"This is a chili farm and I am procuring locally sourced fresh vegetables for our trial runs. It's a field day for me as I am currently establishing relationships with local farmers. We will impart technical know how and training to them for growing chemical free vegetables. Plus, you know what's rather cool? I am wearing a Wrangler jeans made out of recycled plastic!"
"I started cycling because I did not want to travel in public transport. After two months of cycling in a rented cycle, I started loving cycling because of the places it took me to. So I bought a new racing cycle. Now I cruise around the city and outskirts in the woods in fresh air instead of sitting in a closed tram and looking outside the window.''
Dr. Yusuf Merchant has been called a dynamo, a messiha, a miracle-worker and several other lofty names by his patients; though he is most popularly known as ‘Doc.’ He runs arguably the most successful rehabilitation centre of Asia called Land near Kalyan, Maharashtra where he treats patients of depression, anxiety and drug addiction. Doc’s rehab programme has a whopping 85% success rate. His NGO, named DAIRRC, serves as a highly specialised adviser to the United Nation's Economic and Social Council for discussion of issues of substance abuse and HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and research. Recently, he authored a book on happiness succinctly titled ‘Happyness: Life Lessons from a Creative Addict’ in which he shares his learnings and the story of his life right from his days living in the street to being a torchbearer for thousands of mental health patients. But the scenario about addicts and addictions wasn’t so forthcoming when Doc was studying medicine at college. We had a quick conversation with him to find out how he redid the treatment of addicts like animals and criminals into their rehabilitation as the sensitive people they are.
Q1- Tell us about yourself and your work.
I am a simple human being who struggled to be happy for a long time and now, I have finally cracked the code. And I am really happy! I have been living with drug addicts, depression and anxiety patients for the last 35 years, basically I have been sharing my life with them. For the first 15 years they lived in my home. When Bliss, my daughter, was born, we moved our organisation out. The rehab center has moved to a place near Kalyan, Maharashtra. We run a drug prevention programme. I am also a part of the United Nation’s Emotional Security Council. So, a lot of good stuff is happening. And I believe the universe returns energy to its point of origin. So just by doing good, we can make sure that good things happen to us.
Q2- You recently published a book called ‘Happyness.’ How is Happyness different from other self-help books and who should be reading it?
I will first tell you how the concept of Happyness came about. While working, we chalked out some fundas that were working quite well for the addicts and patients. Then as the therapy for each one progressed, their parents became a part of the process. The same fundas worked for the parents. Then, one day I had this beautiful realisation that I am going to die some day! Then I was mulling over how much good work there is to be done and how little time there is to get it done. The consequential thought was that if maybe these fundas can form into a book, then I could reach out to people beyond my immediate community. This book is for anyone who wants to understand the life of being happy.
Q3- Land has been called an oasis, a place of love. And, it has about 85% success rate. Do people admit themselves voluntarily to Land or is it usually a friend or family member? What is it about Land or your philosophy in general, which sets it apart from other approaches to treating addiction?
Usually, it is a friend or a family member of a patient who has already done the therapy with us. It’s all word of mouth. I have never made any kinds of effort to market Land. Yet, at any given point of time, we have a waiting period of 3 to 6 months. There are too many patients and very few places which can assist them in their healing. The whole process takes about a year and I just admit 20-30 people in the programme at once. I don’t believe it is a scalable model. For me they are my family and I can’t have too many of them! I have one very big family.
Land sees drugs, anxiety or depression as a solution. So all we have to do to remove these things from a person’s life is to provide an alternate solution. The alternative we try to develop is a coping mechanism of one's own so that they are not dependent on another human being. I keep telling my patient that I am the least important person in the room. We are only processing data that we receive. So it is the student who decides what is the teaching and not the teacher because the student works it out according to their reality and how they see the world. My role in this is to make them believe that they can achieve it.
Usually, when a person goes to a rehab centre their treatment is completed in 28 days. We take a whole year because first the patient has to unlearn so much. The definition of addiction is the opposite of connection for me. Once they are comfortable with this definition, we encourage them to form connections with the world around them, specifically their family members. Perhaps, these are a few factors that set us apart.
Q4- You were studying medicine at a regular college, you could have chosen to study anything. Why did you choose to dedicate your life to patients of drug abuse, depression and anxiety?
