Tuesday, March 22, 2016

White Magic

If drugs were people you met at a party, ganja and hashish would be the middle-aged guys in dirt-starched jeans sitting on the terrace strumming a guitar. They would say things like ‘dude, check out the moon’ a lot. Acid would be the amateur DJ mixing Buddha Bar and Ibiza trance, trying to catch all the pretty colours drifting from the sound speakers. Ecstasy the young girl touching herself, touching everybody, touching the walls, making love to the world… Heroin. She’s the bitch in the corner...

And so begins White Magic, Arjun Nath's autobiographical first book of how he went from Delhi corporate lawyer to smack junkie in the time it takes you to cross a railway station. But this is not just one junkie's story. It’s the story of two boys. One, yes, the junkie, Arjun himself, but there's a second equally compelling story told side by side through this book - the story of the man who extracts the junk from the junkie. A few years ago after ten years of heroin abuse, Arjun found himself in a rehabilitation centre for addicts, run by a man called Doc. The book tells both their stories, and glows at the points their lives intersect. It is also a “Bombay story”, and the story of a little place called Land. In more ways than one, I was surprised to find, White Magic is at the heart of it - a love story.

A friend from the rehab centre Arjun was at called me just before the book released and asked if I would read it. I was expecting a sob story, a bit of pop psychology, a fawning write up about a god-like doctor and a bit of "The Secret" style inspo. I agreed to read it, more out of mild curiosity and heavy compassion, than anything else. You see, I know a lot of people who've been to rehab. My first boyfriend. My second boyfriend. All three of my father's best friends' sons. Brilliant young girls with eating disorders, meth addictions, heroin obsessions. An addict doesn't always look like what you think he or she will. An addict doesn't have to turn up in unwashed clothes with unkempt hair and a soulless look in their eyes. Actually, he's most likely the one with the most soul in the room. Or the guy with a meticulously tied tie. The girl with the most conservative outfit. Junkies come in all shapes and sizes.

When I ask myself how I knew so many, the answer seems simple. Because we were a generation of excess. We were born with so much to lose. But we confused it with having no room to lose. So we went ahead and gambled. We gambled with our lives each night - we'd drink as the sun went down and we'd drink as the stars came up. We smoked our lungs raw and then laced the cigarettes with ganja. Then we were lacing joints with tobacco. Then we were pulling lines. Off glass topped tables at rich kids' houses. Off the backs of cellphones and CDs. Off each other. We were popping pills - whatever came our way. Grinding up prescription drugs and snorting them. Sipping MDMA at parties. Throwing it up. Taking it laced with crystal meth. Jittery for days. Planning holidays around getting our hands on a good batch of acid. We would do all the above and drive around the city, high as kites, flirting with death, uninterested in consequence. And our bodies - magnificent young rubber band bodies would snap back each morning. Feeling bad? Drink some water. Or just sip a beer, bro.

I know that lifestyle. I've lived it and I skirted the place Arjun and so many I know, reached. I have peered into that darkness and seen boys forget what they love. I have been what they have loved and I have cried over being second to a drug and I have known that there is eventually nothing to be left with but compassion.

I've often wondered why no one ever wrote the story of the "educated Indian junkie". Seeing as it's a fairly common story. Everyone seems to know someone or know someone who knows someone who's been to rehab. In fact, for my generation, “rehab” is no longer a dirty word. But it was up until now, I still believe some sort of distant extreme idea like when people say they’re saving money to travel to the Galapagos or spending their weekends doing parkour. Like woah, that must be interesting but you have to be pretty extreme to be doing that. Personally I've wanted that myth broken down.

