It’s hard to come away from White Magic without rooting for the author Arjun Nath, without marvelling at the safe space that is Land, a rehabilitation clinic apparently like no other, run by a man affectionately called “Doc”. It’s harder still to meet the young writer and ex-addict without being equally impressed by how articulate he is about his journey from addiction, including multiple attempts at rehab, as well as his passion and belief in an inter-connected universe.
We wouldn’t even be discussing this if it didn’t seem so germane to his transition from being a smack addict to a recovered ex-addict and a writer, with one book out and another in the works. Being a writer is clearly an identity that gives him more joy than the slightly more regimented life of a corporate lawyer, a previous identity that has been all-but-discarded.
The book itself – which started as a biography of Doc, aka Dr Yusuf Merchant, the driving force behind a rehab and year-long rehabilitation programme near Kalyan in Maharashtra – is part-biography, part-memoir in its final form, and wholly readable. Nath’s fourth attempt at rehab has by far been the most successful, as he has been clean now for six years.
Talking to Nath, I’m shocked to learn that even in a privileged, upper-middle-class setting, there was no awareness about methods of detox. Nath says he tried to quit cold turkey several times, not knowing that there were medicines that could help. There’s a wisdom in him that belies his 30-something years, and a confidence when he speaks that is worlds away from the young man he describes in the book who had low self-esteem, and essentially a hole that needed to be filled with his drug of choice. Excerpts from a conversation:
You are sharing something that’s incredibly personal, and it’s also a very tumultuous journey. How do you feel about the book being done?
It’s somehow tied in with this whole getting sober process for me. It’s about going to rehab where there are so many changes being made every day, little things, you’re learning so much about yourself, about how you interact with the world around you, about your relationships and then you think that since you’re making these massive changes in your life and embarking on this, you know, new life, maybe you should make some new choices while you’re at it?
Because you know, who gets the chance to say I no longer want to be a lawyer… or I no longer want to be associated with this entire bunch of people. Since we’re changing stuff, let’s throw some more stuff on the bonfire!
That was fantastic, so in a way you take that leap, you make that leap and you say, I want to live a life, sober and be aware of what’s happening around me, painful as that may be at times. I no longer want to live in this bubble where nothing penetrates.
And since you’re doing that, let me just try and see, this is something I’ve always wanted to do – I’ve always wanted to write a book… can I make this a career? And you don’t know if it’s going to work out for you, whether it’s going to make you happy.
And then you find slowly… that maybe it does. Maybe this day that I stayed clean and not got absolutely blown out of my mind was a good day. Maybe this day I’ve spent writing 500 words without any expectation that I’m going to have deadlines to meet, or salaries to come in, or bosses to deal with – maybe this is a good day as well.
And those things progress for me, step by step, all simultaneously, hand in hand. So when the book finally came out, or when HarperCollins accepted it, it felt like validation of all those days that I had those doubts – is this going to work out?
Five years I lived with that. Is this something that’s going to work out? And all of a sudden, boom, yeah, you get that absolute rush, it is such a rush, absolutely fantastic.
I want to come back to Dr Merchant, who sounds like such a force of nature, incredible. He’s been so instrumental in helping you change your life. You say you temper some of what he says with what other people say about him – how does that process work?
Right. It’s hard actually. I think most people who have half a brain who go to rehab, especially this one – everybody goes through that process of first being hostile towards Doc, because you feel threatened that he’s going to change stuff about you, your life, from maybe listening to what he says. Then you go to thinking this guy may have a point, to respecting him, and then to the other end of the spectrum entirely, he’s on a pedestal for a lot of people, even people who’ve left ten years ago.
They’re tongue-tied or in awe of him. He’s just everyone’s buddy, though you may not be that way to him. It’s hard not to be in awe of somebody who’s so… he’s got a tremendous personality, a lot of colour. It’s just hard. So that was a tricky bit. How not to feel like this is some sort of cult-worshipping tribute to this guy!
Did you have to check and correct and go back and double check with other people how he’s been or is he very upfront?
This guy, one of the big beliefs of his life is that sharing makes everything better. I know stuff about him that most people don’t know about their spouses, their kids, just because he’s so open to talking about it. He’s doing it for himself, he totally gets this… How do you live this incredibly hard life without sharing things? He shares constantly.
At times it got damned annoying because I just wanted to get away from him after a while. It’s like come let’s talk and three hours later you’re still talking, or listening, or recording stuff or writing stuff. It was very cathartic for him as well, I like to think it was helpful for him as well. So it was great. He actually doesn’t stop talking about himself.
