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AFTER THE HIGH

A Sikh, a lawyer, and a narcissist at a narcotics rehabilitation centre in India

By Arjun Nath

“I deserve to be happy. I am a loving, and loveable, person.”

Ever looked deep into your own eyes? Dogs can do it. Toddlers, too. But if you’ve lived any kind of a life, it’s hard. I’ve had trouble with mirrors since I was old enough to shave—even while shaving I focus exclusively on my jaw or the spot between my eyebrows, anywhere but the eyes —believing, at first, that this was a form of narcissism but it’s not; it’s the opposite of narcissism, whatever that is.

One of the mental exercises we do here at Land, every morning from 10.40 a.m. to 11.10 a.m., is called Confrontation. You pair up and silently look your partner in the eyes. It’s not a staring contest, obviously, blinking is allowed; talking or looking away is not.

You think looking someone in the eyes for a half-hour is easy? The first time I did the exercise I blushed and broke into a sweat and giggled helplessly, all within the space of five minutes, before getting up and retreating back to my room. Now, six months and hours upon hours of sharing about my past down the road, I can maintain eye contact with anybody.

But the Mirror Exercise is a different ballgame; it goes beyond facing up to the world and into loving yourself, warts and all.

The only reason I stand in front of the shaving mirror in the dorm bathroom and tell myself I’m a loving and loveable person, though I feel like an unconvincing and silly fucker, is because Doc suggested I try it. More and more, I’m coming to respect and trust the guy. The way he handled Dj’s problem was all the proof I’ll ever need that Doc is on our side, on mine and of all the addicts at Land.

Dj, a twenty-three-year-old kid from Amritsar, has been here for a couple of months. A shy boy, he speaks only when spoken to and, then, in such soft, wounded tones that he has to repeat it half-a-dozen times before anybody understands what he’s saying.

Dj’s problem is not that he is a smack addict, even though he is, or that he is Simar’s cousin brother, even though he is that too; Dj’s problem is his hair.

For years he’s wanted to wear it short and styled in waggish spikes, but, coming as he does from an orthodox Sikh family, he is forbidden from having it cut. As a result, it hangs to well below his shoulders and causes him, he mumbles, untold misery. He doesn’t feel cool. It affects his self-esteem, the hair, and he doesn’t have the guts to defy his father in this matter.

“My father would kill me,” he tells Doc. “It’s against our religion.” “What, it’s not against your religion to chase smack?” Doc says. “Your father didn’t kill you for that.”

Dj is convinced that, if only he could keep short hair, he would never use drugs again. He gets a crafty look in his eye, looking at Doc sidelong. “Will you talk to my father, Doc? Tell him it is important for my sobriety?”

Doc regards the kid for a long moment. He says, sternly, “If it’s against your religion to cut your hair, I can’t condone it. And I won’t lie to your father. I’m telling you, clearly, in front of all these boys, that I cannot allow you to go against your family’s wishes while I’m at Land.”

Then: “But I’m not at Land all the time. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes and it’s not my fault if some idiot leaves a pair of scissors lying around, is it?” Doc looks pointedly at the rest of us in Sangita villa. “If any of you have left scissors lying around, I don’t know about it.” With that, he gets up, hugs everybody and leaves.

Dj understands that if his father kicked up a fuss, Doc would support him. In a few minutes he is settled on a chair in front of a mirror, torso covered by a sheet, with several eager hands hacking at his hair.

It’s the first time since he’s come here that I’ve seen Dj smiling. I am stunned.

For days and days we’ve all been yelling ourselves hoarse, encouraging Dj to cut his hair and fuck the consequences. What could his father do, really, presented with a fait accompli? Dj just shook his head in despair, like we would never understand the issue. But here Doc said essentially the same thing as the rest of us and Dj acted on it in an instant.

So it’s not what he says that works; it’s the fact that he is the one saying it. His genius, no other word for it, is in figuring out what each of us need him to be–friend, brother, angel or father (mostly, father; more than seventy per cent of addicts either don’t have a dad or have a dysfunctional one. True story)—and putting on that hat.

I’m not sure what I need him to be. Maybe, a teacher. School of life. Whatever he is, I know that if he tells me that standing on one foot and honking like a goose is critical to my sobriety, I’ll do it at least once.

Enter, the Mirror Exercise.

“I am a loving and loveable person.” “No, you’re not. You’re an asshole,” Reza is pounding on the bathroom door. “Stop making love to your palm in there and come out, man, I gotta shower.” I wipe the shaving foam off my cheeks and step outside.

Rez, a towel wrapped around his waist, is admiring himself in the full-length mirror in the dorm. “Oh, you sexy beast. They all want you,” he said to his reflection. “You’re ze best, baby. I love you.” And he kisses the Reza in the mirror.

How can this be so easy for him? He turns to me, grinning, “What? What’s that look say?” “You’re fond of yourself, aren’t you,” I says. “How not?” he says, waving a hand down across his body, as if to say check it out. He flexes his torso, making the abdominal muscles and obliques pop out in distinct ridges.

“What, you think loving yourself is easy? Just talk to yourself in the mirror? You gotta attack it from all sides, brother … physical, spiritual, mental and social. But first, physical. You don’t like yourself on the outside, how you going to like yourself inside? Come to the gym today.”

He thumps me on the back and I stagger a couple of paces. “You did heroin or no? Pussy.” It may be that I heard Doc talk of the importance of physical exercise, how it releases endorphins and dopamine, the natural pleasure chemicals of the brain that were replaced by heroin.

Or it may be that Reza offended my manly ego. So, okay, I go out to the gym in evening free time. It’s not much to look at: three discouraged benches, an incomplete set of dumbbells and weight plates, couple of rusty barbells. Medium  6″ x 3″ mirror with a sagging curtain to one side that has to be drawn at all times when the gym is not in use or people start getting tea-cuts. No treadmills, StairMaster, rowing machine or Nautilus-anything. But what it lacks in equipment it makes up in testosterone.

The floor around the amp vibrates to the beat of an angry vocalist screaming something that sounds like this:

Fuck you, you ain’t my mother

Fuck you, you ain’t my mother

Fuck you, you ain’t my mother

Motherfucker!

[repeat]

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The White Magic by Arjun Nath. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.