The arrest and judicial custody of Aryan Khan, the son of superstar Shah Rukh Khan, even as it unfolds in its many dimensions and complexities, is a sad and sordid saga.
As we all know, recreational drug consumption is rampant in many parts of the world, especially among the affluent sections of society. The fact that most of these drugs are banned or illegal does not prevent their widespread use.
Among the rich and famous in multiple Indian cities, it is hardly a secret that drug abuse is frequent. In many parties, banned substances are freely available and circulated.
When people take a rest or leave the dance floor only to return with a sudden spurt of extra energy, a euphoric expression on their faces, an especially dazzling smile, or enhanced shine in their eyes, one can easily guess that they’ve just helped themselves to something extra.
Taking drugs, in other words, is not at all unusual or especially frowned upon. What is not socially acceptable, however, is making a scene or mess of oneself. Addiction, of course, is the dirty, dark secret which most well-off families will give an arm and a leg to keep under wraps. But these things can never be totally hidden. People talk; the word gets around eventually. Shame, sorrow, and trauma follow.
Speaking of addiction, it is a serious problem in India, especially in border states like Punjab and Manipur. Unlike recreational drugs, it also destroys the lives of the poor, underprivileged, and most vulnerable sections of society. No one, whether rich, middle class, or poor is exempt from it.
And the consequences are devastating for all. The luckier ones are able to get help and go into rehab. Chances of recovery are good if the addict has the will power in addition to a good support system. But full recovery and rehabilitation, not to mention gainful employment or restoration of social status, are much harder to reclaim.
Crux of the problem
This brings us to the crux of the problem. The word “drug” encompasses a wide variety of different meanings and connotations. On the one hand, it refers to medicines which can save lives. On the other hand, it may denote narcotic, psychotropic, intoxicating, and other highly harmful substances.
Even among the latter, cannabis, which is milder and less addictive, is already legal in some places. But at the other end of the spectrum are dangerous and dependence-inducing “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Yet the truth is that drugs in some form or other, especially products of the poppy such as opium, have been in use from the dawn of civilisation. Not only as painkillers but as mood-enhancers.
It would seem that humankind has always needed some drug or the other to make reality palatable, to lessen the essential suffering of existence itself. As T S Eliot famously said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Is it any surprise, then, that alcohol, which is legal in most parts of the world, is the worst and most harmful drug on the planet? Unless you consider tobacco also an addictive drug, whose abuse is even more widespread.
The economic damage and workplace losses caused by alcohol abuse are colossal, running into billions of dollars. In addition, the personal tragedies resulting from alcoholism, including broken families and abusive relationships, is inestimable. No wonder some religious traditions totally prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
Alcohol and smoking deaths
Yet, alcohol is not only legal, but available in many parts of the world. Its consumption is shown in movies, TV shows, and on OTT platforms. In fact, alcohol-related content, studies show, is so extensive on these media that some believe that the entire entertainment industry would collapse without it.
Others argue that alcohol is the key social lubricant without which interaction with fellow humans would become practically unbearable.
According to WHO and other sources, if deaths related to alcohol and smoking are added up, we reach a staggering figure of over 5 million for 2021 so far, more than those killed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping these facts in mind, let us return to the question of Aryan’s arrest. Celebrities, especially Bollywood stars, are especially vulnerable given their high-pressure lifestyles and constant public attention. Have we forgotten the suicide of Sushant Singh Rathore, which is also allegedly drug-related?
As the son of a superstar, Aryan might already shoulder a huge expectation complex. To be shamed and degraded in this scandal will only add to his troubles.
That is why the public post of another Bollywood hero Hrithik Roshan is so commendable: “Life is a strange ride … it throws you curve balls, but God is kind. He gives only the toughest ones the toughest balls to play. … The anger, the confusion, the helplessness. … those same ingredients could burn away the good stuff ... the kindness, the compassion, the love. Allow yourself to burn, but just enough.”
Reminiscent of “Hey Jude"
As an experienced elder, Roshan exhorts the younger Aryan to “Keep calm. Observe. These moments are the makers of your Tom[orrow]. And Tom[orrow] is going to have a brilliant sun shining. But for it, you must go thru the dark. … And trusting the light. Within. It’s always there. Love you man.”
Hrithik’s letter is reminiscent of “Hey Jude,” the song Paul McCartney wrote to comfort Julian, when the latter’s dad, fellow-Beatle, John Lennon, left Julian’s mother for Yoko one. To my mind, Hrithik’s gesture to reach out publicly to Aryan shows the Mumbai film industry at its best.
In troubled times, they not only help out the nation, but also one another. Even someone perceived to be in the opposite camp, Kangna Ranaut, posted “We make mistakes but we mustn’t glorify them ... I trust this will give him perspective and also make him realise consequences of his actions ... Hopefully it can evolve him and make him better and bigger.”
What is the lesson from all this? First of all, that drugs constitute a complex issue with multiple dimensions. Also, that it is most unfortunate that Aryan, as a young man with a bright future, is going through this harrowing episode.
Although such questions may come to mind, it is not for us to speculate whether he is really as guilty as alleged, whether the laws are too harsh, or whether government agencies are going overboard in targeting celebrities.
Counterarguments, such as some sadhus or Indian holy men also “smoke up” in cities such as Varanasi but are never arrested, are also somewhat beside the point.
The lesson that people like us should draw and firmly convey to our kids is far more simpler and direct: Say no to drugs. Period.