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Healing by the book

In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited him to contribute an essay to their anthology on Aids in India. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi tells how writing on AIDS can change the way we look at the disease...

books Updated: Jan 24, 2009 13:37 IST
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited me to contribute an essay to their anthology on Aids in India. Since I’d written about Aids as a student in America, the offer was particularly motivating, and I set off to work right away.

Within days, my subject — Murad — appeared with all the flamboyant particulars of an artist, and an elegant, inaudible shudder of doom. A young Bombay filmmaker who, after he became reconciled with his homosexuality, discovered he was HIV positive, whereupon he chose not to avail himself of medication and, ultimately, died at home.

I decided to recreate Murad’s life and, over a period of six months, interviewed Murad’s friends, studied his films, walked through his neighborhood, frequented his hangouts. The essay shaped up not only as a meditation on the disease but, more importantly, about the ineffable ways we die when we betray our dreams, as was the case with my subject. Aids was only one of the things that claimed Murad. The others — a failed career, romantic dejections — being far more tender in their heinousness.

In 2008, with the galley of the anthology finally in my hands, I wondered what such an endeavour hoped to achieve. Was I deluded enough to believe my work would ‘change the way people thought about Aids’? Or was I ‘raising awareness’? Before his death from Aids in 1994, the writer Paul Monette spoke of the ‘politics of silence’ shrouding Aids in the 80s and 90s.

The anthology would work, in some limited but eloquent way, to combat the politics of silence surrounding Aids in India. We hear that 2.5 million Indians live with HIV; we know that in states like Tamil Nadu, HIV prevalence has been controlled or is in decline. We watch HIV slither north to Rajasthan and Bihar. But these are facts, figures. This is what we know. And I am more interested in what we don’t know. That, after all, is the realm of art: to touch an enigma, to chat up one sexy question in a bar buzzing with unattractive answers.

I read the anthology through and concluded that my own essay had no value, other than to serve its subject with clarity. I’d started out writing about a man who had succumbed to Aids but ended up telling the story of a filmmaker who shimmied about Bombay in a saffron sarong. And my learning had also been that the disparity between intention and eventual accomplishment is more revealing about myself than my subject.

I’ve always felt ambivalence about artists who believe their work has a consequence larger than an existence in itself. I realised I only wanted my essay to be a beautiful piece about something as ugly as disease. It is unclear if I succeeded, but my objective was firmly in place.

The image of a bed on a flagstone passageway, shot by photographer Dayanita Singh, hangs on a wall in my studio. I came to Singh’s elegiac pictures of restrained sadness with the affinity of someone who had nursed a familiar wound. After studying at the International Center of Photography, Singh forsook the possibilities of an exciting career in America and returned to India.

On her home turf, she photographed Mona, a eunuch. She photographed child prostitutes; she photographed people living with Aids. Then Singh gave up what might be construed by some as socially relevant documentation and embarked on recording India’s urban rich, empty chairs in beautiful rooms, Gandhi’s bed, its fragrance of noble austerity.

I don’t know why Singh turned away from the political and social convictions that powered her formative work, but I can guess. Perhaps art, as James Baldwin wrote, has only to bear witness to the truth. We cannot change things, but we can watch them change; our witnessing takes custody of the past, journals the present, and reminds the future of the history it has emerged from.

To write is neither an act of bravery nor of foolishness. A good story told well can serve its subject in death with an empathy denied them in life. Justice is larger than mortality. Maybe that is the greatest strength of justice, as well as its greatest failing.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s forthcoming novel, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008