That’s a long story. Firstly, I never wanted to be a doctor. I just did not want to join my dad’s business. So to get away from that, I got into a medical college. One day, I got into an argument with my dad and he suggested that I should pay my own college fees. I left my home. It was a long journey from that point to where I am today. I became a doctor. To survive, I started providing tuition classes. By the time I completed the course, one of my tuition students had turned into an addict. His parents brought him to me. At that point, I did not know how to help a person in such circumstances. I took him to the psychiatry ward and after 7 days, he was sent back home. The mother of the student thanked me with tears in her eyes for helping him out. No one had ever thanked me before that moment. I wondered if the only people who could ever understand me were addicts! That felt good and I decided that I wanted to continue it for the rest of my life.
Q5- You have had a pretty rough childhood, often you have stated that you did not have a childhood at all. A lot of people blame their early years and their parents all of their lives if something is wrong with their behaviour. Do you have anything to say to people who have this belief that they are a victim to their parents’ wrong decisions? Since you have built up a happy life not just for yourself even though you had to spend a considerable amount of time on the streets, tell us how does one not stay bitter about the hand life deals us?
I thank my early years. I thank god for my non-childhood and for my dysfunctional family. If I had a family earlier, then probably these people would not have been my family. Before my dad threw me out of his house, I was just wasting his money. If I wasn’t on the streets, I would not have been sensitised to suffering, pain and the goodness of human beings. Over the years, I developed a belief that suffering is necessary till the time you realise it is unnecessary. To anyone who is harbouring grudges against their past, I would like to remind them that anything that happens in life has both negative and positive implications. You just have to choose to see the positive side.
Q6- How has the treatment of drug abuse patients transformed since you started working on it?
In India, not much evolution has happened. I will tell you my evolution. When I began, I used to do only detox and the patients would end up circling back to me. But ever since I have started rehab, things are different. 35 years ago, mental health treatment was a complete mess but now it is much better. The awareness on mental health issues is much higher than when I began. Though, there is still an immense room for improvement.
Q7- How do you enjoy spending your time apart from being at Land?
I enjoy every moment of my life. I just enjoy whatever I do. For me my work is fun; it is a luxury. Everyone does a few things for fun, for me that is my work.
Q8- These days the world is getting a bit more open about mental illness and there’s more talk around these issues. Is there something we could be doing better as a society to create a more inclusive space?
Accepting that addiction is normal is the first step to build a more inclusive society. Addicts are not mad or bad people, they are sick people. Would you freak out and ostracise a person with typhoid? No, right? Addiction is just another type of illness. Most of the addicts I have met are better human beings than the average person as they are very sensitive. But because of the same reason, they are also very sensation seeking. So, to stop that self-consumption, it needs to be replaced with something much more positive.
Q9- What are some actions that we as individuals could take to help anyone dealing with depression around us or just be more sensitive in general?
One should be more empathetic and not give any sympathy at all. Sympathy can create a pattern where a person gets more depressed to seek more sympathy. One should just try to get a depressed person to be more physically active. People have a lot of suggestions to impart but what they do not realise is that a depressed person lacks the energy to follow any of those suggestions. Suggesting someone to go for a walk to feel better is an easy thing to do. But it’s always more effective to ask the person to come along on a walk with you. A great place to start is to do little activities together. Also, listen. Anyone with depression also has to deal with social anxiety. The best thing you can do is to encourage them to share, as depression is repressed anger which requires an outlet. Be a friend and try to give them a non-judgemental space to share.
Q10- You write about happiness, people ask you for tips about it, what is something which is your infinite source of joy?
Bliss! (His daughter.)
"I work as a stylist in Mumbai. I managed to come home to Bhopal in the nick of time before lockdown. I have been creating new looks every single day. People think I must be a big time shopper or hoarder. But the truth is quite the opposite. For example, this outfit I am wearing today is 20+ years old. A lot of my clothes are thrifted and I am proud of that. I learnt most of the things about styling from my mother and sister. They are the real OGs!"
It’s ironic that someone who grew up in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, is now an award-winning architect designing sustainable buildings made of the earth. If you sit down with her, you will find part poet and part entrepreneur. She describes buildings and cities as “not ends in themselves, they are parts in the larger cyclical loops of nature and should be planned as such.” Currently, she runs The Auroma Group in Pondicherry, India. Read on to find out what led Trupti to get off the conveyor belt and become a quintessential Redoer.
Q1. What does a day in your life look like?
My home and architecture design studio are in the same campus in Pondicherry - Auroville - designed by me - both surrounded by large fragrant flowering gardens, where I have nurtured an organic kitchen farm. This supplies fresh herbs and vegetables for my kitchen. My days begin earlier than sunrise as I love being in my garden early morning and welcoming the sun. I generally complete site reviews and all meetings pre-lunch. I love home-cooked fresh food for most meals! Afternoons are for deep diving into design ideas and new projects. Evenings are reserved for badminton followed by family time. A book is a must before going to bed.
