Thursday, April 21, 2016

Fear and healing at Land: on Arjun Nath's White Magic

[Did a shorter version of this review for Open magazine]

In mid-2010, Arjun Nath, a heroin addict in his early thirties, joined a rehabilitation centre called Land, located a few dozen miles from Mumbai. Shortly afterwards, during a therapy session with the centre’s founder Dr Yusuf Merchant, Nath was asked to write down a quantifiable goal. “To publish my first novel within five years,” he wrote in near jest. But as “Doc” asked him to visualize and elaborate on the details, something happened:

“I, who don’t believe I can buy groceries without cocking it up somehow, know in that moment of total clarity that I will write and publish a book. Doc’s simple and absolute belief in himself is contagious […] I am high, floating on another man’s faith.”

White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope is that book – not a novel, but a memoir. Perhaps one shouldn’t insist on categories though, given Nath’s major authorial decision: to alternate vignettes from his own bout with addiction – told in the first person – with fragments from the life of Doc (or Bhai, as he was once known). Those fragments span a childhood where Ismail Merchant changed his name to Yusuf at the ripe old age of seven, and a period of adolescent angst which included the discovery that his mother – separated from his father – was now married to another man. They chronicle his early wedding, the loss of a child when he was just 21 years old, the family resistance to his wanting to be a doctor, and a memorable afternoon where he earned notoriety all over south Bombay. And they tell of how he helped a drug addict for the first time while interning at a hospital, then went on to establish DAIRRC (Drug Abuse Information and Rehabilitation Research Centre), and finally decided to “go shopping – for land”.

Concurrently, we get Nath’s story. Entering the centre for the first time, he sees a plaque with Our Sacred Land on it; later, another programmer refers to Doc as the God of Detox; the religious imagery will become easier to understand as we realise how close Nath was to rock bottom. (“In heroin withdrawal your flesh looks like a turkey stripped bare,” he tells us, “It’s good party talk, a fun fact, until you’re in it and you run a finger down your forearm and then it’s not so much fun.”) His early days at Land pass in a haze: “I watch the fish, the goldfish and redcap and black molly and wonder how they feel about… The Rules” – this being a list of things you can’t do, which goes on and on and on until it becomes stifling even to a reader who has never done drugs; one gets a sense of what a Sisyphean struggle rehab is, not just for those who undergo it but for those who supervise.

Though Nath is writing these passages from a relatively safe space, after having undergone a successful rehab, he is using the present tense and trying to invoke his past experience of being in a junkie fog. The writing has a nervous energy and feels honest, even if it occasionally resembles other stream-of-consciousness narratives from this sub-genre: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Irvine Welsh Trainspotting. (“Happy? I’m not any fucking happy. I hate having to be here. Fuck the routine. The food is shit on a plate. Doc is an asshole in a bandana. I want to stuff my pores with smack, swim in a sea of vodka. Fuck the weather because any minute now I’m going to slice my wrists open in the rain, scarlet-on-gray.”)

If, in telling this story, Nath had to step outside himself, it must have been equally hard to be objective while doing a mini-biography of a man who become a hero for him. Consider the encomiums directed at Doc during the Land chapters. “The bridge that spans all our degrees of separation is Doc, and the road he travels”, and “His genius, no other word for it, is in figuring out what each of us need him to be – friend, brother, angel or father – and putting on that hat”, and, in a scene where Doc is showing his own vulnerability, “How do you comfort a pillar, or the ground beneath your feet?” But a novelist’s clear-sightedness shows up in the Doc chapters, where we see Merchant as a flesh-and-blood person with his own arc, fears and disappointments, rather than as a saviour. Nath didn’t want to take everything Doc told him at face value (“Doc is a storyteller born and it is too easy to fall for his oratorical charms,” he tells us in a note near the end), so he experimented with voices and chronology, shifted perspectives: in one passage, we see Doc/Bhai though his younger brother Dadul’s eyes, as “a real asshole sometimes”; in another, we gather that he sometimes plays devil’s advocate and says contrarian things just to shake people up.

But in that author’s note, Nath acknowledges another potential pitfall. White Magic was originally about Doc’s life-story alone, he reveals, and the result was “soup. Interesting soup, by all accounts, but hard to swallow for a reader with a slim-to-zero chance of ever visiting Land or meeting the boss.” He may be on to something there, because for me this was a minor shortcoming in even the final, redone version of the book. Yusuf Merchant may be a genuinely fascinating figure (especially to anyone whose life was directly affected by him and the centre), but the chapters about his life drag in places, and the non-converted reader might find it hard to work up interest in some of the mundane details. Perhaps part of the problem is that the book begins as an immediately involving, first-person narrative and then slips into telling someone else’s story; whatever the case, a point arrived (around the time Bhai’s first wife asks him for a divorce and there is an elaborate race-track analogy – followed, a while later, by a litany of his subsequent relationships) when my attention began to drift.

This is not, of course, to deny the many good things in White Magic, which are enough to raise it above your regular inspirational “Life is beautiful now” story. Nath’s writing is wry and vulnerable at the same time, and in its best passages – most of them concentrated in the first half – this is a moving portrait of two men, each on his own trip, and of the circumstances that bring them together. Nath doesn’t spell this out in the book, but he is approximately the same age as Doc’s first son would have been if he had survived, and this is one of many things that seems to give their relationship a somewhat mystical quality, as if this crossing of paths were predestined.

P.S. Arjun Nath’s author profile tells us that he spent a decade as a successful corporate lawyer “and a somewhat less successful heroin addict”. So far so good, but when I read the next bit – about him taking up writing “as a short route to easy money” – I wondered if he was still high on something.


  1. As a recovering addict myself, my last drink was 4 years ago, I see a potential problem here. The problem being lack of humbleness. I wish him well, and he may already have a firm control over his addiction, but if I were to write my profile, it would state:
    I spent two decades as a successful IT programmer/analyst “and a much more successful alcohol addict”

    -- From the Alco... Guy

  2. I really wanted to read this book, Jai.
    But, now, I am having second thoughts.

    -- The Alco... Guy