Transcending pasts

Transcending pasts

We sat with Arun, who runs Arunodaya (a rehabilitation center) to discuss his work and past. 

We were greeted by the bright smile of the banana seller outside Arun’s flat and then his fierce black Persian cat’s suspicious banana-coloured eyes. She hesitantly moved back to make space for us to enter and then nuzzled next to Arun, who adorned himself in a crisp yellow kurta. We sat with him for hours as he removed stories from the pitarah of his past. 

Arun at his NGO and home. Bagira (his cat) in the back, eyes closed, blending in with the surroundings.Arun at his NGO and home. Bagira (his cat) in the back, eyes closed, blending in with the surroundings.

Arun runs an NGO for drug addicts. He also started a rehab center which had to be shut down due to some politics. Being an ex-addict himself (now 10 years clean), he is certain that he can do better work with them than any psychiatrist - and his work speaks for him. ‘These doctors spend their time with their noses buried in books. In my rehab, I had people who had committed murders and rapes. Which book teaches you how to handle that?’ he questions. He considers the world his university, using his technicoloured past to guide those in need. Psychiatrists from Sion Hospital train under him to provide psychotherapy to addicts. ‘They spent 60-70 lakhs on their education, I spent 1 cr putting cocaine up my nose to know what I know today,’ he says to prove his credibility. 

The NGO, Arunodaya, from outside. The banana seller downstairs. The NGO, Arunodaya, from outside. The banana seller downstairs. 

He had the enthusiasm of a seasoned storyteller, knowing just when to pause, giving his audience cues to react. He spoke to us freely, not with shame of his illness but with pride for his strength to keep going. ‘Only 2 out of 100 addicts go on to live this life. Usually, they just fall back into old patterns after getting out of rehab. I was scared of the outside world too, but my family stood by me like a rock,’ he says. 

His substance use began at 12, with cigarettes and then alcohol. He got deeply involved in this life during his adolescence, organising dance parties. Glamorous and fast, they gave him access to “high-society” circles he would have generally been excluded from. He was floating in this lustrous river, far away from the roots that nourished him. He would attend rave parties in Karjat, go for benders in Goa and Manali that would last for months, neglecting his wife and kids. Eventually, his swim began smelling foul. He didn’t care for it as long as the extravaganza continued. There were smelly waters, radiant sites. Chemicals tickling and then burning. Beauty. Followed by absolute squalor. Until the pungence took over and completely destroyed the site of the spectacle. 

The glamour wore off. He would wander alone, aimless, all day; looking for spots to use his mephedrone (MD powder, as he called it). ‘I was a psycho… my family had completely given up on me at this point, I was already dead to them.’ One night, he was at the end of the rope. Deep into his mephedrone spiral, he told his family that it was over, that he would jump in front of the first train that entered the platforms the next morning. Manically scheduling death and manically snorting more MD powder, he gave himself over to the delirium as he waited for this frenzy to pass. ‘My father couldn’t bear to look at me. He decided to take one last chance. Before I knew it, I was on my way to a rehabilitation centre…I was locked in for 9 months… Didn’t see anyone from my family…’ A lull in the air as we all processed the information. ‘That’s all in the past, though it often crosses my mind. I definitely miss the highs but they made me a monster,’ he chuckles nervously to break the tension, looking into the distance as a montage of his bad moments takes over his vision.

It may seem like it was an overnight transformation but Arun is constantly at battle with himself, even today. ‘I barely believe in God… I’ve come too close to death too many times to have faith anymore.’ The groundwork he is involved with also brings him close to death, rescuing addicts from the streets, clearing up dead bodies after natural disasters and such. He seemed like he is chasing the extremes of his past in different ways, ‘Once an addict always an addict…’ he said. He sees helping people as a part of his own recovery process. 

‘One addict spoils 20 other lives at least… so when I’m helping one, I’m actually helping 20 people,’ he says, ‘the other people he will influence, his friends and family that his addiction will harm.’ He also thinks the biggest problem plaguing Dharavi’s progress is drugs. ‘The redevelopment will not solve any of the crime or drug-related problems. They have only survived until now because some of the policemen are corrupt and involved in all the schemes with the peddlers. Until that doesn’t change, nothing will matter. People here will not progress.’ His own friends have gotten in the way of his personal progress, not enjoying the look of his success, wanting him to come back to their world.

He still enjoys dancing and going to clubs. ‘I’m addicted to music… I still go out to clubs, only drink Redbull though.’  He talks about his kids with pride, all of them involved in his work and none of them doing any drugs. He’s still unsatisfied with where he comes from, only staying in Dharavi because it’s the place of his work. The only difference is that instead of looking for escapes, he is now looking for solutions. Arun’s willingness to accept his past and wrongdoings is what catalysed his change. His resilience was inspiring to witness. His ferocity shining through his cat’s demeanour. 

Arun's awards (up), his son's awards (down). They're competing with each other. Arun's awards (up), his son's awards (down). They're competing with each other.