HIV+: The power of positive thinking

HIV+: The power of positive thinking

No longer alone

Ten years ago, Jayaram, 41, faced the grama sabha at Arkalgud taluk in Hassan and admitted: “Yes, I am HIV+.” And from that moment on, he became a neo-untouchable.
Jayaram had been dragged to the panchayat by his wife’s in-laws. They wanted his land, he said, “because they thought I was going to die anyway”. That’s what he thought too. What will society think of me, he wondered.
Jayaram soon knew: People shrank back when they saw him, they sneered and wouldn’t allow him to drink water at public places. Even his marriage ended in a divorce.

“I decided that others should not face what I had.” So, he stood outside the district hospital and approached people who had tested positive.  
He also met Fr Peter Brank, then director of the Chikmagalur Multi-purpose Social Service Society (CMSSS), and broached the idea of a “positive network”. The result was Jeevanashraya.

Today, Jayaram no longer feels alone. He, along with others, managed to get Hassan an ART(anti-retroviral treatment) centre.
He doesn’t think twice before barging into a wedding hall where an unsuspecting person is being married to an HIV+ person. And he’s willing to give his land for a hostel for HIV people.

In the meantime, Jayaram also found love in Nagaratna.

‘AIDS Nagaratna’
At 32, Nagaratna is happily married to Jayaram though her astrological birth chart said she would die at 24.
“Death is scared of me,” she jokes, adding that she’s known as AIDS Nagaratna. What’s more, she’s willing to stand up in Majestic, declare her positive status and give a talk there.

But before the liberation was a long journey. Married off at 17 in Chitradurga, she didn’t know why her husband was ill, why her in-laws kept taunting her and why the villagers shunned her though she learnt to avoid them by waking up at 3 in the morning and finishing the outdoor work. 
“It was only when I was clearing away things after his death that I saw his medical reports.” And then, incidents started making sense. “One day, my husband bought four cans of traditional medicine. When I asked him why four, he had said: Two for you and two for me.”

After his death in 1996, a cousin convinced her to take a test the next year. She tested positive and wanted to live alone for fear of infecting her family but her brother refused, saying, “We’ll all die together.”
Soon, Nagaratna started collecting information on AIDS and educating everyone in her family. And then, the village. A CD of her street plays is at ART (anti-retroviral treatment) centres.
She now works in the district hospital, counselling positive people.

Dubai to Bhandavya
On Christmas eve 2004, Philomena found herself in a room that looked like a cage. There were people from different countries all around her. This was Dubai and she found herself here days after her medical test.

Someone said she had AIDS. “I didn’t know what they meant.” On Christmas Day she was getting ready to fly back, wondering what she had done to deserve this “gift”.
She returned home to her husband and daughter in Coimbatore and insisted that they get tested. He tested positive but thankfully, the child was spared. They lived with the dreadful secret for three months.

When she confided in his family, her sister-in-law’s words stung: “You Dubai prostitute! Go back,” she said. “There was no one to counsel us. When I gave my relatives my jewellery to sell, they would give me only half the money. They played with my emotions and my money,” says Philomena.
When her husband succumbed to pancreatic cancer in Coimbatore, she went to her sister’s place in Hassan. That’s when she joined the positive network and realised that this was not the end of the road.
On World Aids Day in 2007, a founder-member of the Karnataka Network for Positive People (KNP) asked her why she didn’t start a unit in Chikmagalur. She did. It was called the Bhandavya network and the first meeting was on January 23 – her birthday.

Life is a struggle
Latha, 30, found out that she was HIV+ on January 1, 2007 but has done little about it… life’s been enough of a struggle anyway.
She married when she was 15 to a bus driver in Davanagere and had two children since then. But soon, her husband started falling ill. He had TB of the liver and as his condition deteriorated, his family didn’t want him anymore.
“When I came to Hasan, he weighed 30 kg and people were scared to go near him,”  she says. As he lay bedridden, she had to be there to attend to his every need. If she wasn’t, he got abusive.

When she had nowhere to stay, she lived in her brother-in-law’s barely-constructed house, plastering the walls with mud with her children’s help. When there was no job, she worked as an agricultural labourer.  When she returned home late, people looked at her askance. “But there’s no time to think of such things,” says Latha. And then, she attended her first positive network meeting where they helped her find a job at the community care centre.

Meanwhile, her husband’s CD4 count (white blood cell necessary for the immune system)  reached 860. Hers’ is 340 (the normal level is 300 to 1,600).
Her husband has started smoking and drinking -- absolute no-nos during ART. And her job contract will end in a month.
She’s hoping her positive network will show her a way out.

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