6 January 2009

AIDS Sutra - Book Review

A book review, for Biblio: 

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India.
Edited by Negar Akhavi;
with a Foreword by Amartya Sen.

Photographs by Prashant Panjiar.
Random House India, New Delhi,
in collaboration with Avahan,
the India AIDS initiative of the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation, 2008, 340 pp., Rs 395.

ISBN 978-81-8400-039-9
An anthology should be, by definition, varied, but rarely does one come across one whose various parts complement each other with such élan. Aids Sutra contains pieces by sixteen writers of different ages and persuasions, each focusing on a different aspect of the HIV-AIDS epidemic and often, a different part of the country. So, for example, we have Jaspreet Singh’s quietly gutwrenching visit to a Delhi home for children with HIV, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s engaging take on Sonagachhi, replete with anecdotes both historical and autobiographical, Siddhartha Deb’s bleak but superb account of the conditions in which Manipur’s young people take to drugs, or Mukul Kesavan’s thoughtful elucidation of the world of Bangalore’s kothis.

Styles, too, vary enormously. CS Lakshmi’s ‘At Stake, The Body’ chooses anonymity as a haven for the voices of sex workers she inscribes with a kind of collective economy, while Nikita Lalwani’s ‘Mister X Versus Hospital Y’, whose very subject is the right to confidentiality, is anchored around a life story disclosed in a single conversation. In a book such as this, where much of the writing is based on specifically arranged encounters between the authors and the people they’re describing, observations need to be particularly fine-grained, and many of the authors recognize the need to abandon the conceit of objectivity. But there are those who cling to the illusion of old-style ethnography (or old-style documentary) – the narrator as a fly on the wall, seemingly observing people and place without recogiszing how his presence contributes to the nature of the scene, or alters it. William Dalrymple is one of those whose style gives away nothing of himself. The first two pages of his essay on devadasis, ‘The Daughters of Yellama’, for instance, form a stream of dialogue: first one woman speaks, then the other. There is precisely one sentence spoken by the author. But they are responding to some invisible third party. It is as if an interview had been transcribed without the questions asked.

In stark contrast is the piece by Shobhaa De, who takes it upon herself to describe, in admirably frank detail, her response to the discovery that her “children’s driver”, Shankar, had AIDS. She is frank, first of all, in admitting that she knew very little about a man who had worked for her for several years – and how normalized this ‘not knowing’ is for upper middle class people. “People who work in our homes, and who are an integral part of our lives, become almost invisible – their presence reduced to an almost shadowy figure at which we shout daily orders. ‘Go here. Get that. Be back on time… So you need leave? Again? Didn’t you just take a day off last fortnight? Why does there seem to be a weekly emergency in your village? How many times do your cousins die?’ All this is said briskly, everybody is so damn busy, so preoccupied. There are a thousand things to do. Who on earth looks up to notice boils on their driver’s scalp?” She is equally honest in admitting that the discovery forced her to confront a host of inner demons: “I imagined all kinds of unpleasant things. He must have got the virus from visiting prostitutes after this wife left him. Maybe he was gay, and had multiple relationships? Had he tricked his wife into marrying him? …Where was my liberal self when I needed it most?”

Vikram Seth also tells a quasi-personal story, of a poem he once wrote in the voice of a man dying of AIDS. But apart from gesturing to the way in which the fearful voice of the poem’s narrator echoes the ill-informed, panic-stricken reaction Seth remembers from California in the 1980s, the piece remains disappointingly slight – and impersonal. His account of reactions from readers then is interesting for the historical light it casts on the life of the disease. But Seth is so tightly focused on trying – and failing – to reconstruct the moment of the poem’s writing that he refuses the opportunity to meditate on wider questions, personal or political.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, like De and Seth, elects to tell a story whose origin lies in past personal experience, though in Shanghvi’s case it is not, strictly speaking, his own. ‘Hello Darling’, about a flamboyantly gay filmmaker called Murad, doesn’t do too bad a job of recreating the not-so-far-away world of 90s Bombay, in which Murad’s slick first film about homosexuality was enough to give him “a patina of notoriety” and a lot of press. But his asides about American “bug parties”, or discrimination against HIV positive patients in India – seem tacked on, and even Murad’s story never quite achieves the “darkly nostalgic” tone Shanghvi aims for. Perhaps the problem is Shanghvi’s amateurish prose, teetering perpetually on the brink of purple: “…the greatness he aspired to was one elusive eel. Unable to deal with fate’s tumult, Murad fled to New York… to live his life on high tilt – artistically, independently, hedonistically”, or worse, “Having given filmmaking his best shot, and failing nonetheless, the dark music of HIV played in the background as the echo of salvation”. What does emerge without a doubt, though, is that the stigma – and resultant secrecy – that surrounds HIV cuts across class: a publicly homosexual, glamorous, Page Three figure feels as compelled to keep his positive status secret as a middle-aged Marathi chauffeur.

