Aids Sutra is a provocative title that reminds you of Karma Sutra, quite apt considering the common thread of sexuality and HIV Aids that runs throughout the book. It is a compilation of essays written by a host of well-known Indian authors such as Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Siddhartha Deb, Shobhaa De and others regarding the impact of HIV Aids in the Indian society; most notably within its community of oppressed sex workers.
Each essay is a personal narrative of the writer’s encounter with people whose lives have been affected by the disease; some about people within their own circle but most of them on their experiences meeting with HIV positive sex workers. The writings depict the harshness of a sex worker’s life, the trauma of rejection by one’s own family/community and how such social exclusion consequentially makes them more susceptible to systemic violence at the hands of police. Two of the most interesting and culturally unique stories within the Indian sex workers’ community are the stories of devadasis and hijras. Their historical tradition, mythology and the survival dilemmas faced by these groups in the modern day are touching and as a reader it opens your eyes to the range of cultural mosaic and the different outlooks that exist within the umbrella term of ‘sex workers’. Yet the essays are not simply a morbid collection of writings about human tragedy. They are also about strength, resiliency and magnanimity of HIV survivors, who sees this debilitating condition as a turning point in their life to transform not just their own darkness but also help uplift others around them. A strong reminder that it is not how hard you fall it is what you do after that.
As always, reading brings reflection. My mind travels back in time to Tibet and I remember seeing them daily as I went back and forth to my work. Young Tibetan girls sitting outside the doors of their little red rooms, wearing painted masks of makeup, their necks eerily dark against the powdered face…competing against fairer Chinese counterparts. The girls were mostly from the rural areas and can hardly read or write Chinese, which meant they do not have access to information about safe sex education and preventive practices. All of them have different stories on how they ended up in the business and all of them do not go back home anymore. Sometimes business means a bowl of Tibetan noodles and as a result locals jokingly refer to them as “bhoethuk”. Often in the evening I have seen them grab the flapping jackets of men that push them away without a thought. It is enough to break anyone’s heart.