“It melted my soul.”
Murad, 24, was describing the first time he smoked charas – a concentrate made from the resin of a live cannabis plant. He was just 12 at the time.
Murad’s real name has been changed to protect him from legal repercussions.
That first encounter with charas happened on a day Murad would never forget, and not because of his introduction to charas. It was the day he’d won a local football competition for the first time as team captain. “I kicked the ball straight out of the park,” he recalled, with a perceptible smile in his voice. “Quite literally.”
Murad’s love for all things football was for him the only “cocoon of safety” in one of the most brutally contested, militarised regions in the world – the Muslim-majority union territory of Jammu and Kashmir in north India. Murad lives in Anantnag in Indian-administered Kashmir, located at a distance of 53 kilometres from the capital city of Srinagar.
According to various reports, drug usage has skyrocketed in Kashmir in the last three years, with some estimates suggesting the rise to be almost 1,500 percent. Children as young as 10 have been checked into Kashmir’s drug deaddiction centres. Indian authorities have attributed the sudden spike to “narco-terrorism” allegedly orchestrated by Pakistan which shares a border of 1,222 kilometres with Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the realities on the ground are more nuanced. The confluence of unemployment, depression, people’s anxiety about their lives, and increasing suicides, contribute to pushing more Kashmiri youth into drugs.
Just two years back, the Indian government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted Kashmir a host of special privileges relating to its identity and culture. Ever since, Kashmiris have stared at an uncertain future. The union territory had the second-worst unemployment rate in the country and cases of mental health disorders exponentially increased due to the twin effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the military crackdown by the Indian government to quell protests or uprisings in response to the Article 370 abrogation.
Murad’s story is perhaps telling of just how deep the faultlines run between a state under collective fear, wasted youth, and even loneliness on an individual level.
“I wanted to gift myself the football gear of my dreams that day when I won my first match,” Murad told VICE. “My parents agreed, and I ordered a pair of shoes and a shiny new football, but I had no idea that I was never going to use it. Later that night, outside the school playground, I saw some of my friends smoking charas. I don’t know whether it was the thrill of winning or something else altogether, but I gave in.”
The precise moment when it hit him that he was in it for the long haul was not when he started skipping school soon after, but when he’d started scoring charas with the money meant for his school fees.
“It’s never enough,” he said. “I could see that the charas was not cutting it. I would wake up in the middle of the night hallucinating. The effects of charas mixed with my latent anxiety disorders, and every night, I would see almost a hundred little demons circling my bed and gnawing at my feet.”
While the unused football gear lay in the corner of his house, he would fight these imaginary demons with sweaty palms and bloodshot eyes, alone in his room, waging a battle where he was both on the attacking side and on the defensive.
“The anxiety was suffocating, to say the least. And because of the added effect of charas, it was not the kind of anxiety that impales you to the bed for good, because I wish it was that,” he explained. “It made me want to get into fights with random people on the streets and push my parents away. Even a line of ants would massively trigger me for no reason. I was effectively locked out of all my safe spaces – from parents to football itself.”
He then sought recourse in the spiralling world of anti-anxiety drugs. Without any medical supervision whatsoever, he started using alprazolam (a tranquiliser used to manage anxiety, sold in some countries under the brand name Xanax) and then opiates like codeine, whose abuse is also rampant among street children in India. Within the first three years of the drug abuse cycle, Murad, then 15, had dropped out of high school.
Murad and his friends instead spent days, even weeks, in an abandoned, soot-filled crematorium in Anantnag, also home to a wild pack of rabid dogs and creeping weeds.
“It destroyed my parents,” he said. “Whenever I would hear of a death in my family or even my neighbourhood, my response would be ignorant or needlessly nihilistic. And then when I got hooked on heroin, I started hallucinating and was convinced that everyone around me is from the army, carrying a gun, out to murder me.”
One day, cops arrested Murad and his friends based on a tip-off from someone living nearby. One of his friends resisted arrest but was dragged from his house to the police van on the streets of Anantnag in broad daylight. But it’s not the horrors of being locked up for the first time in his life that disturbs Murad even now; it’s the memory of that friend experiencing the most agonising withdrawals while in prison due to his severe dependence on opium.
“He’d clutch his hair and pull it out,” Murad recalled. “He would keep screaming for hours, begging for one small hit of opium. Ultimately, the cops ended up giving him alprazolam. They had never seen something like this either.”
The opium crisis in Kashmir has haunted the state for decades now. Only recently, opium poppy fields were discovered barely a stone’s throw from a school, stoking fears of teenagers getting lured towards drugs. Locals in Kashmir have historically cultivated poppy to extract the seed, which is used in a host of bakery products. But with opiate drugs having a high demand in the nearby states of Punjab and Rajasthan along with Kashmir itself, several farmers sell their entire opium crop to middlemen, who use parts of it to make a powdery drug.
“There is always that one visceral jolt every addict needs. For me, it was the opium addict’s screams echoing throughout the police station at three in the morning,” Murad said.
Those screams stayed with Murad as he tried for almost a decade to wean himself off drugs. When the same friend passed away, he finally checked himself into rehab.
Last year, he went to a deaddiction centre in the capital city of Srinagar, which turned out to be the safe space he had sought for so long.
“I was there for six months. Because it was government-run, like all the deaddiction centres in Kashmir, everything was free. They took care of me holistically. I’ll always be grateful to them for that,” he said. “There was a swimming pool and gym on one floor, and a space for painting on the other. The counselling sessions were mandatory and completely free of judgement and prejudice, just the way they should be.”
Murad has been off drugs for a year now, and runs a grocery shop minutes from his home in Anantnag. He can finally sustain himself.
“My father owned a small agriculture manure shop back in the day. Once I sobered up, I took over the space and converted it into a grocery shop,” he said.
Murad knows there’s still a lot of challenges ahead of him, especially as he battles stigma in society.
“There are muted whispers wherever I go, and if someone visits my shop, there are talks of how they came by a junkie’s shop,” he said. “I can see the hate and disappointment in their eyes. The world simply is too good at pulling you down, even when you’ve already been down and beaten.”
But he also knows the progress he’s made could only help propel him forward.
“I can’t let all that get to me. I always keep the football gear I purchased in seventh grade around me as a constant reminder of how far I’ve come. Perhaps, someday, I will kick a ball and win a game again.”
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