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AIDS memoire

On World AIDS Day, it is obligatory to cash in on the cheap pun of ?Positive People?. Parade them like freaks in what literally becomes a circus on such occasions.

india Updated: Dec 01, 2002 01:20 IST

On World AIDS Day, it is obligatory to cash in on the cheap pun of ‘Positive People’. Parade them like freaks in what literally becomes a circus on such occasions. Then, for these brave battlers, it’s back to the unrelenting reality of stigma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. If I too present three people in today’s column, I could be as guilty as I’ve charged. All I can say in extenuation is that none of them is a token. Each embodied a revelation, each left me more sensitised. And knocked my socks off in the process. One is a prostitute, the other is a priestess. The third is a Gay man who died, though the source of my amazement is the lover he left behind.

I spotted the distinctive tumble of red hair as I crossed over from the exhibition hall of the Fiera Barcelona this July. I caught up with the vivacious woman, and said, “Remember?” She took one look at me, and yelled “BITCH! You described me as ‘40-something’, when I wasn’t a day over 30.’’ Cheryl Overs was referring to a piece I’d written after our first encounter in Yokohama — eight years ago.

She was like nothing I’d encountered in the all the years I’d spent as a camp-follower of AIDS in its insidious invasion of Mumbai’s red-light disrict. Cheryl had slipped through Narita Airport in violation of Article 5 (7) of the Japanese immigration law that bans entry to anyone involved in sex work. Then she had stormed the barricades of the conference hall. Belligerently forcing a change in the agenda, she became the first sex worker to address an international AIDS conference, not raucously from the street, but from the sanctum sanctorum of the plenary session itself.

The cool Australian clinically dismantled the pathetic image of the cowering sex worker, the whore with the heart of gold and giver of AIDS. Cheryl Overs said, keep your schmaltzy sympathy, just give us industrial safety laws. “A condom is to a brothel what a hard hat is to a construction site.”

She spelt it out, “Every industry has the potential to create nuisance, exploit workers, be a health hazard. But elsewhere the mechanisms to keep these in control have been mandated by law. Clothes are taken off in several other commercial settings. But in swimming pools and gyms, there are established norms on the cleanliness of towels or the non-slipperiness of floors. Just extend these safeguards to the sex industry, and all the age-old phobias will disappear.”

If Cheryl challenged all the patronising/demonising notions about sex workers, Kanitha shattered the myth of cloistered Buddhist renunciation. It’s not usual to see a nun with shaven head and pristine white robes rustling serenely through an AIDS conference, much less to hear her talk of condoms and sexual variations. Trying to figure out how the ascetic had strayed into the world of promiscuity, I discovered that her route to the Eightfold Path had been equally unconventional.

She had been a titled lady, a graduate in international law from Columbia University, but she had abandoned her well-paid job, her art-scattered home, her highborn rights, and joined an Order. Even here, she could have stayed on the safe highway of service. Instead she plunged into the squalid bylane of AIDS. When I met her at Chiang-Mai in 1995, she was 80, but in that month alone, she had already spoken out for the rights of the HIV-afflicted at Beijing, Leh and Tokyo. Kanitha was one more eye-popping example of a person pushing the viral envelop.

Jamal and Justin are something else. The Moroccan and the Frenchman haven’t fought for AIDS, they’ve fought it. One battled the virus, and succumbed; the other was spared. Or was he? Suffering by proxy is often far worse. If Cheryl taught me to strip the sentimentalist frills off sex work, and put it in the boiler-suit of trade-unionism, Justin and Jamal taught me to frame in soft lighting what I’d believed to be impersonal, assembly-line gratification. Justin showed me how intensely caring a Gay relationship can be. Sadly.

His long letters mile-stoned Jamal’s precipitous decline. Through his jagged English, I felt the sharp edges of Justin’s anguish. He cleaned, bathed, and massaged his disintegrating lover: “I cannot bear someone else doing this.” He flaunted every flicker of deceptive recovery: “Yesterday he walked, like a Pharaoh. It’s more than a month since he has set one foot before the other, but now he did it with the flamboyance of the stage.” Then he’d falter towards the truth: “To everyone Jamal says thank you. But in the depth of our heart, it is we who are thanking him for allowing us to share his last moments. After all, why not hope? Never mind that Jamal has not a souffle of a hope.”

Then came the card, just three lines set within a border of dry-eyed embellishment. Jamal was dead. Six years on, Justin is still inconsolable.

*************

Alec Smart said, “A train, then tickets. Now will Gujarat get Modirailed?”

First Published: Dec 01, 2002 01:20 IST