The most rewarding pieces in the book are those where research is woven into a personal narrative, one that makes visible the layers through which perception is filtered. One such is Amit Chaudhuri’s careful account of the HIV wings of Bombay’s hospitals, and the doctors who run them. Chaudhuri is, as always, simultaneously reflective and detached. His memories of younger days may inform his experience of the city, but with Chaudhuri, memory is not nostalgia. His estimation of Bombay is clear-eyed (and at this moment when the city is the subject of so much impassioned prose, especially welcome): “As I walked with streams of happy people on Perry and Carter Roads, I sensed again this city’s reserves of optimism, which makes it unique among the world’s cities: but was reminded, too, from my own life here, of what I’d forgotten – its infantilism, its susceptibility to charm and excitement, a susceptibility that, in the early 21st century, has its own unforgiving momentum.”

Also clear-eyed is Chaudhuri’s unraveling of the various registers within which the history of AIDS treatment unfolded: partial information from abroad, professional rivalries, increasing but ill-informed media attention, issues of prejudice, sexual morality and secrecy. And at every juncture, he is attentive to the crucial question of class. For instance, visiting hospitals like GT (Gokuldas Tejpal) and JJ (Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy) for the first time, Chaudhuri recognizes that his “not knowing” such landmarks must be placed in the context of a classed urban geography, in which public hospitals do not need to figure for ‘people like us’. More importantly, within the hospital, class matters. Though it may no longer affect access to Anti Retroviral Treatment (ART) (JJ Hospital became the first to offer free ART in 2004, and others have followed), knowledge of and attitudes to healthcare have much to do with levels of class and education. Chaudhuri correctly points out that ART is “incomplete but, as of now, indispensable knowledge [that] partially removes HIV from the hysteria that surrounded it in the eighties and nineties”, but deaths continue to occur even among those who are diagnosed in time, often because working class patients stop the treatment when symptoms recede.

Class and social background are also important variables in Sonia Faleiro’s hard-hitting portrayal of the complex relationship between sex workers and the police. Faleiro’s piece is significant for its twin insights – first, that the police’s relationship with sex workers is not merely one of law enforcement, but of regular economic and sexual exploitation, and second, that it will not do to paint all policemen as agents of evil: they themselves are cogs in a larger, deeply flawed system. “Policemen’s attitudes mirror that (sic) of the society from which they are drawn. If the average policeman comes from a small town or village where people generally equate sex work with promiscuity, disease, and lawlessness, then he will, unless his training teaches him otherwise, carry those sentiments to work. What makes this mirror image dangerous is that the police have the power to act on their bias.” While this means that there are a large number of policemen like Madhav Rao, who tells Faleiro that sex workers are meant to be beaten, chased away (giving her the title of her piece, ‘Maarne ka, bhagane ka’), it does not preclude the possibility of there being others like Ram Naik, for whom the sex workers of the neighbourhood he patrols are the women he knows best.

Kiran Desai’s account of the Kalavanthalu women – a subcaste of “hereditary courtesans and temple dancers famous for their elegant beauty” – breezily builds up an image of a “normal” Andhra village, only to tear it down : “I notice an overabundance of beds”. Her sure-footed descriptions, of brothels with all the stuffiness of a middle class home, and others that are no more than hovels, are interspersed with statistics, local proverbs and all-female banter, expertly but gently rendered: ““And who likes the sex? Any of you girls?” And immediately they all jump on one woman… yelling, “She! She! She! She does!”

There are other pieces well worth reading that I haven’t mentioned for lack of space, and a measured introduction by Amartya Sen that deals with much more than the economics of HIV. The book also contains some exceptional -- albeit badly printed -- photographs by Prashant Panjiar, adding yet another layer to what is already a generous, nuanced introduction to one of the most complex issues of our time.

Published in Biblio: A Review of Books
Vol. XIII, Nos. 11 & 12, Nov - Dec 2008

To see this article as it originally appeared, with photographs, go here.

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