Bhuvesh Kumar*, Ashish Bajaj, Ashutush Dutta and Pralay Sen could have been any four college friends, brought together by an interest in literature, chemistry and philosophy. Some of them had tried alcohol and cigarettes, but none of them had used any harder substances before joining the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur, the same year a student dealer there was caught in possession of heroin worth Rs 5 lakh. But within months, all four were regular users of a range of narcotics.
Kumar, who now runs a logistics company in Jaipur, told me that in college, “drugs were just one of the things we bonded over.” The scene was mostly the same—18-year-olds huddled together in a hostel room, playing Velvet Underground or the Grateful Dead. The only variable was the substance they injected, snorted, or smoked.
“It is necessary for any scientific mind to know what drugs are capable of.”
With awareness growing about drug abuse on college campuses, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued a new set of regulations in 2016. Since then, while some colleges have put measures in place to counsel addicted students, and others cracked down on dealers on campus, there have also been plenty of theories about why students turn to substances in the first place, from the stress of entrance exams to the “pressure of studies”. In one story, the Hindustan Times reported motivations as varying as the belief that drugs “enhance” academic performance to “a game of truth or dare” that led to a habit.
For the four friends at Kharagpur, however, drug use started with the spirit of scientific inquiry. They made a pact to try a new drug every semester, starting with reading up (mostly on the internet) about the effects of different substances, and then moving on to their own empirical “research”.
“Diluter and whitener were also part and parcel of a usual day, which I am most embarrassed about.”
“It is necessary for any scientific mind to know what drugs are capable of,” Bajaj told me in a phone interview. According to his friends, Bajaj was the thinker of the crew, and later went on to pursue philosophy. “Nobel laureate Kary Mullis, and Albert Hoffman—the inventor of LSD—have done plenty of drugs too,” Bajaj said. His other models included Sigmund Freud, a “proponent for cocaine”, Charles Dickens (opium) and Vincent Van Gogh (digitalis).
The four friends started using weed in the first year. Kumar told me that early on, “diluter and whitener were also part and parcel of a usual day, which I am most embarrassed about.”
“The one drug every semester was a loose pact,” Kumar said—it was soon abandoned in favour of a more “practical” approach. “Cocaine was helpful in staying awake, MDMA in creating emotional bonds,” said Kumar. As they progressed from marijuana to cocaine, LSD, dextromethorphan, DMT, and MDMA, the friends developed contacts with various peddlers. The easiest place to procure drugs was Kharagpur Station, not far from college. But soon they had people couriering stuff from all over the country, and even beyond. “To buy very good stuff we went to darknet,” Bajaj said.
According to Sen, who is now an IT consultant, “A typical day in college was a day when we did not go to college. We tripped the entire day.” All four friends said this didn’t affect studies too much until they got into heroin. Until heroin, they had managed to stop using the drugs they were trying within four to six months, as well as live fairly functional lives.
“Other students would sell things like mobile phones or PlayStations to fund their habits.”
Heroin, Dutta believed, “was an intelligent people’s drug. After I tried it, I could relate to the author of Junky, William S Boroughs; what Buddha said about nirvana; and the phrase ‘Chasing the Dragon’.”
Kumar told me heroin made him feel “as if you were never sad. There was never a worry in your life. You were born to do heroin. It is life. It is 42.” He told me they used heroin for six months before trying to stop. The withdrawal was horrific, much worse than they had imagined. He told me he still worried that he might return to the drug, even more than a decade later. “We were not interested in becoming street-side addicts,” Kumar said. “We were interested in experimentation.”
“When you are into it, it is difficult to seek help, even from friends.”
Sen looked at the withdrawal as an experience in its own right. It would have been better, he said, to follow Burroughs’ suggestion to take the drug for three months and then take a break or stop. “It was hell of a ride during the withdrawal periods,” he said, “I took that as another trip.”
They didn’t have the money to sustain heroin usage, although “other students would sell things like mobile phones or PlayStations to fund their habits,” said Kumar. But all of them doubted their own ability to come out of the addiction. Though they stuck by each other, Kumar said, “when you are into it, it is difficult to seek help, even from friends.” He and the others tended to turn to Bajaj, because he “had organizational skills and quoted philosophers at the right moments when someone needed counseling. He would guide people if they were getting overwhelmed with drugs,” said Kumar.
Bajaj told me he felt people should be responsible for themselves first, before doing any drug. Other students at IIT were sent to rehab during the time the four friends were experimenting—a cautionary tale. Now in their late 20s, the four friends work in different parts of the country and rarely meet. Even if they miss college life, they say the one conclusion they drew from their research, is that the line between experimentation and abuse is dangerously thin.
*Sources are pseudonymous.