December 2008

Beth Harrington


AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India

In the 1980s and even into the ‘90s when Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and its more progressed counterpart Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, first arrived on the medical scene, a diagnosis was considered tantamount to a death certificate. However, in present times this is not necessarily the case. Medical interventions have advanced to the point where the disease can be chronic if incurable. If once people were dying of AIDS, now they are living with it; not only in the United States but in India, the world’s second most populous country.

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India, a compilation of stories sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, recruited sixteen Indian authors to pen the narratives of various people afflicted by the AIDS epidemic in India. With a total population of roughly one billion and an estimated HIV-positive population of between two and three million, India’s infection rate is not as alarmingly high as it is in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Nor is it as high, writes Amartya Sen in the introduction, as the twenty to twenty-five million victims that CIA officials in the United States once estimated India would have in 2010. Nevertheless, the number of affected persons is concerning, and particularly tragic is the extent to which stigmatization increases the hardship for those already saddled with a heavy health burden, while lack of information leaves countless others at risk for exposure to that which is preventable.

The authors of AIDS Sutra understand well the poignancy and intimacy of the personal narrative and thus some of the most readable pieces are ones that delineate the circumstances of an individual. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s "Hello, Darling" traces the rise and fall of a charismatic young filmmaker through his surviving friends. The uncloseted gay man rejects his HIV diagnosis and chooses to perish rather than come to terms with his inability to fulfill his artistic ambitions. Shobhaa De’s "When AIDS Came Home" recollects how her children’s driver became stricken, including her deliberations over whether to reveal his diagnosis to her family and her ponderings over how he might have contracted the disease in the first place. Other brave contributions include Salman Rushdie’s exploration of India’s hijra community of men who undergo surgery and behave and dress as women -- often marginalized by mainstream India and thus forced to rely on sex work for income -- as well as Jaspreet Singh’s visit to a children’s home for HIV-positive orphans.

While the contributors’ experience in the craft of writing transforms the stories they recount from mere tales into passionate and authoritative pieces, AIDS Sutra is not without some flaws in readability. A disproportionate number of the stories focus on sex workers, at times rendering them redundant as similar situations are drawn and statistics are cited repeatedly. The book also might have benefited from including background information on the Indian government particularly in terms of public health policy. For instance, the introduction states that “no country has done more than India in cheapening the production cost of known antiretroviral drugs… and yet most HIV affected people cannot afford to get and use these drugs.” Thus, it is unclear if India has a socialized healthcare system or a privatized one and how this affects the distribution of medications. Nevertheless, AIDS Sutra is a valuable resource for anyone looking for information on the multifaceted effects of AIDS on a non-Western culture. It illuminates the ways in which those afflicted manage to transcend suffering and live happy lives and make a positive impact on others in spite of their condition.

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India by Amartya Sen (Foreword)
ISBN: 978-0-307-45472-0
352 pages