White Magic, Arjun Nath’s memoir about his recovery from a 10-year-long heroin addiction, begins at rock bottom. Angry, self-loathing, emaciated thirty-something Nath, having been in and out of rehab clinics over a decade, is taken to his fourth, near Mumbai, by his father. The chapters that follow alternate between Nath’s junkie journal — where he writes about his year-long stay at Land, its rules and quirks, the friendships he forges, and of healing himself — and the life story of Dr Yusuf Merchant, or Doc as he is called, who runs this unusual rehab.
Not everybody who comes to Land is an addict. One third of the programmers, as the 30-odd residents from across India and the world, are called, are broken for other reasons. What they do have in common is an addictive personality type (hypersensitivity, high IQ, poor EQ, extreme behaviour, low self-esteem) and Doc, “the God of Detox”, (at once brilliant, eccentric and profound), who treats them as family. The programmers are allowed to smoke and each one gets a daily quota of cigarettes, which is subject to cuts if they break rules. There is even a ciggies head monitor selected from among them, as well as a detox HM, one for meds, another for phone calls. They get to go home on periodic group trips as well as to other places. They are encouraged to share and set life goals. As a sceptical and surprised Nath notices quite early on — no one tries to run away.
Doc, in his mid-fifties, may be a god at Land, but Nath maintains an objective distance while narrating in detail the fascinating life of his mentor, including his rich romantic history. He presents the man as he was and is, warts and all. A volatile, willful boy, from a prosperous south Bombay family, changing names to deal with an unhappy childhood; an impulsive young man who marries at 19, is resourceful enough to live on the streets than give up medicine and take up his lucrative family business; a nonconformist doctor who starts a rehab at home in the 80s and finds his true calling in waging a life-long war against drugs.
In his search for redemption, Nath grows on you. He is savagely honest in his acceptance of his fears, his shame, the wasted years, the hurt caused to those who loved him—without indulging in any sentimentality or self-pity. Whether sifting through memories of being beaten by cops, or thrown out by parents pushed to the edge, or of once selling his blood to arrange cash — Nath, once a successful corporate lawyer, doesn’t try to hide his very own picture of Dorian Gray, made by his self-destructive pursuit of smack.
His dry humour combined with his knack for storytelling brightens the narrative and prevents it from becoming a heavy read. His prose is conversational, powerful and evocative. For instance, this description of a downpour at Land: “Rarely does the wind nudge the rain to slant into doors and windows that remain perpetually open … the water comes down in straight, unbroken threads that go on forever, continually, so that there is no way for the naked eye to gauge if it is falling down or rising upward.”
At its core, White Magic is a story of hope and resurgence. It holds out the promise that no matter how badly screwed up you may be, if you want to change you can. It does so not in a moralising, platitudes-ridden way, but through real stories.Whether it is Nath working his way to a miracle (the book — a goal he set during a therapy session at Land— being proof of that) or Doc who bounced back each time life knocked him down.
When a personal truth inspires a narrative, the act of reading it becomes gratifying and transformative. The story stays with you long after you’ve finished the book. White Magic is one such account.
White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope
PP284, Rs 399