Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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HIV and the grand narrative recast

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India, a collection of 16 essays on HIV-related themes by some of India’s top writers, combines lucid writing and rich detailing with thorough research, says Nirupama Sarma

AIDS SutraIn a case of art imitating life, the recently-launched AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India (published by Random House, India, 2008) attempts to recast the narrative of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and that of the lives of thousands of marginalised people in the country.

Appearing more than 20 years into the epidemic’s history in India, this anthology of 16 essays by seasoned writers is, for the most part, a valuable and much-needed recounting of realities that run counter to the popular India Shining rhetoric that has numbed public imagination in recent years.

With contributions from a diverse range of writers – Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Vikram Seth, through Sunil Gangopadhyay, C S Lakshmi and well-credited journalists such as Sonia Faleiro and Aman Sethi, the anthology is studded with rich and compelling reportage on the dark underbelly that constitutes life for thousands of marginalised people in India.

In genres ranging from in-depth reportage through poetry, the writings crisscross worlds unfamiliar to most readers – the gay socialite in Mumbai in flamboyant denial of his HIV status; the feisty sex worker fighting for her survival in Peddapuram district, Andhra Pradesh; the daily unravelling of childhood in a care centre for HIV-positive children; the young drug user in a Manipur village searching desperately for an abscess-free vein to shoot his Spasmoproxyvon.

Some of these themes have indeed been covered by journalists, but the anthology under review scores with some exceptionally lucid writing, rich detailing and thorough research, combined with sharp insight into the complexities of social, political, legal and economic systems and their impact on the ability of ordinary human beings to engage, very simply, in their lives.

Take, for example, the grippingly told ‘Mr X and Hospital Y’ by Nikita Lalwani, about Dr Toku, who for all practical purposes, is just another genial young man in Nagaland. Without his knowledge or consent, a hospital discloses his HIV-positive status, first to a relative. In the blink of an eye, his world crumbles: an amiable world turns hostile, his proposed wedding is cancelled, and he is driven into fugitive skin. What follows is a reminder of the inexorable desperation and loneliness that can accompany being HIV-positive in this country:

How to disappear? I think maybe I’ll go to the jungle, live there, or go to another state and live quietly. But if people know I am a doctor, they will wonder why I am so quiet, with no ties. They will find out, and I will have to leave again. I thought maybe I will go to Nepal; help people who have no hospitals. But then I would need a visa, medical tests – it becomes difficult. Where to hide?

If Lalwani’s piece turns the spotlight on the absence of medical ethics, the crippling stigma confronting those with HIV, and their basic human rights to love and marry, Siddharth Deb’s ‘Lost Generation of Manipur’ provides an incisive analysis of the nexus between politics, insurgency and drug trafficking that marks the isolated northeastern states. Tracing the inescapable pull of drugs and sex work in a landscape singularly lacking in opportunities and hope, Deb details the “punishment” meted out to drug users by insurgent groups – imprisonment, caning and whipping by cables. This, in stark contrast to universally recommended harm reduction programmes that focus on providing drug users with safe spaces where they can access medical services, the support of counsellors and peers, and some semblance of community and dignity.

Similarly, Sonia Faleiro’s vignette ‘Maarne Ka, Bhagaane Ka’ on the daily lives of male and female sex workers lived equally under the bright lights of Mumbai as under the shadow of State and police brutality, is a dark and disturbing indictment, while Aman Sethi’s ‘Last of the Ustaads’ is a poignant and thoroughly-researched recounting of personal vulnerability and stigmatisation within the larger exploitative and profit-churning wheels of the trucking industry.

This dextrous interweaving of individual lives and personal circumstance with the structures of politics, law, healthcare and the police makes for a tapestry that is as deeply engaging as it is disturbing. Indeed, it is the same complex web of issues that make writing on HIV such a challenging enterprise. Arriving on the heels of an embarrassed and dramatic reduction of previous HIV estimations, and years of hard questioning on HIV funding, allocation and use, the anthology risks being labelled a case of misplaced priorities, another English and celebrity-centric effort by a high-profile donor (the Avahan Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). The ongoing contentious debates and fissures within this field on the rights of those with HIV, and proposed amendments to legal frameworks relating to sex work (the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act), male-male sex (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) and a proposed penalising of men who buy sex, do not make the task any easier.

Equally relevant in a work of this nature is the politics of representation. Whose voice is reflected in the writing – that of the privileged outsider-spectator, or that of the subject, the ‘other’, an archetype of marginalised – and imagined -- communities? The representation of women in prostitution, for example, has, within the realm of mainstream cinema and literature, tended to swing between the two polarities of force and choice, that is, as victims of male oppression and State failure to ensure alternative livelihood options, or as foul-mouthed randis, exercising a choice to live outside the boundaries of respectability.

The anthology moves such representation forward, the shifting voice in the writings creating a space for realism and a re-imaging that often allows for multiple realities and identities. The ritual-bound devadasi who says, “We have a lot of misery to bear … that is our karma”, the feisty young transient woman in Mumbai, who by turns wears the hat of sex worker and social worker with an NGO; the married shirt-pant kothi who takes pride in his children while also content to have his panthi boyfriend on the side; the HIV-positive doctor finding joy in matchmaking for others like him, “attempting to reignite that part of the human psyche… the part that believes we own the right to love… and be loved in return.”

A puzzling and uncomfortable inclusion, given this effort’s aim to reduce the stigma attached to marginalised groups, is C S Lakshmi’s ‘At Stake, the Body’ with its references to sex workers “who have hidden in their bodies the secrets of their lives”.

Her elder son asks her at times: “Who was it on the phone?” Or “Why do you come home so late?” She has to invent reasons. But he asks with such authority! Her heart swells with pride when he speaks in that manner. She would never want her sons to know the secrets of her body.

It is unclear whether the voice is that of the subject or the author, especially when juxtaposed with statements such as “there is no self-pity… no guilt. They offer their services on their own terms”. In contrast, Kiran Desai’s ‘Night Claims the Godavari’ is a more nuanced attempt, reflecting the author’s own struggle with, and precarious positioning of, sex work as a legitimate choice, while also carrying overtones of an inescapable destiny amidst intractable circumstances; while Sunil Gangopadhyay’s ‘Return to Sonagachi’ highlights the transformative powers of collectivisation in the lives of sex workers. In portraying these individual lives inside out, the anthology provides a human face – both to the epidemic as well as those who have been historically invisible – and recasts a narrative of human resilience and hope.

What the anthology achieves ultimately is a compelling argument that the struggle against HIV is not simply that against a virus, but against deeply-entrenched social norms, stigmatisation, and systems of exploitation across class, gender and sexuality. Amartya Sen’s well-argued foreword, then, anchors the work in its sharp juxtaposition of the somewhat fictitious notion of personal choice in a world that limits the very possibility of making those choices.

Where the work stops short, however, is in not asking the bigger, harder questions that dog the field of HIV: the continued donor reticence on funding for care, treatment and support even in the face of a rising caseload; the ethics of conducting vaccine trials in India when their failure was already demonstrated in other countries; the unaffordability of antiretroviral therapy in the country. Yet, in its poignant recounting of the precariousness of human existence, of very ordinary human beings who have, through sheer happenstance, turned into key characters within the unfolding HIV narrative, the anthology lays the ground for the asking of these questions.

(Nirupama Sarma is a media/communications professional who has worked in the field of public health and HIV in India and internationally)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2008

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