Negar Akhari (ed.). AIDS-Sutra: Untold Stories from India. New Delhi: Random House India, 2008.
A collection of 16 personal essays by Indian authors, who have made a name for themselves, on the subject of HIV/AIDS, the book claims to have featured (untold) stories of the men and women affected by AIDS. It's almost a valid claim. But, there's scope for debate whether these stories are really "untold."
We have heard about these issues in newspapers, journals. What the book does however is to give these stories faces. The format of personal essays is an interesting one. The writers go to the field and narrate their experiences first-hand. If you believe in the theory of two Indias, the book is the mainstream India visiting the minority India and reporting from the fields.
Here lies the problem. Can the mainstream really understand the minority in just a few day's time. It's doubtful. This makes you look at the book with a certain amount of suspicion. After all, this is a book financed by Bill Gates, one of the richest man in the world, and the book talks about prostitutes who earns less than Rs 5,000 a month. See the contradiction!
But the personal essays are touching, heartfelt. Quite so, because the writers featured here are understanding. It gives the book an emotional edge. But, does it reflect the realities of the lives lived by the victims of AIDS. That's a million dollar question.
Most of the writers are new to the environment. For example, Salman Rushdie among the transgenders in Mumbai; William Dalrymple among the Devadasis in Karnataka. Despite their best efforts, the authors can go only to a certain length, not the whole nine yard. For example, Nalini Jones talks about a man who has survived the HIV stigma to become an activist. She narrates in great details, with calculated pathos, about the trauma the man went through in the last 16 years. Yet, she fails to probe how the man contacted the virus in the first place.
Despite all its flaws, the book is a noble attempt, in telling the stories of the voiceless whom nobody would listen to if it is not told by someone who commands respect.
Thus, we have Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai visiting coastal Andhra Pradesh to meet the prostitutes; Aman Sethi hitch-hiking with a truck driver on the National Highway 31, trying to understand 'Gadar' and what makes the truck drivers tick, William Dalrymple visiting the seat of goddess Yellamma in Karnataka, while Sidhartha Bose goes to Manipur to meet the drug addicts. Sunil Gangopadhay visits Sanagachi and Salman Rushdie Mumbai's hijras. Amit Choudhury talks to doctors dealing with AIDS, so does Nikita Lalwani. Nalini Jones writes about finding love in the wake of death in Bangalore while Sonia Faleiro tries to read the psyche of the policemen and prostitutes on Mumbai streets. Jaspreet Singh befriends AIDS orphans and Siddhartha Dhanwant Shanvi writes about gay filmmaker Riyad Wadia, Shobha De talks about her driver who died of AIDS and Vikram Seth remembers his inspirations to write a poem on AIDS.