Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Book Review - AIDS Sutra: The Human Side of AIDS

August 27, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Even three decades after HIV/AIDS was universally recognised as a major health hazard, it continues to be an enigma. People still hesitate to discuss HIV/AIDS in the public while the scourge continues to spread unabated. India had one of the first few cases of HIV/AIDS in the world after the disease was scientifically recognised and the problem has now assumed gigantic proportions. The figures and data speak for themselves.
The major hurdle health workers and social activists find in tackling HIV/AIDS is non-cooperation from society. Many still do not know what HIV or AIDS mean, as far as individual's health and future life prospects is concerned.
In this backdrop, 16 of India's most read literary giants have embarked on a journey that had never been undertaken. The result is AIDS Sutra, an anthology of essays by the likes of Kiran Desai and Vikram Seth. Each one of them had chosen a different path to explore the problem first hand and come out with possible solutions to remove the social stigma that's attached to HIV/AIDS.
Random House India published the landmark anthology on AIDS, coinciding with the World AIDS Conference held in Mexico earlier this month. Salman Rushdie encounters the hijras, members of a transgendered community in Mumbai at high risk for HIV infection while Kiran Desai travels to the coast of Andhra Pradesh, where the sex workers are most desirable. Then we have Vikram Seth explaining the history of a poem and its connection to the early days of the AIDS crisis.
William Dalrymple meets the devadasis, women who are "promised" to a god and thus acceptable to be used by men for sex while Nalini Jones chooses to document the unlikely romance of a man and a woman,both HIV positive, who found each other.
The anthology is the first of its kind effort to create awareness about HIV/AIDS from a totally different perspective. India today has about 30 lakh HIV positive patients. AIDS Sutra has the foreword by Nobel lauraete Amartya Sen while Bill and Melinda Gates write the introductory remarks.
Other authors who have contributed to the anthology are Siddhartha Deb, Nikita Lalwani, Shobhaa De, Sunil Gangopadhyay Amit Chaudhuri, Jaspreet Singh, Sonia Faleiro, Mukul Kesavan, Aman Sethi, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and Ambai. They all present before reader a side to India rarely seen before.
"This is a huge achievement. It is critically important to recognise that the AIDS epidemic is primarily a crisis of human lives. We have to avoid the errors of half understanding as well as those of ignorance. But first we have to stop blaming the victims and stop looking for reasons for leaving them to look after themselves. We are in it together", says Amartya Sen.
If statistics are taken into account, the scenario is really alarming. Official figures say that for every 100 people living with HIV and AIDS, 61 are men and 39 women. Prevalence is highest among those aged 15-49 (88.7 per cent of all infections), indicating that AIDS threatens the cream of society, those in the prime of their working life.
According to the UN, the AIDS epidemic will reduce the annual growth rate of the Indian economy by 0.86 per cent. In addition, incomes of HIV+ households are declining by approximately 10 per cent and expenditure on medical expenses for people living with HIV/AIDS are four times greater than non-HIV households. The proceeds of AIDS Sutra will go to help support children affected by the disease.
In a first of its kind exercise the authors, donning the role of investigative reporters, tell the human story behind the epidemic. They all talk to housewives, vigilantes, homosexuals, drug users, police and sex-workers.
Says Salman Rushdie,"India has always understood androgyny, the man in the woman's body, the woman in the man's. Yet the walking Ardhanaris among us, the third gender of India, still need our understanding, and our help."
After her visit to Peddapuram town in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, Kiran Desai presents the pathetic scenario inside the life and style of HIV/AIDS patients.
"What I had seen, really seen, were lives lived with the intensity of art; rife with metaphor, raw, distilled. 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".
Shobhaa De tells how AIDS came home. She says, "I felt too embarrassed to probe into my driver’s sexual life, and I am glad I didn’t. It wasn’t my place and now, more than ever, it feels besides the point. Instead, I think how things could have been different. Had I been better informed, more tuned in, would I have recognised the early signals sooner? Would timely detection have extended his life?"

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Syed Akbar at the 11th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity