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Positive Thinking in India

August 9, 2000

I have peeked behind the curtain and it wasn't a pretty sight. But I am getting ahead of myself, and should start this from the beginning

Yesterday as I was walking through the market, I was stopped by a rickshaw driver I have been greeting and chatting with since December ­ he seemed his normal kooky self, but not exactly in the best of health. I had seen him last week pedaling a fare down the main road and from a distance it looked as if he had been beaten up ­- dark bruises up his arm, and sores open and bleeding on his face. And though I was shocked at his appearance, he was gone before I could question him as to what had happened. Yesterday though he surprised me as I was walking along and I had him pull over to the side of the road, curious to find out what had happened to him.

About 32 or 33 years old, he normally looks quite fit, but the last few months he has been looking more tired and aged, and now he looked nothing short of terrible. I asked him if he had been in a fight or had a "problem" with the police (i.e. was he whacked because he couldn't or wouldn't pay baksheesh, a bribe?). He smiled and said no, he just hadn't been feeling very well lately, and blamed it all on the season, granted a cause of much discomfort at this time, but no good reason I thought for the abject state he was really in. Not only did he have these sores everywhere, but also he seemed so much skinnier than I remembered him being in the past, his knees suddenly looking huge, and his ribs showing through his sweat soaked tee shirt.

"Man, you need to go and see a doctor," I told him, and he answered saying that he had, several months before, and he had been given a clean bill of health. "No my friend," I said, "you must go again, because something doesn't seem right" ­ although that is a lot easier said than done, especially for someone on his severely limited salary.

"You come my house?" he asked. "It not so far and I show you paper from clinic." And with nothing else better to do at the moment I agreed to go along. He had showed me pictures of his wife and little boy before and had invited me to come and meet them, but I had always put his invitations off, busy with something else or just wary about being hauled off to some questionable neighborhood somewhere. It actually wasn't so far from the main crossing ­ down a few narrow sidestreets, and sitting on an open courtyard ­ where people sat in the doorways of single room dwellings, and children played around a communal water pump. It was all very dirty, and the people were obviously very poor, but the thing that stood out the most in my mind was the way everyone was so quiet and just looked at us as we approached his room ­ normally a moment filled with a lot of "Hello, hello's", and excited, screaming kids. He didn't take mind of any of this and continued babbling away, motioning for me to take my shoes off and guiding me through the burlap curtain that served as a door, into a dingy single room that lacked any furniture or decoration, save for a makeshift bed on the floor, a small charcoal burning brazier, and a cardboard box filled with an assortment of mismatched dishes. In spite of his obvious enthusiasm I wasn't in that room but a few seconds, and I could tell already something was terribly wrong.

Here it was the middle of the day and his wife wasn't busy doing one of the myriad of chores that seems to keep women in this country busy from morning to night. Instead she was laid out on the floor with the baby cradled in her arms, both of them breathing heavily and covered in a sheen of glistening sweat. He shook her by the shoulder and said something in Hindi, and then went and began to rummage in a small metal box, producing a well-worn envelope, which he handed to me with a flourish. His wife half-heartedly began going through motions like she was going to prepare tea and I quickly told him I wasn't thirsty; she seemed grateful as she lay back down. I began to read through the papers that proved to be the results of blood tests that indeed he had been given several months before. I got to the last sheet, read it from top to bottom, and felt my heart start to pound, a sick feeling starting to crawl up from my stomach. For apart from all the other notes and findings I saw he had been given a test for HIV, and in the box where the doctor was to note the outcome, there was a simple "+".

Ohmygod, I thought, he has no clue what any of this means. And indeed I asked him if the doctor had taken any time to explain to him the results and what they had meant. No, no, he replied, the hospital had been very crowded when he had gone back, and seeing as his mark had been good, he didn't loiter around ­ instead just going straight back to work on his rickshaw. "Good?" I questioned him, and he said that in school too, when work was done properly and was aptly rewarded they were given the same "plus- symbol", so seeing that he had been reassured everything was alright and had thought about it no further.

