Aids Sutra

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Aids Sutra: Untold Stories from India,  Prashant PanjiarI suspect that many people think that a ‘sutra’ is a smutty book due to the only one they’ve ever heard of being the ancient guide to sex known as the Kama Sutra. That’s not the case. Sutra is a Sanskrit word which means a wise saying or aphorism or a collection of such things. In the case of the two sutras I’ve read – Gita Mehta’s River Sutra and the book I’m reviewing here, AIDS Sutra – the term is used more broadly to mean a collection of short essays or stories. The closest suggestion I could give for the word would be ‘Anthology’.

AIDS Sutra was published in 2008 and was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and they open the book with an introduction and a ‘thank you’ to the writers whose work follows. In the introductory chapter, written by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, we learn that nobody’s too sure exactly how many cases of AIDS and HIV there are in India but best estimates put the figure at something like 3 million – just imagine 3 million people living under the shadow of a disease which could be treated and controlled if they lived in a country with greater affluence and access to Anti-Retroviral drugs and without the societal constraints that prevent many sufferers from seeking treatment.

AIDS in India is a multi-faceted problem and the breadth of experience of the sufferers and the very diverse stories behind their infection are eye-opening. The stories told in AIDS Sutra were gathered by sending the authors around India to spend time with NGOs, charities, support groups and sufferers to learn about the experience of people living (and dying) with HIV and AIDS. In some cases we learn about how they became infected whilst in other cases it’s not revealed and really not important.

We start with the story of a doctor who lost his job after his HIV status was revealed not to him but to his brother-in-law who hid it from him, encouraged him to find a wife and then revealed his status to everyone shortly before the wedding, leading to it being called off. A lot of the writers report on their meetings with sex workers, their families and their clients, others with infected people who are bringing support to others in their communities. Perhaps one of the most tragic groups are the wives of truck drivers who are one of the most at risk groups in the country who are not directly involved in the sex trade. We are introduced to people running homes for AIDS orphans, friends of a famous deceased film director, transsexual ‘hijras’, drug addicts, men who have sex with men and devadasis, young girls given to the ‘goddess’ as temple dancers and widely sexually abused. If you ever thought that HIV and AIDS were gay issues or problems restricted to intravenous drug users, AIDS Sutra is a shocking revelation of just how widespread the problem is. Add to this the widespread prejudice towards sufferers and ignorance of how the disease is spread and controlled and it’s hard not to fear for the future of those carrying the disease.

“The stories are shocking, disturbing and sometimes frightening but they are also inspiring, uplifting…”

The list of authors reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of great contemporary Indian writers, Non-Resident Indian writers and acknowledged expert commentators on the sub continent. Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai are both Man Booker Prize winners, Vikram Seth is the author of many books including the utterly awesome ‘A Suitable Boy’, and at the opposite end of the literary scale you’ll also find Shobhaa De, India’s answer to Jackie Collins and author of some of the worst sex and shopping schlock I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly, her account of how her family’s driver got AIDS and how they supported him through his illness was one of my favourite chapters in the book. William Dalrymple – the man who challenges Mark Tully for the role of India’s favourite English commentator on India – is in there along with a number of British or American Asian writers like Nalini Jones and Nikita Lalwani. In the new ‘wave’ of Indian writers I was pleased to find non-fiction writers Siddhartha Deb and the fabulous Sonia Faleiro. It was actually through looking for more writing by Faleiro that I found AIDS Sutra and bought the book.

I knew many of the authors, a few others had names I recognised but I’d not read their books and a few names were new to me. I expected to ‘use’ the book as an introduction to some new writers to broaden my field of Indian writers to read but the book didn’t work in that way. Similarly you could be forgiven for wondering if this just another of those charity ‘vanity’ projects where famous people churn out a few pages (or sing a song or draw a picture or climb Kilimanjaro with a film crew behind them) for a bit of kudos, a few ‘jolly good fellow’ points and an extra credit on their bibliography. It could so easily have gone that way but instead I found that I didn’t remember who wrote what – not because the stories were badly written, but because each story told in the book was so powerful that I found I was totally forgetting WHO wrote each – only the voices of the sufferers were what stood out. This is the most vanity-free, personality-suppressed collection of essays that I think I’ve ever read and the writers have not tried to stamp their mark on each story – instead they’ve acted at a megaphone through which each of the affected people can bring their story to the attention of readers around the world.

The stories are shocking, disturbing and sometimes frightening but they are also inspiring, uplifting and many will make you realise how little some people need to get by and how tenaciously many will cling to life and squeeze everything they can out of it. The most worrying aspect of the stories is the evidence of prejudice and persecution and the determination of some authorities to (so to speak) prevent the prevention. In one story a young woman is beaten up by the police for handing out condoms to sex workers. People are hounded out of the neighbourhoods. Illness is hidden from families and in some instances intentionally passed on to wives and other sexual partners. It’s easy for us to sit in our first world countries and condemn such ignorance but I fear is we looked to our own societies we’d find plenty of evidence that things aren’t so different here either.

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Aids Sutra
by Prashant Panjiar

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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