'AIDS Sutra' Challenges Widespread Denial In India In India, although there are almost three million people living with HIV/AIDS, the subject is still shrouded in denial and despair. Sonia Faleiro and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, are two contributing authors to a new book, AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India. The authors discuss their reporting on India's AIDS epidemic, and its impact on all sectors of society.
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'AIDS Sutra' Challenges Widespread Denial In India

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'AIDS Sutra' Challenges Widespread Denial In India

'AIDS Sutra' Challenges Widespread Denial In India

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Since the mid-1980s, when scientists first identified HIV and AIDS, many countries have come a long way in dealing openly with the disease. Of course, problems remain. We talked just the other day about how one high school in St. Louis, Missouri is struggling with the fallout from the discovery that some students may have been exposed. But despite all the international conferences, the high-profile advocates, some countries are just beginning to come the terms with HIV/AIDS.

In India, there are almost three million people living with HIV but the subject is still shrouded in denial and despair. A new anthology, "AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India," aims to break through that denial. A sutra is a literary form. The Sanskrit word means a rope or a thread that hold things together. And so, some of the country's most famous writers went out to explore the link and breath of India's incredibly diverse society to show how AIDS is affecting the entire fabric.

Joining me to talk about this are two of the book's contributing authors, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and Sonia Faleiro, both of whom are in Mumbai, India. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. SONIA FALEIRO (Co-Author, "AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India"): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SIDDHARTH DHANVANT SHANGHVI (Co-Author, "AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to ask each of you - and I hope that this isn't a silly question, but just, did you, before undertaking this project, had either of you written about HIV and AIDS before? Siddharth?

Mr. SHANGHVI: Yes, I had. My master's thesis in America was on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So it is something that I have been following for the last 10 years of my life, and it was a wonderful return to farm, but a very tragic farm at that.

MARTIN: So it wasn't - this was not a revelation to you to dig into this subject?

Mr. SHANGHVI: I think if you're working on it on for 10 years, and if it is not a revelation to you every day, you should not be doing it.

MARTIN: Interesting point. Sonia, what about you? Had you given much thought to HIV and AIDS and how it's affecting India before you undertook this assignment?

Ms. FALEIRO: Well, you know, I'm a journalist. And I've been writing about marginalized communities and the spread of HIV/AIDS in India for several years now, specifically among sex workers.

MARTIN: I certainly want to talk more about that in detail. But can you set the table for me, Sonia, about to what degree are stories like this report - and each of you has been writing about this. But are these stories easily accepted? I mean, I know if - a lot of Americans think of America as being a very, sort of, sexualized society where - in a way, perhaps too much is in the public domain, according to some. But has writing about sex, sex workers, HIV/AIDS over the course of the years, is that something that there's resistance too?

Ms. FALEIRO: Well, you know, it was quite as early as 2002 that the government of India said that HIV/AIDS wasn't a great concern for us. We've come a long way since then. They have certainly acknowledged it's a problem, and their attitude has affected the attitude of the media. So one hand, people accept that HIV/AIDS is a problem, but at the same time they're not as interested as they should be about reading about them. So I can maybe write one story in six months for a publication in India. But anything further than that wouldn't be particularly welcome.

MARTIN: Why don't you tell us about the piece in the book, "Beat Them, Kick Them Out"? It's - I must tell you, it's riveting, but it is heartbreaking in many ways, as are many of the pieces in this book. So it's the story of sex workers but you focus on one particular woman, Saveeta(ph). Tell us a little bit more about her.

Ms. FALEIRO: Saveeta is a sex worker I interviewed for a book that I'm currently working on, and we met several years ago, and she's become a friend of mine. Last November, she phoned me from the police station where she had spent the night. She had been beaten by four or five policemen while she was on the railway station, and they had beaten her because she had been found distributing condoms to other sex workers. That is not legal, and that was, in fact, part of her job as a social activist.

MARTIN: Wait, I'm sorry. I really need you to say that again. She was beaten not for trafficking but, in fact, for handing out condoms?

Ms. FALEIRO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How - and that's illegal. Why is that illegal?

Ms. FALEIRO: That is not illegal.

MARTIN: Oh, it's not illegal.

MS. FALEIRO: Sex work is not illegal in India. You can say you're a sex worker and be allowed to work. But if you are caught soliciting in public, then you can be arrested. Which basically means, Michel, if you or I are standing somewhere and a policeman decides that he would like to arrest us, he just has to search our bags, find a condom, drag us off to the police station, and there we are, arrested for solicitation in public. So one has to wonder, as I'm sure you are, why she was beaten. Not just arrested but beaten...