You take us with you when you’re starting out, you’re very sceptical about what’s happening here, you’ve been through rehab three times already. And you’re this hard-assed guy, you know what’s going to happen, you know what you’re going to do, you give us this insight into what you hear from recovering addicts, that addicts are manipulative and will game the system in a way… But you also slowly start to believe in what he’s telling you and also that Land is a wonderful place. Can you distill this for us?
I strongly believe this. It’s like Marxism, seems like a fantastic concept and then collapses. I think that communal living is the way to go. Apart from the fact that there is no sex allowed in that. How to make that work. Just living in a commune seems like such a great idea.
Your relationships are not defined by who gave birth to you, what’s your financial relationship, there’s no money at Land. All those things taken out, they seem much purer. The only thing connecting all of you living together is how do we make this life better for ourselves. And really, if we’re all pulling in that same direction, some magic happens.
I don’t know what it is actually. Doc is a small part of the process. It’s this idea that you live together, eat together, laugh together and talk about things together and that’s it, that’s the cure. So of course there’s conflict, there’s a huge dose of conflict and that’s good, it’s a microcosm of the real world, you’re going to face this shit when you’re out, so you might as well get some practice in a safe space.
Is exiting hard? It’s not a controlled and safe environment. How hard is that transition, which I don’t think you touch upon?
It’s damned hard. I mean it is really hard. There’s people that you… the hardest part is relationships. There’s other stuff, like situations, parties etc., but that’s something that every recovering addict goes through so I’m not going to make a fuss about it.
But relationships are hard because you accept that this is in your life for keeps. Once you do that, you have to work at this, you can’t say f*** this. Which is what you’ve said all your life, there’s always been this thing that will comfort you and give you a big hug and send you to sleep, which is the drug, which is not there anymore.
How else do you find your solace in life? You have to get back into that. You have a fight with somebody, you don’t like what someone says… you can’t just walk off. That’s the hard part, to be committed to the idea of a relationship. Whether it’s with your parents, your lover, your friends, or your dog, really.
Your parents have obviously been a huge part of the support system, even if it felt like they were part of the problem at the time. Have they been able to process that you’re clean now, this book, this whole journey… can they breathe?
They’re actually terrifically excited about this, much more than I am. They’ve always been exceptionally supportive. My father still has moments, at least before the book came out, now he doesn’t do this anymore, but before the contract with HarperCollins, he would introduce me to somebody I hadn’t met, like one of his friends or somebody as “oh he’s on a sabbatical from being a lawyer”.
Because he couldn’t really… he wasn’t fond of the idea, I think. The tricky bit for them, for my mum especially, was that the idea that her son was now a drug addict, an ex-drug addict, but still a drug addict, for her whole extended family, which she had kept from them. She told some select people.
I used to tell her that I had no shame while I was using drugs – why should I suddenly feel something about it now. She said that you don’t understand for families. It was always you don’t understand. I think it’s still uncomfortable for her, I don’t see why that is, but it is. They’re enormously proud of me, simply because I’ve never finished anything I ever started.
And I think they were concerned, my mom used to periodically ask me whether she’s mentioned in the book. I used to tell her to be calm about it, the one thing I was not going to do is to hurt anybody. So certainly there is censorship to the extent that it would hurt one or both of them if the truth as I perceived it was out there. The truth as I perceived it was as a drug-addled, resentful person, and that’s not really me, no? That’s some other version of me. So that’s all. And then she said I trust you.
Do you stay in touch with the friends you made there at Land?
This is the largest part of my life. There’s a structure of people in Delhi who’ve left Land ten years ago, three years ago, six months ago, twenty years ago, whatever, we meet five times a week. I have very few other friends.
This is the thing that makes Land different, because I’ve been to other rehabs. They all say you can’t trust the people you meet at Rehab and your friendships end at the gate, it’s almost like the blind leading the blind. You and your best friend in rehab are newborn babies, you can’t trust them… and doc is like that’s utter balls. The type of friendships you make here are for life. It’s incredible.
Have there been any reactions so far that surprised you or left you touched?
One of the boys at Land – he’s currently there – his mom mailed me. She’s one of these hard-core people who wants her son to get off his shit but also to stick to his job, not become a musician, which is what he wants to do.
She wrote to me and said, “I’ve read this book and for the first time it struck me how much pain you kids go through. It brought tears to my eyes. And for the first time, I think, having gone through so much, maybe he should do what he wants with his life, it’s only a job, only money, it’s not important. I’m not going to fight with him on this… I’m going to let it go.”
My ex-boss, from my first job out of college, wrote to me. He said, I’m sorry for all those years we had this rubbish relationship and I used to get on your ass so much, I never understood.