“Whatever you thought, think again.” That was the gripping phrase I remember seeing on the cover of National Geographic a few years ago. That particular issue was dedicated to Africa, but it could apply to any location where the truth about how life really is lived, is obscured by a disturbing mix of conception, misconception, stereotype, and hubris.
AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India might as well have been subtitled, “Whatever You Thought, Think Again,” because this disturbing and brilliant collection of prose takes everything you thought you knew about India, grinds it all up into a bitter masala, adds it to water and makes you gag while drinking it all down. That mango juice or rose water, you had been fed by tales of outsourcing, Deepak Chopra, and Bollywood, isn’t so sweet anymore, is it?
This is an eye-opener of an anthology. A production of Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Gates Foundation, it presents the real India to us—the subcontinental juggernaut of over a billion people and numerous languages, dialects, ethnicities, sexualities, and religions. But, it’s also one of the sites of the highest HIV infection rates in the world—approximately 2.5 million people infected with the virus that causes the disease and an untold number with actual, full-blown AIDS. This is perhaps the most telling statistic in this book because as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen writes in the foreword, the fact that we don’t even know the actual number of HIV-cases in India, speaks to its government’s refusal to admit that AIDS is an epidemic there.
And like the diverse nation through which it has spread, AIDS has taken on many hosts and forms. It exists in the bodies of those who had no information or means to stop it; those who knew the risks and gambled, poorly; and those victims who were born with it, received with blood, DNA, and nutrients from their infected mothers and fathers.
What makes this enthralling collection so readable is the way it has been structured—an anthology of writing on AIDS in India in the form of essays, memoirs, investigations, and poetry written by journalists and authors of fiction and non-fiction. Their work represents a vast majority of urban and rural India—from invisible towns like Peddapuram and Saundatti to chaotic metropolises like Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta). Just as India has gone through many post-colonial growing pains like the transformation of place names from British to local spellings, as indicated above, so too does this collection represent and amplify that change—from British India to Independent India to Globalizing India to An India Losing Its Way.
The editor, Negar Akhavi, has done a fine job of alternating the themes of the contributions. Though the first and last pieces—Nikita Lalwani’s “Mister X Versus Hospital Y” and Nalini Jones’ “Love in the Time of Hope”—blend tales of despair with uplifting tales of freedom, the 14 selections in between cover the whole gamut of emotion as well as an extraordinary range of lives. As Dr. C.S. Lakshmi writes in her contribution, “I met some women who have been courageous enough to make endings into beginnings and find a different meaning for happiness. They ... have hidden in their bodies the secrets of their lives.”
Like these women, the secrets of India’s struggle with HIV and AIDS are hidden in the squalor and bleakness of towns like Ukhrul in the state of Manipur in Northeast India. According to contributor Siddhartha Deb, Manipur is depressing even by Indian standards as its residents have dealt with isolation, poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure and unemployment by turning to the steady flow of amphetamines and heroin that have poured into the state for over 20 years. How can we blame these young men and women who have given into prostitution and rampant drug when it is so obvious that in its quest to become great, India has left these people behind?
The secrets of India are twisted into the tales of people like “Murad”, told by Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi. “Murad” was a flamboyant, gay film auteur who was all of those things openly before any of those things were spoken about. He comes across to me as a larger than life figure—a combination of Amitabh Bachan and Freddie Mercury, but with only a hundredth of the talent. Perhaps it was all part of his act that even when he tested positive for HIV, he refused to believe it was serious and refused all treatment till his death?
Then there are the secrets of the female prostitutes who have either been sold into the work by their families; been kidnapped; have willingly become sex workers because there was no other work; or who have been “dedicated” as temple dancers, the devadasis or “slaves of God.” Their stories are recounted by people like Kiran Desai who travels to Peddapuram in the state of Andhra Pradesh; Sunil Gangopadhyay in Kolkata; William Dalrymple in Saundatti; and Aman Sethi, who travels National Highway (NH) 31 from Patna to Guwahati in a lorry (truck) to look at the intersections between the lives of truckers, sex workers and AIDS.
The women who do this work hold their heads high and try and maintain their dignity. The interviewed women talk about being a support system for their “sisters” to prevent abuse from clients and the police. But, the “world’s oldest profession” has fallen on hard times in India, where many of these women lived regal lives in the past. They are working what Douglas Coupland called “McJobs”—no future, no benefits, no vertical mobility. When an aging prostitute assumes her “work position,” Desai sees, “an old, fat, sad woman lying in a pit among plastic packets, cigarettes scattered about, with legs spread, sari pushed aside to reveal breasts poking up.”
But, the deepest and darkest secrets in India are those that even people who have lived there don’t talk about because to do so would admit that something was very, very wrong. These are the secrets involving widespread rape of men and boys by other men—tales of sodomy that ruin lives like that of Robert Goolrick, in his recent memoir, The End of the World As We Know It But while that terrible tale happened in America, the contributors here talk about stories of rape in India—by neighbors, police, clients, husbands, and even family. For example, Mukul Kesavan talks with “Aftab” who grew up feeling effeminate, but whose sexuality only fully emerged after his rape. Kesavan writes, “Aftab was ambivalent ... After years of being teased and harassed and despised, to be sexually desired, to be taken by a man was confirmation of his childhood experience of being feminine.”
In perhaps the most jarring essay in this collection, Sonia Faleiro recounts the tale of one male sex worker (MSW) who was gang-raped by the police all night. “The policemen formed a line. One after the other they forced him to give them oral sex. [He] begged them to stop. They demanded anal sex. He was bleeding, delirious. The policemen continued through the night. Not one of them used a condom,” writes Faleiro. After the gang-rape, the police continued torturing him by electrocuting his genitalia till, “the cell, still warm with the smell of blood, now reeked of scalded fat and burnt hair.”
This book represents as clear of a clarion call that has ever been issued on the subject of AIDS. Despite all these tales, there is hope—in the form of iconoclasts leading their communities towards “the truth” (whatever it is) across India. There are the caring individuals who run “care homes” for HIV-positive children in New Delhi, the capital. There is the HIV-positive doctor in Chennai who runs a matchmaking service for “positive” men and women to break the stigma and give these people opportunities to find love. There are the social workers in Bangalore and Calcutta who educate their communities and help male and female sex workers fight against rampant police abuse. And there are the outpatient services in Mumbai hospitals, named for their original benefactors, philanthropists or freedom fighters—Gokuldas Tejpal (GT), Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy (JJ) and Lokmanya Tilak.
Just as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance forced us to examine Indian history in light of the gross human rights violations of the caste system and government abuse of power, so too does AIDS Sutra force us to recognize the multi-layered problem of AIDS in India and work on solutions for all the affected groups. This book must be read by everyone who has an interest in preserving humanity, inside and outside India. We owe it to ourselves, to the people who have suffered and to those whose suffering we have the opportunity to change.