Ms. FALEIRO: Until she collapsed and thrown into jail. Well, if you read the essay further, I have a little conversation with a senior inspector. That's a fairly high position at any local police station. And the inspector tells me, you know, I don't really see the connection between the distribution of condoms and curtailing HIV/AIDS. Now, if you give condoms to a sex worker, let's say the condom falls out of her bag - this is what he tells me. Let's say a young man finds that condom, of course he's going to go to a quote unquote "ho." Of course, they will have sex, and therefore he's going to get AIDS. So tell me, he said to me, how you are preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

So the level of ignorance is tremendous. So it's not just as it is, perhaps, in other communities, a case of apathy. It is ignorance at the very bone, which is propelling this problem to such a huge extent in communities here.

MARTIN: But your piece also demonstrates in quite a graphic fashion how corruption, I have to say, the corruption of the police department plays into this cycle, and you also interview male sex workers who seem to come in for - their situation is even, in some ways, more challenging.

Ms. FALEIRO: Well, male sex work is as old as female sex work in India. It is as old as sex work full stop. But something about the male sex worker challenges the masculinity or the concept of masculinity of the local policeman. So while they accept that women who cannot afford to support their families if they don't perform sex work, they cannot accept the same with men. So men come for extremely brutal treatment, but the treatment that they suffer is not just the demand for bribes, because as you know, homosexuality is illegal in India. Even adults performing consensual sex can be arrested. So it's not just the threat of arrest or the demand for bribe. It is the sexual assault that is perpetrated on male sex workers. And of course, the question arises, is the policeman trying to punish the male sex worker or is he taking his pleasure from him?

MARTIN: Is there any understanding on the part of authorities that this is going on? I mean, your piece really focuses on life through the eyes of these sex workers and really detailing the realities of their existence, but do you have any sense that the authorities, A, understand the role this can play in transmitting the disease? Because one does not get the sense that the condoms are routinely used here and just how clearly this is a way that disease can be transmitted. Not to mention the fact that this is dehumanizing and cruel.

Ms. FALEIRO: Well, stories of police brutality against sex workers we thought originally just went back to the 1980s, when, you know, we first heard about HIV/AIDS. They actually go back to the 1800s when India's largest red-light district, Kamati Pura, was in full flow. Those police activities of brutality and rape and the demand for bribes have been chronicled, and they've actually continued. This is a very old problem. It is built into the very fabric of the police system.

Now the reason it continues is because the law enables it, but like bribery is stitched into the fabric of Indian society from the very top level to the bottom. So is this kind of behavior. But I think what makes this essay different now from possibly having been written five years ago is that the awareness is becoming positive. The police are working with NGOs. They are interacting with sex workers. There are HIV/AIDS sensitization programs in which sex workers and the policemen interact. There is change happening, and that is going to make a difference but it will take time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with two of the contributing authors to "AIDS Sutra." It's a new collection of essays about the AIDS epidemic in India.

Siddharth, I want to turn to you. Your piece in the book is entitled, "Hello, Darling," and it tells the story of Murad(ph). He's an affluent young man in Mumbai. Now, Sonia's piece talks about some of the most powerless people in the country who are sex workers and how they are affected by - and their ability to sort of protect themselves and how difficult it is. But your piece is about someone of a very different place in life. Tell me a little bit more about Murad.

Ms. SHANGHVI: Murad was somebody my friends spoke about. And they spoke about him with such visceral affection, passion, curiosity, that he was somebody that I wanted to know. He was a guy who would go to a soiree in Bombay, in South Bombay, in an orange sarong. He said, hello darling, in a way that kind of just lit up the room. So when you hear this sort of private mythology shared, you know, all about youth in conversations with friends, you want to know people like that because they aren't really around.

MARTIN: And he's actually out. He's out, which was unusual, right? He's living openly as a gay man. And Sonia's already pointed out that homosexuality is illegal.

Ms. SHANGHVI: More specifically, homosexual acts are illegal. Homosexuality itself is not. But what happened with Murad and a lot of gay men here in Bombay is that they can live their lives openly. In the case of Murad, what happened is the great tragedy was that - although he had reconciled himself with his sexual orientation, the moment he was diagnosed with HIV it became incredibly important for him to escape that. He became ashamed of the fact that he had HIV and therefore chose to leave India and go off to New York where he lived in denial of his condition and ultimately decided to succumb to it. And the more time I spent investigating Murad's life, the more empathy I developed in finding out that the reason he died was not just because he had HIV and AIDS, but also because he was somebody who considered himself a failed artist.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. He's an aspiring filmmaker, and part of it is that he's never really able to live up to his full potential. But you also make the point in the essay that he refuses medication, that he could afford it, unlike some of the other people whose stories are told in the anthology, but he chooses not to. Why is that?

