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Looking at the positives

Away from the lurid headlines that has fed reportage on AIDs, and the dos-and-don’ts info-graphics of anti-HIV literature with its staple of syringes, condoms, and doleful looking sex workers from the by-lanes of Kamathipura, are personal narratives that have remained largely under the radar.

Perhaps they were too stark and sensation-free for public consumption, but they remain important signposts that have, in their own very private way, commemorated how individuals have grappled with a disease that, more than three decades ago, very quickly acquired the dimensions of an international epidemic, but remained a taboo for much of that time.

Sanjay Suri and Juhi Chawla in 'My Brother Nikhil'
Sanjay Suri and Juhi Chawla in 'My Brother Nikhil'

The strange, and disarming, intimacy of a illness that supposedly only afflicted ‘other’ people in ‘other’ countries first struck me in the early 2000s, when quite by chance, I came across the works of HIV-positive visual artist and photographer, Sunil Gupta, in an art gallery in Edinburgh. The walls of the gallery were adorned with larger-than-life diptychs, several of which were stark self-portraits of Gupta himself receiving HIV-related medical treatment.


Sunil Gupta at the Delhi Pride

He is naked in several of the installations, except for a white bed-sheet that shrouds him as he lies on a bed, still as death, in one piece, or covered with incriminating lesions standing next to a tree in another called ‘Christmas’. The collection titled From Here to Eternity evoked a feeling of almost temporal solitude.

It wasn’t pretty, but there was something that stayed with me, almost disconcertingly, long after I had left the premises, a sense of a very private, very intimate, and almost meditative struggle, in settings that seemed far removed from the hotbeds of gay promiscuity -- the glitzy clubs and sleazy saunas - that we were constantly reminded held the ticket to our inevitable entry into hell.

Far from languishing in his own private perdition, Gupta, now in his fifties, never succumbed to AIDS and has thrived with several collections added to his rich, queer-tinged repertoire in the past decade and a half, including the well-received book, ‘Wish You Were Here’, a photo-log of his memories, and indeed a chronicle of a personal gay history that touches upon all our lives.

In Gupta’s life, the doomed narrative of the HIV-afflicted in the country finds a more uplifting counterpoint, and increasingly, with recourse to anti-AIDS drugs more accessible in the country (largely because of how pharmaceutical company CIPLA was able to take advantage of Indian non-patency clauses to become the world’s biggest manufacturer of antiretroviral drugs), he is no more the exception that proves the rule.

At that time, his openness stood out in stark contrast to the politics of secrecy and shame that had routinely informed the lives of gay people afflicted with AIDS. The deplorable discrimination faced by activist Dominic D’Souza (also dubbed India’s first person with AIDS) has passed into folklore with the film, ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (from filmmaker Onir) being ostensibly based on his forced quarantine in a city sanatorium for 64 days purely because he was HIV positive.

This early hostility in India, perpetrated not just by an ignorant public but also gallingly by members of the medical profession, mirrors what was faced by gay men in the US in the early eighties, when AIDS was widely (and erroneously) characterized as a ‘gay’ disease because so many gay men filled up the ranks of those initially infected.

Those were the days of heady secrecy but also heady communion. You could enter the gay scene as a fresh-faced rookie leaving your antecedents behind. Nobody cared or knew where you came from, but it was possible to create an intimate circle of constantly engaged close friends without the baggage of a backstory.

An old-timer in Bandra, who lived through those times in the US where he was a scene regular, says, “Suddenly people stopped coming. One by one. It was as if they were dropping dead like flies.” They were either reclaimed by the starless underbelly of the closet or the death-grip of this brand-new disease on the horizon. Shamefully, the legacy of President Ronald Reagan’s administration remains its ineffective handling of a national (soon to be international) health crisis, fueled by an institutional homophobia.

The horror stories of the past are possibly behind us now. This year, UNAIDS ran a profile of one of its more tireless workers, Gautam Yadav, a member of its Youth Advisory Forum in India, and a growing icon for LGBT youth in the country. A young HIV-positive man with a charming personality, Yadav’s personal struggle is an inspirational tale not just for ‘positives’ but to gay people in general, looking to reclaim their lives, perhaps not only from the grips of a potentially debilitating disease, but from the morass of an equally sapping social ostracism.

US-India together in AIDS fight
To commemorate World AIDS Day which falls on December 1, US Ambassador Nancy Powell will visit the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Thane District, on Monday, December 2 morning, to see the work being done to combat HIV/AIDS. Over the last two decades, the United States has contributed over $200 million for HIV/AIDS initiatives in India. 

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