India’s writers tell Aids stories

Some of India’s best-known writers have come together in a unique anthology of writing which tells the human stories behind HIV/Aids in the country.

India has one of the largest numbers of HIV-positive people in the world and they suffer serious social stigma.

Aids Sutra: Untold Stories from India has been published in collaboration with Avahan, the India Aids initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a leading HIV prevention project.

Roughly $2 from the proceeds of each book sold will go to support children affected by HIV/Aids in cities which have a high prevalence of the disease.

For the project, 16 writers travelled across the country to talk to housewives, vigilantes, homosexuals, drug addicts, policemen and sex workers – and served up engaging essays on the disease and its fallout in India.

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‘Huge achievement’

They include Booker Prize-winners Sir Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai; Vikram Seth, the celebrated author of A Suitable Boy; and internationally-acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple.

Other contributors include novelist Amit Chaudhuri, leading Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, historian-writer Mukul Kesavan and popular novelist Shobhaa De.

"This [anthology] is a huge achievement… it is critically important to recognise that the Aids epidemic is primarily a crisis of human lives… We are in it together," says Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the foreword.

The range of essays is truly impressive.

Sir Salman, for example, spends a day with eunuchs in the western city of Mumbai (Bombay) to write up a piece called The Half-Woman God.

"India has always understood androgyny, the man in the woman’s body, the woman in the man’s. Yet… the third gender of India still need our understanding, and our help," he says.

Kiran Desai travelled to the southern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh to meet its sex workers. The state has one of the highest rates of infection in India.

"What I had seen, really seen, were lives lived with the intensity of art; rife with metaphor, raw, distilled," Desai writes.

"The emotions of love and friendship, you’d assume would be missing or rotten, in these communities – existing even more so for their being sought amidst illegality, fragmentation and betrayal.

"These were lives lived beyond ordinariness, insisting on a personal story, not exchangeable with any other."

William Dalrymple met a number of devadasis – literally, slaves of the goddess of fertility – who often end up as sex workers in India.

"I was completely unaware of the scale of the Aids epidemic in India before I took part in this project," said Dalrymple.

"I was both intellectually challenged and emotionally moved by what I saw and learned. When an epidemic gains a human face, and you actually meet people who are dying of this disease, everything changes."

Vikram Seth simply wrote a poem on Aids, opening with:

I shall die soon, I know/The thing is in my blood/It will not let me go/It saps my cells for food

And he ends poignantly:

Stay by my steel ward bed/And hold me where I lie/Love me when I am dead/And do not let me die.

Silence and shame

Seth says that HIV/Aids in India is "exacerbated by our ignorance and shame about sex".

"We simply don’t like to talk about it – even to impart or receive essential, life saving information."

Amit Chaudhuri talks to Indian doctors fighting the disease and the stigma attached to it in an essay called Healing.

"None of the doctors I met… had initially been trained to face the disease. What they were now was shaped by it; and HIV had confronted each in a slightly different incarnation – a rumour; a makeshift pedagogy; a death."

Celebrated Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay returned to the thriving red light district of Sonagachi in the eastern city of Calcutta after nearly five decades.

Sonagachi has managed to keep infection rates lower than other red light districts in India by empowering sex workers – infection rates have hovered between 5% and 10% here, compared to nearly 50% in Mumbai’s Kamathipura district.

Siddhartha Deb travelled to India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, parts of which are ravaged by HIV, heroin addiction and a separatist war.

"Whether it is violence, addiction, poverty or Aids, these miseries seem to take place in the state – an invisible corner of India that seems to have received nothing from modernity except drugs, guns and draconian laws," he says.

There are also essays on the last days of a film-maker dying of the disease, orphans made by the disease, and high-risk truck drivers.

Aids Sutra is published in the US and UK by Anchor Books and Vintage respectively, and in India by Random House India.

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