Sixteen well-known writers go on a journey to discover more about the four-letter word: Aids. Sure, they have all heard and read about Aids. They know how infection spreads. And, perhaps, some of them have friends and family affected by the infection. This book is not about those these writers have loved and lost to Aids. Which is a pity. <b1>
Instead, most of the writers choose to report with empathy, no doubt, but almost always as a privileged narrator doing a voice-over for a film about the other reality. The stories lack warmth. At best, they are journalists on assignments. Occasionally, some like Shobhaa De (she writes a story of her driver dying of Aids), write of people they knew. Irrespective of the genre and the style, those who write about personal experiences get it right.
The reportage format fails because many narrators revisit stories that have been told not once, but many, many times before. To an extent, this is understandable. Very few people shrouded with the stigma associated with Aids want to come out and talk about their lives. Fewer still want to be photographed.
So we have some oft-told stories, such as Salman Rushdie's prosaic account of his meeting with Lakshmi Tripathi, arguably Indiafs best-known trans-gender, who was last seen by millions hugging Salman Khan on a TV show. <b2>
Then there are stories of the 'Radhikas' of the world, the sex workers who are abused, exploited, infected and left to die every day. It is said each story is different in the telling. But it is the sameness in the lives of all the people living under the shadow of an infection that they perceive as sure death be it Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi's avant garde filmmaker Murad who is fleetingly the toast of Mumbai, or Aman Sethi's homesick truckers Sanjay and Kamlesh who pay for sex to break the monotony of the road.
Produced in collaboration with Avahan, the India Aids initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation money from the book goes to children affected with HIV/Aids - the list of writers is impressive. There's Vikram Seth writing about how he first heard of Aids as a student at Stanford; Kiran Desai about an evening with sex workers in Andhra Pradesh; and Mukul Kesavan about the lives of gay men looking for acceptance in a hostile society.
Missing are the stories of dignity, of the fight for life, of the joy of being alive. And of the desperate love that brings people living with Aids and their families together.