A doctor from Nagaland, ostracized in his homeland after a hospital callously reveals his HIV-positive status and currently treating HIV patients in a Chennai hospital, fights a long legal battle for HIV-positive individuals’ right to confidentiality.
The last days of a young film-maker, who was born in Mumbai, and who found creative wings in New York City — seemingly mundane, but hopeless and torturous for him, and his near and dear.
A 12-year-old sex worker in coastal Karnataka, living near the mighty Godavari, married to a sword before being chosen by her family and society to be part of the flesh trade, and later revered, like other women sex workers in the region.
AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India.
A truck driver along the dusty NH 31, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of death, on the move, as always, on the same route.
The life stories in AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India are raw, intense and heartbreaking. Ordinary characters who are living with HIV across India achieve a heightened state of humanity, and epic complexities.
This anthology by 16 writers who travel to meet them in their habitat and surroundings is undoubtedly a path-breaking work in Indian non-fiction. The publisher, Random House, could have easily avoided the descriptor they have chosen for the book: “India’s first charity book” (the profit from this book will go into support for children affected by HIV/AIDS), for it is so much more than that. Some of the narratives are in the best tradition of literary journalism — Philip Gourevitch’s books on Rwanda, Peter Maass’ Yellow Wind on Bosnia, Antije Krog’s reportage on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and David Remnick’s characters from Russia come to mind. Most of them are products of rigorous reporting. The authors pick up details of life around their subjects and produce full-bodied portraits of HIV-infected people, evoking reactions beyond the usual sympathy or pathos.
The big names — Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Shobhaa De and William Dalrymple — will help attract attention to the book, but the best stories are not necessarily by famous writers. The journalistic ardour and engagement of young writers (such as Aman Sethi on truck drivers along NH 37 and Sonia Faleiro on sex workers in Mumbai, among others) with their subjects is refreshing. Faleiro says that it took her five months of research and reporting to write Maarne Ka, Bhagane Ka, the story of Savita, a sex worker in Mumbai, who has been routinely brutalized by the city’s policemen.
Rushdie’s The Half-Woman God is about Mumbai’s hijras, still ubiquitous on the streets of the city he was born in. The author of Midnight’s Children, and most recently of The Enchantress of Florence, follows Lakshmi, an activist-cum-performer who takes him to their world, the pain and loneliness of which we see very little on the streets. Rushdie tries to answer why they are still treated with fascination, revulsion and fear. Disappointingly, though, Rushdie’s prose is jarring in parts, and the story loses the bite and seriousness that it begins with.
AIDS Sutra comes at a time when the establishments working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention/control are beginning to legitimize the claim that India’s HIV/AIDS epidemic (2-3.1 million persons in India live with HIV, according to last estimates; India has the third largest population of people living with HIV/AIDS) has stabilized. At the recently concluded XVII International AIDS Conference 2008 in Mexico City, leading epidemiologists of the world questioned the claim. Experts said that their research and observation suggest that new high risk communities have emerged, such as male migrant workers who have sexual relations with men and transgendered individuals. Considering 22 million men in India are believed to have sex with men (figures presented at the XVII AIDS Conference), this is a daunting task for the workforce involved in HIV prevention in India. With such a scenario as the backdrop, AIDS Sutra is timely, instructive and illuminating — understanding the social, emotional and moral ambiguities associated with HIV/AIDS is at least one-fourth of the battle won.
Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi makes a mention of American thinker and intellectual Susan Sontag’s work, Illness as Metaphor in his piece on a Mumbai-born gay film-maker. Sontag’s work could be read in conjunction with almost all the stories in this book.
Sontag’s small work, that came out in 1978, is not about illness, but about the use of illness as a figure or metaphor. She expressed great concern, even extreme anger (having survived cancer for many years before she died in 2004) at the metaphorical use of tuberculosis in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th century; at the fact that these metaphors turn the diseases into a mythology. The disease ceases to remain a physical ailment, and becomes a myth, a stereotype, associated with a certain kind of humanity.
This was long before HIV/AIDS became a full-blown epidemic and became associated with sexual indiscrimination, and hence, a taboo, the world over. No disease reinforces the target of Sontag’s anger and concern more than HIV/AIDS. AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India is an eye-opener; it dispels and looks beyond the many myths that surround the disease.
AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India:
Random House India, 334 pages,Rs395.