Pune: A Positive City

Thanks to Pune’s youngsters, the AIDS campaign has moved beyond slums and red-light areas to the streets, multiplexes and restaurants…

It’s a given for parents to object to attires of their college-going kids. But the Sangitianis definitely seemed to have a point when they demanded to know why their daughter Shweta was going out donning a T-shirt that said “HIV Positive”.

In another part of Pune, similar shock waves were being emitted from a group of youngsters who formed a part of the crowd waiting outside a movie hall at a swanky multiplex. In a loud and crystal-clear voice, one of the guys had just informed his friends that he’d discovered he’s HIV positive and was now giving details about how he contracted the virus.

And in the city’s upmarket Koregaon Park area, a family was debating over whether to sit down for a meal at a table where the coasters read “Be HIV Positive…about educating yourself and others about HIV and AIDS” or then “Sex workers protect themselves, why don’t you?” To add to their dilemma, a waiter came over and handed them a brochure that listed the FAQs about AIDS.

If it’s in-your-face, it’s because that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. A clutch of collegians in the student city of Pune have decided that it’s time people learnt to talk openly about AIDS and HIV. They have also learnt that since lectures are antediluvian and nothing succeeds like shock when you want some undivided attention, they need to redefine the rules about spreading the good word.

Sunanda Mehta, for Indian Express.

“Of course, my parents freaked out when they saw me wearing this tee, but when I sat them down and explained to them that the whole idea is to make people afflicted with it have the courage to come out and talk about it to reduce both the spread and stigma against AIDS, they came around,” says 21-year-old Shweta Sangtiani who along with a whole lot of other youngsters regularly walks down the city’s busiest streets wearing the message. “The stares I get are a mix of shock, disgust and amazement. But then there are also many who come up and ask me why I am wearing this T-shirt. This gives me the chance to explain to them about AIDS, its spread and why we need to be educated about,” adds the fourth-year law student.

“A lot of stuff that we do is trendy and cool. You need to have that approach for people to listen to you,” drawls Yuvraaj Oberoi, a 22-year-old engineer who runs the eight-month-old Freak e-magazine. With the site featuring a segment on HIV awareness every month, Oberoi is busy putting the final touches on the AIDS Rock Band competition based on the theme of AIDS. Eight city bands are in the fray for the contest that starts on October 9 with the finale happening on November 15. For the elimination rounds, the bands will have to render their versions of the number ‘HIV Positive’ recorded by the Scottish folk band Herman Death Willy Tail. The winner band gets to play at the World AIDS Day celebrations on December 1.

And of course the venues for the rounds are all the HIV Positive establishments in the city. HIV positive establishments are the half a dozen or so restaurants that have been given an HIV Positive certification-a paper many even display on their walls. “This means that they are Positive about education, awareness and support for HIV,” says Hans Billimoria, activist and an important member of Wake Up Pune Campaign launched by a coalition of NGOs in 2006 and which has been responsible in the first place for bringing most of these youngsters together. With an explicit aim of launching an innovative war against AIDS, the campaign has employed means like boot camps, disruptive theatre (as in the loud conversation on AIDS as mentioned earlier at multiplex), cinema slides, information kiosks at multiplexes, distribution of CDs with songs based on HIV—and of course reaching out to the crowds through their ‘HIV partner restaurants.’

“There were concerns initially, but eventually clients also realise that you are doing a good thing,” says Jitesh Ved, owner of 69, not too worried about having one more controversial aspect to the already suggestively named eatery. Others places include popular youngster hangouts like Soul, Apache, Gaia, Post-91 and Not Just Jazz By the Way who also spread out black and red coasters with HIV messages and have help line numbers on their menu cards. “People are really chilled out. In fact my waiters even serve wearing the HIV Positive T-shirts very often. In the beginning people asked what it was all about and we explained but now they are used to it since we’ve been doing this for a year,” adds Khodu Irani, the 27-year-old owner of High Spirits.

But there are exceptions of course. Gayatri Natrajan, 27, a speech and drama teacher,one of the many young professionals who are also part of the campaign, recalls how a woman at the rest room of a mall screamed at her and asked her to leave when she saw her with the HIV Positive T-shirt. “I tried to reason with her but she just wouldn’t listen. That’s okay we expect this kind of reaction and it just shows how badly this campaign is needed in the city,” says the dauntless Natrajan.

But maybe there is hope yet. As Natrajan reaffirms, giving the incidence of her 50-year- old mother who after being shocked when she saw her daughter wear the HIV Positive message on her T-shirt the first time, now sports one when she goes for her yoga class. These are positive signs indeed…

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