August 20, 2008
By Syed Akbar
"It is hard to fight a battle for respect and equality when it is being simultaneously undone. HIV risk shouldn't be treated as merely a health issue, but also a wider issue of poverty and gender. Sometimes I feel feminism is a privilege, that the vocabulary is isolated within a privileged sphere," says noted Indian author Kiran Desai.
Kiran Desai, whose novel The Inheritance of Loss won the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award, toured East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh recently for her essay, Night Claims the Godavari, wherein she vividly describes the lifestyles and ground reality in Peddapuram and other villages.
The author shares with Deccan Chronicle, her experiences with the women in the red light areas of East Godavari, in an exclusive interview. Night Claims the Godavari forms part of AIDS Sutra, an anthology of essays by 16 of India's best known writers. The anthology published by Random House India uncovers the country's AIDS epidemic. It is India's first charity book.
"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," Kiran Desai says of the women she had come across in Peddapuram, a village notorious traditionally for prostitution.
Replying to a question whether HIV/prostitution reflect the defeat of feminism, Kiran Desai says, "I felt such humiliation as a woman, thinking that if this is what is happening to these women, then in a way, it is happening to all women. It is hard to fight a battle for respect and equality when it is being simultaneously undone.
She feels that HIV risk shouldn't be treated as merely a health issue, but also a wider issue of poverty and gender.
"Sometimes I feel feminism is a privilege, that the vocabulary is isolated within a privileged sphere."
Asked whether the problem of HIV and AIDS is overblown, Kiran Desai says she sees the problem as being part of wider problems of poverty that are certainly not overblown. "When you see a 13 year old who has been sold by her parents to earn her own dowry, you can just imagine the depth of despair.
I believe the extent of the epidemic was overestimated in India, but certain communities -- sex workers, lorry drivers, homosexuals -- remain exceptionally
vulnerable. On the good side, there are reports, I believe, of falling rates of infection in communities where aid workers have been active."
The author agrees there may be some cases of false HIV scare by NGOs to seek foreign funds. "Maybe there are some cases of this happening, but I think this is a cynical response. I really did not notice anything of the sort among the many NGOs I visited. I met exceptional people working with these women. People who had left their own children and families to live alone and in difficult environments, who
were made vulnerable by choosing to do this work.
On the actual status of HIV in Andhra Pradesh, Kiran Desai says she saw women who were extremely vulnerable to infection. "Among the communities reached by NGOs, I found widespread awareness of HIV risk. My question was if the women were able to use that information in vulnerable situations.
What if you were negotiating out of desperation and poverty, dropping your price to a few rupees? Could you really then demand that a man use a condom? The other sadness was seeing how limited the resources were for treatment. A lot of women did not take the test, for they could not afford to receive the news that they were HIV
positive. How could they afford not to work? There were obviously very sick women who were still standing on the highways each night."
On the policemen being involved in the sex racket, she points out, "Yes, I believe police brutality and extortion is a problem. But this is something I saw aid workers constantly trying to negotiate, working sometimes with sympathetic policemen, sometimes with men who were less sympathetic. I was shown albums of pictures of sex workers who had been arrested and beaten."
Asked whether legalising sex work will help solve the problem of HIV/AIDS, Kiran Desam says there are no easy solutions. "I don't know that there are easy solutions. Again, I think the problem is poverty -- the oldest problem creating the oldest profession. Of course this is made worse by their working in anonymous conditions. But is India prepared to legalise sex work? Can you imagine a family openly admitting
their daughter is a sex worker?"
She says she was told that certain communities had turned to sex work when other sources of income vanished, such as the Dommarisanis who used to depend on performing as acrobats. Then, of course, there are also women from the courtesan Kalavanthalu community, who feel a certain pride in their heritage, in their artistry linked to royal patronage, to the patronage of temples. Now they are reduced to frank prostitution.
Asked why she had chosen Andhra Pradesh for her essay, she says East Godavari has high infection rates. "Oh, I was asked to travel to East Godavari because of the high infection rates in this community, and perhaps because it is representative of the complexity of the situation all over India. Women from so many different communities cater to lorry drivers and men who are on the move, and are on the move themselves.
In Peddapurum I met sex workers from so many backgrounds. Young girls sold by desperate parents in far villages, wealthier women from the courtesan community "
Commenting on "secret housewife sex workers" in East Godavari district, she says she was surprised to meet these women. "They said their husbands could not afford to pay all their expenses, so the wives had turned to prostitution to support their families. Of course, this is a very frightening situation of AIDS entering the mainstream, and of the victims being hard to reach. This is also true of some men I met who were forced to remain secretly gay, who went home to wives and children after seeking sex in situations that obviously made them vulnerable."
On the Yoginis Kiran Desam says, "the Yoginis were the one community I did
not meet. They were spoken of with hushed sympathy by the other sex workers. These women aren't even able to access help. The practice is illegal, and they are not part of a supportive community like the women of Peddapurum. Often they have been branded witches, their property has been taken away from them, they have been driven to the outskirts of a village, free for any man to enjoy."
Your essay ends with a reference to rehabilitation of sex workers. Do you think rehabilitation will take away prostitutes from prostitution? To what extent will it solve the HIV/AIDS problem?
"I met some sex workers who so proudly told me how they had educated and married off their daughters. Others who showed me their embroidery, how they were trying to find other ways of supporting themselves. Certainly the more open society is, the easier it will be for these women to be access help and save their daughters from the same fate. I don't think any mother, given a choice, would sell her daughter into
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