When Arjun's book arrived on my table it reeked of cool. The white cover sporting an ashtray from which emitted a strand of enticing smoke said everything you needed to know. You wanted in. I know the kids at the rehab centre he describes on the book. Land, is a beautiful space just outside Bombay, full of people aged roughly 15 to 50, recovering from all sorts of lifestyle excesses, behavioural issues and personal addictions. I call them kids because when I visited I got the sense that that's what they are - whether 25 or 45, they're "just kids". But what a bunch of kids. Any time I've interacted with the Land crew, I've been amazed by one thing again and again and again.

They are not “in recovery”, they are not just "survivors". No. These kids, they thrive. Unlike other addicts, they don’t live life on tiptoe. They live it with gusto.

Arjun's book is all the things I thought it would be - sassy, rough, raw, sexy and funny. But it surprised me with all I didn't think it would be. It is sensitive. It's emotional and bare and sad and sweet. It tells one helluva story and it really, really hurts. So yes, sure White Magic is an awesome book, but what struck me most (and prompted me to write this much about it), is that it is an important book. While certain reviewers have felt Arjun's book lacks the descriptions of drug highs that make other similar stories of excess so exciting, I feel otherwise. I feel this is the book (and Arjun)'s greatest triumph. That it convinces you of the magneticism and madness of pain obliterating opiates without ever actually dwelling on the oft-repeated descriptions that now read like common folklore to anyone who's invested half a day in a Hendrix biography or a Beatles record. No. That Arjun has resisted the petty temptation to glamorise his story for the sake of juicy literature, says one very important thing - he is well and truly over it. He knows there is no merit to be had in convincing the next kid who reads a lot, that there is something there worth tasting.

Very early on in the book (chapter three I think), Arjun writes this:
Names have power. In Japan, they took spectrum analysis photographs of bottles of water that had been labelled on the outside - Joy, Anger, Peace, Hate, Love, Resentment. While the bottles were the same to the naked eye after a week, the photographs of the molecules of water revealed something too startling to have been a hoax; some truths are stranger than fiction. The water in the bottles marked with positive emotions now pulsed in pleasant shades of pink and lime, gently swirling in symmetrical patterns. The other bottles were different - changing in jolts and bursts, chaotic, unhealthy looking blotches of black on virulent crimson. But the point also is simply this - if a paper tag stuck on a bottle can modify the molecular structure of its contents, what might a name given to a person at birth do to a life?

I wonder then if he paused to think of his own name. Arjun is of course the legendary hero of the Mahabharata - the ultimate warrior - but the name also, or rather the word itself, means "pure white". Ten years ago, I'm sure those words meant one thing to Arjun. Today though, six years clean (and that means no drugs, not just heroin or cocaine but nothing not even a joint, no alcohol, not even a glass of wine – that’s how Doc works, and the book will tell you why, scientifically), I'm pretty certain being pure white means something completely different.

I'm not sure what he will write next, considering a mini-lifetime went into creating the subject matter for this one, but if there's one thing rehab teaches you, it's that we live many lifetimes.

Here's to many more, Arjun.


  1. well..well
    you know exactly which bag to open for a dose of magic
    lovely writings

  2. You're a magnificent writer.... I must read this book now!! #bulafromfiji ��

  3. "high as kites, flirting with death, uninterested in consequence" Reckless youth is the most beautiful feeling to have ever felt. Great choice of words karuna, you had me there.

  4. From the 'Bombay story' to 'mini-lifetime went into creating the subject' you've beautifully defined this book!! Anddd the real life examples just make this such a good analysis through personal experiences, feelings & reactions! Great stuff K!

  5. From the 'Bombay story' to 'mini-lifetime went into creating the subject' you've beautifully defined this book!! Anddd the real life examples just make this such a good analysis through personal experiences, feelings & reactions! Great stuff K!

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  9. The book White Magic sounds interesting. I’d like to say I haven't had friends, classmates, and family taken in by pills and alcohol but I have. And you are right, they don't look like addicts. One classmate, was intelligent, proper and destined for a great career until her addiction took her down a road that ended her life. I'm getting a copy.

    Margaretta Cloutier @ Aspire Wellness Center