Everyone deserves a second chance but they don’t always get one. Bappa C was twelve when he met a charismatic German man in his neighbourhood who used heroin. Bappa admired the way he walked and talked, he enjoyed hanging out with him more than he cared for the drug they were doing. The habit – heroin, followed by brown sugar – crept up on him, and he forgot his schoolboy ambitions. He no longer cared what he was good at (elocution and hockey). Soon his friends figured out and deserted him. At 16, his German friend died, and at 22, his parents.
Before the Christmas of 1992, “a strange power intervened” and lifted him out of the pits, he says. After his last usage on December 12, at 25, he hit what he calls “rock bottom”. That was when recovery started: with the Narcotics Anonymous at the largest rehab centre in the country, Kripa, that happened to be in Calcutta. Bappa C, now a dad, talks about drugs in the 80s. By Ronny Sen.
How were you as a kid?
I was not a happy kid. I was only interested in drugs. I was obsessed with them.
What about home?
I had a normal family, I had sisters and brothers. I stopped playing with other kids. I was branded an addict from the age of 16. I ran away from home where I felt stifled, as everyone was trying to stop me from using. When I ran out of money in Calcutta, I would go to Bombay until I ran out of options there.
What did you do in Bombay?
All sorts of stuff: I was stealing and things like that. I got involved in all sorts of illegal activities to support my abuse. Life had totally gotten out of control by the age of 18. It had become a bad dream. My parents died when I was 22. I had gone to jail and rehab but I just couldn’t stop.
What drugs were you using?
I mainly did brown sugar after heroin was over. But I was also into other sorts of chemicals and pretty much everything that I could lay my hands on in the streets. The cops didn’t know what was going on. It was when crime started soaring because of the junkies that the cops started getting an idea. Not before that. It was in the 1980s that the cops knew what heroin was.
I reached rock bottom when I was about 25. I was completely isolated. I had no family, no friends. I inherited a lot of money but it was under the custody of my sister. I was on the streets. I was lonely and I would hallucinate. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was losing my sanity, like I was dying.
How is brown sugar different from other drugs?
You think brown, you are a criminal then. Frederick Forsyth said, every other thing gives you a high, brown sugar gives you euphoria. Every drug is bad but brown gives birth to real crime.
What was the drug scene in Calcutta like at that time?
It was an open market in 1980s. You could get brown sugar on the streets. The laws were not stringent and the cops were lenient. I once got busted and I was detained for a few hours. I had brown sugar in my wallet. They body-searched me. Even searched my wallet. But after a few hours they let me go, with the brown sugar intact in my wallet. They had no idea what it was.
At that point white heroin was vastly available in Calcutta; brown had just come in.
How do you differentiate between the older junkies and the junkies of this generation? In terms of the shift in the chemicals of choice and using patterns?
Twenty years ago, brown sugar was sold in Calcutta like vegetables. The drug crisis was worse. Now that the supply is thinning, naturally the crisis is lesser. For the next generation, the mere consumption will be a crime. That will happen only because the awareness is so high.
Back then you would hit rock bottom only after using for 10 years or so. Now, it takes only six months for a junkie to get to a rehab. Plus, the families are more aware of addiction, so they may detect it and intervene at an earlier stage.
The nature of addiction has changed. Now people are consuming alcohol; the heroin that’s available does more damage to the user now than it used to. It’s adulterated and more deadly.Prior to brown sugar, many people were using prescribed drugs such as pain killers this company called Carter Wallis was making for cancer patients.
What was the most dreadful day of your life?
The day my mother died. When my father died, I at least had my mother to come back home to. But when my mother died, I came back to an empty house. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t sleep. The emptiness of the house was killing me. I would keep the radio on for the entire night to fight the fear. The only thing that kept me going was Ceylon and BBC radio. I had nobody to talk to, the radio kept me company. It felt like the only other entity in the house was the faceless voice of the radio.
What was rock bottom for you?
When the Babri Masjid incident happened, the entire city of Calcutta was under curfew. I was stuck in a place on the outskirts of Calcutta. At that point in time, I was staying with a peddler . I did not do peddling but I used to just live with him in his shanty and do his household chores. I was getting sick and tired of the situation. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was desperately trying to find a way out of that life.
What did you do then? Were you looking for treatment?
I was begging for mercy. I was looking for a way out. I was getting into treatment centres’ since 1985. I have been to asylums and different kinds of facilities. I took psychiatric medicines also. But nothing helped.
