Thursday, 11 December 2014

Back from the Brink

Bulbul Ahmed Chowdhury knows what it's like to lose everything.

Bulbul Master knows how it is to stand at the precipice and stare into the abyss. He’s been to that dark place where all seems lost, with little left to lose. He survived.

Thanks to the great blessings of a singular friend who forced Bulbul to pull himself back; with the truly remarkable support of Dinajpur’s rural Kalikapur community who accept Bulbul while being aware of his past, the man’s life eventually returned to take on that everyday rhythm most take for granted. In such circumstances, otherwise modest achievements really shine.

Bulbul Ahmed Chowdhury, approaching fifty years old, rents a room in a house across the laneway at the back of the government high school. He pays 500 taka per month rent with 100 taka for electricity. As he never had the chance to marry, he lives alone.

Bulbul is popular with the other families in the house. They knock on his door to say hello if he’s been inside his room for too many hours. They make sure he eats with them. 

These days, Bulbul spends his time in the classroom.
In the wider community too he has respect. Many are grateful for his help given to their children as a tutor. Bulbul’s students are reputed for impressive exam results. 

“This is my family now,” he says of neighbours and the community.

Yet it’s with difficulty he pulls on his trousers every day. Since his second stroke in 2013 that simple task requires effort.

Nobody could have predicted such a life for Bulbul Master. As a young man he seemed to have the world at his feet.

The youngest of five sisters and three brothers, it’s undeniable that Bulbul’s life suffered a major setback with the early deaths of his parents. But being a landlord’s son, when assets were divided after his father passed on while Bulbul was in Class 10 he found himself proprietor of 11 acres of land. It easily generated enough income to fund his education. He lived with an older brother.

As a student of Dinajpur Government College, Bulbul was meritorious, popular and rich. He was vice-president of the student union and passed both HSC and BA commendably. Teachers and peers expected a big future; but before college was done he’d made an error of judgement.

“A friend gave me a bottle of Phensydil,” he says, “We were eight friends. We all took it just to see how it was.” Phensydil cost 28 taka in 1988.

With the invincibility young adults inevitably feel, it must’ve seemed like no big deal. “After the first one, we slept all day,” he says.

In Kalikapur, nobody dwells on Bulbul's past.

As is to be expected, the friend circle took Phensydil again after that, now and then. They experimented with marijuana and alcohol. Some never became addicted. Bulbul wasn’t so fortunate.

“I was broken hearted,” he says, “I was really devastated by the loss of my girlfriend. After taking Phensydil I could forget all the pain. I was feeling cool and calm. It wasn’t really for fun I took it. But it became difficult to control.” 

Within six months Bulbul was consuming Phensydil once a day. If he didn’t, he couldn’t function. Once he thought he should give up but found it impossible.

By the end of 1988 Bulbul had sold the first acre of land for 25,000 taka – a low price even then. These days a quarter acre might sell for 8 lacs. 

Meanwhile his required dosage rose, reaching two bottles per day, taken four times at half a bottle per dose. He was a chain marijuana smoker and usually consumed a bottle of alcohol a day.

Inevitably his family came to know. “They were angry and told me to stop,” he says, “which made me frustrated.” They saw him sleeping all day, awake all night and incessantly listening to music.  By 1994 his family no longer knew what to do. They threw him out of the house. He hardly cared. Bulbul was furious they did not mind their own business.

After two strokes, Bulbul does his best to carry on.
Even then, with income from his inheritance Bulbul wasn’t entirely destitute. But in the following years, as he continued to sell portions of land to fund his addiction, circumstances worsened. His last plot was sold in 1999.

As a consequence of his first stroke Bulbul doesn’t remember much of those years. But he started begging. People saw him roaming Dinajpur town. People saw him on his knees in the street, touching other people’s feet. Still he did not accept he had a problem.

Of course for addicts, once they’ve lost their families, there’s very little chance of ever turning lives around. 

This time however, Bulbul was lucky. There were many people in Dinajpur who knew him. Perhaps only they could properly understand the devastating loss of potential. 

One day in 2006 a cultural activist and senior student from his college days, Sultan Kamal Uddin Bachhu, passed him in the street, potentially as he’d done many times before. But on that day he decided to stop, and take on the work of an angel.

Bachhu picked him off the street and sent him to rehabilitation. Bulbul was so unaware by then he could hardly object. Much of the treatment money came from Bachhu’s own pocket but he also raised funds from former classmates and well-wishers. 

“At rehab there were many addicts who were not like me. They were used to stealing and snatching. It was difficult to spend time with them. I really felt alone,” Bulbul recalls.

There were many restrictions. Each day was regimented with prayer, class and rest. It was painful even to kneel during prayer when withdrawal symptoms took over. “If you did something wrong the punishment was severe.”

Yet slowly there was progress. “After three months,” Bulbul says, “my brain started functioning. It was the first time I realised what I’d become. Finally I knew I had a big problem.”

Only after six months did Bulbul feel his addiction gone. He was cleared to leave but Bachhu insisted he stay a further three months. 

It’s very difficult to break addiction. Even with the best care few succeed. Nine months after rehabilitation Bulbul had a relapse. Fortunately Bachhu understood it on the first day Bulbul returned to drugs. He was furious – and this time, unlike with his family’s anger years before, Bulbul was receptive. “I never took drugs again,” he says.

An important part of recovery was that after his relapse, Bachhu sent Bulbul to live in a multi-faith ashram in Belbari village, away from former friends and influences. The ashram asked no questions – simply he stayed there. 

For the next three months Bacchu sent pocket money for food. It was then that Bulbul, at last, was able to start contemplating a future.

Being the son of a well-off family he felt options for basic work were closed. He didn’t feel he could run a small shop for example; besides, there was no seed money. 

By the end of 2007 he’d decided to try tuition. He went door to door. A few families agreed. “I built good relations,” he says, “They’d ask me to stay for dinner. They never asked about my addiction.”
When his students started performing well demand increased. “The community really started to look after me,” he says.

By 2010 it was no longer practical to conduct classes in private homes. He approached the high school principal for permission to use classrooms after hours. The principal agreed.

These days Bulbul has 120 students and employs a junior tutor. For the future, he hopes to build a fully-fledged coaching centre. In particular he wants to provide classes to the disadvantaged – he already teaches one class from the impoverished Harijan sweeper community without charge.

A popular tutor, Bulbul's students have a reputation for excelling.

In sharing his battle with addiction Bulbul hopes to encourage young people to have the strength of mind to avoid drugs. “If friends are taking drugs,” he says, “they need new friends. Drugs destroy families.”

To parents he says, “Try to understand your children always. Maybe they’re suffering from a romantic break-up like I was. Maybe they have some other tension that makes them especially vulnerable – and if your children are taking drugs please send them for treatment early. Never be ashamed to get help. Anger won’t work. Locking them up at home won’t work.”

Sometimes Bulbul visits Dinajpur town. His friends beyond his drug-taking circle meet him; and occasionally he sees the others with whom who tried Phensydil on the street. “I avoid them,” he says, “Some are still addicted.”

This article published in The Star Magazine, here: Back from the Brink

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