Ms. SHANGHVI: I think he chose to disbelieve that he ever had HIV. I mean, I just think he lived in complete denial. I interviewed his friends in New York who lived there and who said, you know, I mean, for God's sake, you know, you're from Bombay but you're living in New York and you have access to all the drugs, all the doctors. But he just chose not to access them because the more time he spent and the more he realized that he was not going to be a successful artist, he was not going to be a successful filmmaker, the easier that AIDS became an exit route for him.

MARTIN: What did you learn from the story? There's so many things that come to mind for me. I mean, artists were among the first visible people in this country - in the U.S. to disclose that they had HIV/AIDS, and one might argue that their willingness to disclose it or to be open about it is one of the things that kind of helped educate people about HIV/AIDS and also to talk about what was being lost in our failure to fight this disease properly. And is that what comes to mind for you in the story or other things?

Ms. SHANGHVI: Absolutely. You locate it beautifully when you say that because I think Murad, because he was so articulate, because he had the media feeding out of his hands, in India at least, he could have spoken about this condition with a sense of clarity and eloquence, which would have afforded, extended, shared hope to millions of other people who did not have that kind of audacity of hope, as it were, to believe that they could survive. So to me it was a double tragedy, not just of his life and his art, but also the fact that his voice was not heard by the others.

MARTIN: As I said, this is a collection of 16 essays by some of the country's best-known writers. Apart from your own pieces, does each of you have a favorite that you would like to tell us about? Sonia?

Ms. FALEIRO: I learned something from each of the essays. Some of them stunned me completely. One was a poem by Vikram Seth(ph) called "Soon," and he wrote the poem about a man who was dying of AIDS many years ago.

MARTIN: Would you mind reading it?

Ms. FALEIRO: (Reading) "Soon." I shall die soon, I know. This thing is in my blood. It will not let me go. It saps my cells for food. It soaks my nights in sweat and breaks my days in pain. No hand or drug can treat these limbs for love or gain. Love was the strange first cause that bred grief in its seeds, and gain knew its own laws, to fix its place and breed. He whom I love, thank God, won't speak of hope or cure. It would not do me good. He sees that I am sure. He knows what I have read and will not bring me lies. He sees that I am dead. I read it in his eyes. How am I to go on? How will I bear this taste, my throat cased in white spawn, these hands that shake and waste? Stay by my steel ward bed and hold me where I lie. Love me when I am dead, and do not let me die.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you, Sonia. Thank you so much. Siddharth, what about you?

Ms. SHANGHVI: Well, I enjoyed Sonia's piece. I thought it was so eloquent, articulate, beautifully written, and painfully expressed all the particulars. But I enjoyed equally Salman Rushdie's piece about a transsexual and the bravoda(ph) writing with which she shares. And I think that's one of the strengths of this book is that they've got these solid writers who talk about HIV and AIDS, but it's the strength of language which carries these very quiet, painful stories and takes them across to audiences which may otherwise not have any kind of a response to them, but it's just the sure edification of the language that allows them to inhabit worlds completely foreign to their own.

MARTIN: Both of you are writers who've been writing about HIV/AIDS in one form or another for quite some time, and obviously, in that work, you're committed to telling the truth - in some cases, the brutal truth. But I'm curious to know what the reaction has been to the book. You both have had the sense that India had been in denial in some ways about the extent of the way HIV/AIDS has affected the country. Has there been - what's been their reaction? Sonia?

Ms. FALEIRO: I think there has been a great amount of interest. I think the fact that we've covered people of different professions and specifically also cast and class, which is probably the Indian equivalent of race in the U.S., has given the book a lot of attention. I would say that people have appreciated just the factual information that's come through and the breadth of the stories that have been covered.

MARTIN: Is anyone - is there any of the airing-dirty-laundry resentment? Those who would rather that this sort of conversation be kept behind close doors, or I don't know how you could do that in the country of sort of millions of people, but do you think that there is any of that?

Ms. SHANGHVI: I didn't feel so. I thought that there was a great acceptance and an openness, and what this book did was attention all those lacunas(ph), all those gaps in - on the paragraphs of conversation that we have about this subject. So it was incredibly timely. It sort of punctured the situation at the right moment, and they had all the right people to do it, with exception to myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: With that, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and Sonia Faleiro are two of the contributing authors to "AIDS Sutra." It's a new book about the AIDS epidemic in India. They were kind enough to join me from Mumbai. I thank you both so much for speaking with us, and Happy Diwali, if I may say?

Ms. FAREIRO: Thank you, Michel. Happy Diwali to you.

Ms. SHANGHVI: Thank you, Michel you have a very charming voice.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. To read and hear more excerpts from the book, please visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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