By this time the room was getting stuffier and stuffier, and I felt like it was getting harder to breathe. I looked closer at the baby which the mother was making a half-hearted attempt to nurse and when it turned it's face towards me it no longer resembled the smiling baba in the photo which he so proudly had shared with me before. No, its eyes were sunken, his skin was a ghastly yellow color, and it was making no sounds whatsoever, save for the wheezing of its labored breathing. I saw a face like I remembered from my days working in refugee camps; I saw the face of death.

Behind me the rickshaw man was still chirping away about god-only-knows-what for I wasn't paying attention at all, I was looking at his wife. And the way she was looking back at me, I knew, she knew things were not right at all. She moved with the child to the corner of the room to dab some fresh water on its forehead, and where they had been stretched out on the mattress was a huge stain ­ the obvious result of accidents with diarrhea and night-sweats which could not longer be washed out into whiteness. She saw me looking at it and tried to arrange the corner of her sari over it, the whole time looking straight into my eyes. I suddenly felt like an intruder, my obvious good health and ample wealth an affront to the apparent hopelessness of the situation ­ the only living person in a house marked for death. I saw in a flash how dirty the room was and how little they had, and I knew that my "friend" either was in the depths of denial or suffering some sort of AIDS dementia. I knew too that the neighbors understood fully what the situation was, for their disinterest and lack of any sort of friendliness now seemed to me to be a subtle form of shunning. I had been reading a lot about the AIDS crisis in India lately, how through ignorance and denial the epidemic will eventually get totally out of hand, and also how the courts have basically declared those infected to have no right to privacy, and more recently no right to marry.

This morning under the headline "AIDS Without Rights" I read the following:

Though the court has said that the AIDS victims deserve 'sympathy', its own observations leave much to be desired. According to the court, "AIDS is the product of undisciplined sexual impulse." Such observations are neither the whole truth, nor fair. They seem to convey that promiscuity is the only factor responsible for AIDS. The fact is that sexual intercourse is just one of the several factors responsible for AIDS. And in our country, without commercial, professional blood donors, improper or totally absent blood testing facilities, reuse of infected syringes and innumerable other unhygienic and callous conditions, a large number of AIDS cases are not products of 'undisciplined sexual impulses.' Still though once a person's HIV positive status is made public, irreparable harm is done to his self esteem, his social status and his dignity, not to mention his professional career ­
and he is doomed to a life of eternal distress and a social death.

Well I tell you, it's one thing to read something like that, and it's another thing to see it in cold, hard reality. Here's a hardworking guy and his family doomed to die of a disease they have no clue they have, with no means to fight it whatsoever. Till the moment we took leave of his little hovel and made our way back to the rickshaw my host never stopped babbling, and his wife never said a word ­ a few of the older neighbor ladies even actually looked away as I scanned the faces which were staring at me as I left ­ and I wondered if they felt scared, or just ashamed as I did. Not once did he ask me for any kind of help, and for my part I did not offer any. How? What? My god, this guy still thinks their ills are temporary, though any one with open eyes and a bit of common sense can see things are far from "ok".

You hear of the term "dead man walking" for condemned prisoners; well, I felt like I was sitting behind "dead man cycling" as he pedaled me back to the main road, his incessant chirpiness only seeming to make me more and more depressed. Why? Why am I so blessed in my life, while he and his loved ones are doomed? What did I do to deserve my good fortune, and what did he do to merit such a terrible fate? It's one thing to see how people live all around the world but to see it and realize there is nothing you can do to help leaves a person feeling very impotent and helpless.

We parted with a handshake and a slap on the back, and even then I didn't tell him what the paper had really said, what I knew his imminent fate to be. I just couldn't, I don't know why ­ maybe because that would have started a ball rolling that I had no power to stop or guide in its path, or maybe because it would feel too much like reading a death sentence to a guy who has no clue he's even ill. I went home with my head filled with all sorts of thoughts and questions, the world bustling around me in a blur. Mahesh and Ashu were there to greet me at the door when I got home, and I spoke nothing of the incident ­ hugging Ashu instead and reminding Mahesh just how lucky we really are. Sharda appeared smiling in the background and offered to make tea, and I felt really, really happy to be home, surrounded by people who love me and care for me, and help to make my life here a real joy.

-Klaus Zech
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