals to tackle this fall short. Desis tend to perceive addiction as a “bad habit” rather than a complex problem, and government set-ups for treatment remain archaic. Mental hospitals tie drug addicts and alcoholics to their beds, sometimes administering electro convulsive therapy (ECT) or shock therapy. Programmes run by private de-addiction centers or NGOs are variable in their quality and “participatory” is more an idea than a reality in some.
Arjun knows all this, and is itching to leave from the moment he arrives at Land. His first encounter with Dr. Merchant surprises him though; he certainly doesn’t expect the “God of Detox” or Doc, as he is known, to be clad in True Religion jeans, multi-striped Bob Marley socks, with a skulls and bones bandana wrapped around his head! The programme at Land is unique too: Unlike the 12 step Narcotics Anonymous (NA) routine of most de-addiction facilities he is familiar with, the Land plan is more loosely structured, and managed by the residents themselves. Sharing is crucial – yet Arjun struggles to talk about himself. Over the months, however, he makes friends, develops a special affinity with Doc, stays off substance, and cultivates a new relationship with himself. White Magic is a memoir of his journey, as well as a biography of Dr. Yusuf Merchant ( in the photo above, with Arjun in a café in Paris) whose flamboyant and unconventional life makes for a riveting read. The narrative style of the author is yet another reason this book is hard to put down. There’s nothing to beat a well-written memoir as far as I’m concerned. Thank you Arjun, for proving that an Indian can write one of this quality.