Published online: August 1, 2017
Arjun Nath’s White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope is one of those rare, honest, intelligently reflective accounts about the long engagement (“struggle” seems too clichéd) with drugs. It is illuminating to finally read a scrappy, hard-bitten account. The value lies less in the survivor rhetoric – though in this case it is a happy ending, and Nath fulfills his dream of publishing a memoir. The impatience with which the reader (but also the parent, the friend, the therapist) wishes to know success or failure (which could mean life or death) is part of the difficulty of dealing with issues relating to substance abuse. One quickly wants to know the end—and that end will determine how we perceive the journey. If there is life, the journey was good, beneficial, on-track—and conversely, if there was death, the journey was a failure. However, this is not true, as Nath reminds us. One of the great learnings, to all, is that life cannot be measured by stability (of employment, of partners, of health, of content children) but simply by the quality and insights of that journey itself.
The book begins with a section called “Junkie Journal: June 2010”, and every alternate chapter is a continuation of that journal. There is no single, magic moment of transformation. In the alternate chapters to the Journal is the story of Doc, the charismatic founder of the organisation that helps people with substance issues—the one who “cures” Nath. The figure of the Doc is what is complex and necessarily indeterminate in the book—this is not a story of simple redemption and cure by an impersonal method (be it Freudian analysis or Cognitive- Behaviour Therapy (CBT)). Rather, the cure/relief is intrinsically tied to the personality of Doc. The lavish love given to this figure might fill many readers/therapists with unease—yet, there is no doubt that this sort of figure may be needed by many to get through to the other side. In his Author’s Note, Nath explicitly writes: “lastly, and with full awareness that the idea troubles a lot of people, I want to make clear that for me this is a story of God; of finding a voice within that makes you kinder and stronger and helps you through the difficult days.” (p 280). One of the rules within the programme was to pray, though to a personal, non-institutional god who both held you to absolute abstinence within the programme, but who was encouraging of a non-puritan life afterward. The book speaks of the many who admit they need a good father figure—so here we have the father/Doc/guru/God ensemble. No doubt the masculinism of this will trouble many, but it remains an open question whether cure can ever entirely belong to the impersonalised discourse of the aforementioned CBT etc. This remains a thorny problem—and maybe it is fair that the afflicted person should choose whatever mode will get them out of their melancholy.
Perhaps such unorthodox spaces can only exist in a state of quasi-legitimacy in India—the home that Nath goes to has many who are there as depressives, and who have not touched drugs. Perhaps there is a greater layer of melancholia, but more conventional centres would not mix up such different problems as addiction and depression. Yet it is the unconventionalism of everything that gives the narrative power. One sees Doc emerge from a Bombay of the eighties—with its utter ignorance of the drug problem (barred windows in grey underground hospitals, dextropropoxyphene, involuntary admissions, shock therapy, bilateral electrodes and medieval sine-wave ECT, while on the street college kids thought they were smoking hash from Afghanistan when they were actually hooked on smack from Burma). Perhaps our ignorance is less today, our technology more—but who can deny the denial of serious addiction issues even today in middle class, engineering-school-going India of 2017?
The charisma of Doc also helps contextualise him as different from the generic, disembodied therapist—he is a man struggling with his many grim divorces, his own demons of father and family. The naked patient demands a naked therapist. Healing may always be a two-way street, and the redeemer can turn redeemed. These are the potent questions the book raises. To assume the guru is always healthy is as superficial as seeing Nath as the party-going corporate lawyer that he was by day.
Under the authoritarianism of Doc (“you can’t bring unsealed bottles of mouthwash, you can’t steal anyone’s Zippo; all other lighters are fair game”), a community somehow builds. It probably would not work for most, but for those it does, there is the additional danger that it works too well. Like any other residential therapy space, the moment of truth is whether you can return to the world outside. Many start using, and sometimes die—others use, perhaps to return to the womb of the father. Healing is the relegation of community and joy to memory, and having done so, to return to the world. Nath manages to do so, but there is no propositional wisdom—others, seeming to be no different from him, perish. These are moving pages, testament to how contingent life is. There is no final crystal yolk of wisdom but here is one of the stabs: “Sharings yes, or catharses, but no general conversation. Doc himself will sit peaceably for hours with others before he utters a single world of small talk.” (p 258).