What was the situation of rehabilitation centres in Calcutta at that time?
There weren’t many options: there were the Calcutta Samaritans, but they were all into religion. Then there was Kripa where I finally surrendered myself.
What was your physical and social condition?
I was in a bad state. I didn’t have a particular ailment but I was weak, my haemoglobin levels were low, I had spasms while breathing. But I recovered with the help of the guys at the rehab. Socially, I was worse: I had no one except my sister. But even with her, she was just there, but I had lost all touch with her. I stayed at the rehab for three years. I never went out. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I had nothing left in my life, no one. I accepted that I was lonely and I wanted to live and reconstruct my life. I decided never to use again. I started to work on myself. I didn’t know what my assets and liabilities were. I slowly started becoming productive, useful for others which is a great feeling. I would wake up at 5:30 and work the entire day. I enjoyed the involvement. It was a miracle for me.
Why did Kripa have so much confidence in you, that you could be a counsellor here?
I can’t explain what they saw in me. For some reason, they trusted me, they had a lot of faith in me. Before that, I didn’t know what trust meant. They saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself. Within a year, they asked me to hold sessions and help other people. It restored my belief in a higher power. I was not getting on to the belief. The belief was getting onto me.
I have seen a lot of people coming in and going out. I have seen people falling back on drugs over and over again. It made me more serious about abstaining. I saw relapse very closely. I knew I can’t budge from the path I have chosen.
What was your sister’s reaction?
She was just happy that I was alive and content with life.
So how has your life changed since?
Before, I didn’t have a life. Now I am happily married. I have a loving wife and a bright kid. They love me a lot. I have more than I could ever imagine.
How many years have you been clean?
I have been clean for 21 years and a month. I have been working in this rehab for the past 21 years.
Has it been a lonely journey for you, considering not many people are clean for that long in India?
I have a lot of support in the rehab. I have never really felt that lonely. By the time I was clean for about 8 years, there was already a few NA groups in Kolkata and I was attending all of their meetings.
What about your family? Do you share everything with your son?
My son is very busy with studies and extra-curricular activities. I have not yet told him about my past. I don’t feel the need. If he ever comes to know on his own, I hope he will handle it.
Are you afraid of that day?
I am certainly afraid. I don’t know how he will react to it. But I hope he sees it in the right light.
Does your past affect your present social relationships?
People around me don’t know that I was an addict. I have relocated. I have changed my surroundings.
What do you think about NA in Kolkata?
I think the work they are doing here is brilliant. There are meetings in every 5 Km. the support they are providing is great. I am proud to be a part of such a movement.
You are a father figure for the young recovering addicts in Kolkata.
The entire scene has changed. Even a few years back, the administration did not know much about the drug abuse scene and rehabilitation possibilities. Now they are much more aware about the scenario. They constantly approach us for help and better understanding.
The treatment angle was completely closed, but now there is treatment available. Back then hope was bleak, but now there is much more empathy and cooperation.
How has the drug scene changed in Kolkata?
The peddling scene has changed drastically. Now you can’t figure out who is peddling and where. You would need help from NGOs like us to help find them. But we get torn between our ethic and code of anonymity and the pressure from the administration.
Do you think you can become a bridge between the addicts and the law enforcement agencies?
We need more awareness programmes. Unless the society is aware and it changes for the better, things won’t change. Nowadays kids always look for quick fun so the vulnerability is more than ever. The government doesn’t have a working setup to deal with this problem. It’s also a stigma in society. The government does not have special programmes for addicts. We need such tailormade set up to deal with addicts and addiction.
You have devoted all your life to this. Do you think you would have earned more money, or have been more successful if you had things differently?
Yes money is very important. But it’s not the most important thing. I am grateful to be alive. I know I am doing something good. That gives me a lot of happiness. This institution played a very important part in the process.
When do you feel most happy?
I feel the happiest when I am in an input session and talking about recovery from addiction..
How do you feel when you see young kids who have gone out of Kripa and they are clean and they are living a normal life?
I feel the same that you feel when you sow a seed and then it finally grows into a plant and you see it blooming. It’s the most satisfying feeling.
Recently, you have managed to stop smoking as well. How did you manage that?
I had a severe health issue a few months back when my doctor told me if I wanted lesser pain I should quit smoking. I opted for the lesser pain.