In November 1998, D. Padmavathy was 22 when she got married and moved from her village Eripalayam in Cuddalore district to Kallavi in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu. Barely three months later, her husband was diagnosed with AIDS; he died four years later. Inevitably, Padmavathy was tested and found to be HIV-positive by 1999.

Surging ahead: Padmavathy now helps other women deal with the AIDS crisis. M Lakshman / Mint photo

Padmavathy says she suspects that her husband must’ve known about his condition before their marriage. “He was diagnosed just three months after the wedding!" she exclaims. “Though one couldn’t discern much from his external appearance, he would’ve surely felt the symptoms in his body." After all, he was a graduate and ran an NGO. “He couldn’t have been that ignorant." .

In the four years that her husband was alive, Padmavathy had to travel to Chennai with him for his routine check-ups and treatment every other month. After his death in 2003, she was disowned by her husband’s family. But she had observed and learnt much during those trips to the hospital. And though she was HIV-positive, her days weren’t exactly numbered.

“I had taken good care of my health, unlike my husband who used to drink and smoke a lot," she says. “That way HIV is just like a normal body condition. You abuse your body, the chances of your contracting a fatal disease are more." She had been advised to have nutritious protein-rich diet with items such as eggs, meat, pulses and also green legumes. “Counsellors also said yoga helps but I haven’t really found the time and resources to get trained and practise yoga yet," she says.

One of the biggest problems Padmavathy faced was how to earn a livelihood and not be a financial burden on her parents. “I came across a TV talk show called ‘Visuvin Arattai Arangam’, a talk-debate show on socially sensitive issues that Sun TV used to air in 2004. The show didn’t invite celebrity guests; instead people who had experimental knowledge on the subject of the day were invited to talk about it. I applied to the show and was selected. I spoke about how AIDS was a problem that ‘family’ women faced as much as sex workers if not more."

The show gave her visibility as well as confidence—the National HIV-Positive Women’s Network headed by Kousalya P. in Chennai approached her and helped her stand on her own feet. Given her background in dealing with hospitals and healthcare, she was assigned a project in Vellore, organizing HIV-testing camps for women and counselling those who tested positive. Similar projects followed, and in 2008, she formed her own network called the Tamil Nadu HIV-Positive Women’s Network, with government aid.

“Initially, I commuted from my village whenever there was a project, but now, I have rented my own apartment in Vadapalani," she says. She suspects her landlord knows about her condition, but doesn’t interfere. Her brother, an engineering student in Chennai, got to know about his sister’s condition through a TV show in 2007, but decided after talking with her that it was best not to tell their parents about it.

“They are happy in the knowledge that their daughter has a job in Chennai," she says. “The only problem is, someone or the other broaches the subject of a second marriage every now and then and I have to evade it with vague reasons," she grimaces.