Q2. What is sustainable architecture?
Sustainability is closing the loops. For example, when fruit and vegetable peels or leftover food gets composted and goes back to the soil as manure and we receive fresh fruits and vegetables from the same soil--this is closing the loop--a cyclical process.
Q3. Who or what played a major role in sensitising you towards sustainability in architecture?
I was 20 years old, sitting in a Humanities class in my Architecture school in Mumbai when I was introduced to the catastrophic levels of ecological devastation that happens in our country in the name of economic growth. I was shattered. The only place I could find to hide my tears was the college washroom. I slammed the toilet seat down and sat on it crying. Was I too going to chop the forests, mine the mountains and poison the rivers? On that day, I decided that I don’t want to be on the conveyor belt. I want to be a changemaker.
Q4. Tell us about Auroma.
I co-founded The Auroma Group with my family in 2014. My father is a product designer trained in New York. My mother is an interior designer. My brother is a furniture designer and building technologist. My sister-in-law is a graphic and web designer. I am an architect and integrated sustainability engineer. The Auroma Group is a multidisciplinary design group active in end-to-end design and construction, specialising in Sustainable Development.
Q5. Did your early work projects have a deep impact on your mindscape or career?
In response to the turning point, I experienced as a 20-year-old in architecture school, my first project out of college as Project Architect was Sharanam Rural Development Centre in Tamil Nadu. I headed all aspects of design ranging from master planning, architectural design, Earth technology, water and waste management, energy efficiency, use of renewables, landscaping, furniture and detail design. I carried out the entire construction by training local unskilled villagers. I personally trained more than 450 people from the surrounding villages and made them highly skilled technicians, bricklayers, masons, etc. specialising in various traditional crafts and skills. This project provided a fantastic foundation, a great in-depth knowledge of various components and processes as well as a discovery of my unique leadership style.
Q6. Which projects from the past make you feel proud and purposeful?
I have not followed the beaten track. Every project I have undertaken has been out of the ordinary, unique and special. I pour myself completely in all I do and explore the learnings each project brings.
Q7. What exciting things are you up to these days?
I am currently immersed in 6 super exciting projects. Some are on the drawing board and some on the building site. One of them is a Free Progress school project. It is an alternative education institute inspired by a method based hands-on learning from kindergarten to XII standard. It is set on a farm with no classrooms! Another one is an enterprise incubation centre situated in rural north India. The third one is a residential project with ‘smart homes.’ I am also working on a meditation hall and 2 eco-friendly homes which are nearing completion of construction.
Q8. Sustainability in modern architecture is rarely heard of vis-a-vis sustainability in fashion. Individual small fashion businesses with a specialization in sustainability are extremely vociferous about what they do, so are the handful of nonprofit organisations creating awareness campaigns across the world. What do you have to say about the future of sustainable architecture becoming mainstream or commonplace? Where do you see it headed?
Now, this is technical! Sustainability in architecture covers several aspects with an aim to optimise the embodied energy (energy required to make a building) and operational energy (energy required to run the building). Very few people would know this but the energy required in creating buildings is only a fraction of the energy that is required in running buildings throughout its life-cycle. Clients may not consider this because they do not know that the money required to maintain badly designed buildings will far outweigh the cost of the building.
There are three main aspects of sustainable architecture. The first one is the use of appropriate materials and building technologies. Second is the resource efficiency in planning water, waste and energy. Lastly, we have proactive response to climate. It is important to use it as an aid to create unique and culturally relevant buildings rather than treating the climate as something to be kept out by locking ourselves in water-tight air conditioned rooms. Architecture is an extension of our clothes. The way we cannot wear the same clothes in Mumbai, Jaipur and Shimla, we cannot have the same buildings in different climatic zones. This is extremely crucial for a country like India where energy demands will be increasing almost 8 to 10 times in the coming 20 years. This is where we should be headed and it would be a welcome change to see more sustainable buildings around us.
Q9. Describe your dream city.
That is up on my drawing board! And would require an entire book to describe!
Q10. Most of our readers are conscious consumers and decision makers. Do you have something more to say to them? How can we help in creating more sustainable spaces around us?
I believe that spaces are living entities with stories, just like us. Buildings are meant to complement their environment, not compete with it. Architecture need not be a 'product' to be consumed as a measure of standard of living (what you own). It can be a source of delight and inspiration that enriches the quality of life (who you are). My quest through architecture and sustainability is to enable us to respect the earth and live in harmony with ourselves and each other.