Grim text and photographs depict an India very different from the booming economic superpower-in-training of contemporary myth.
Instead, this collection of 16 narratives focuses on the nation’s many pockets of desperate poverty and joblessness where families reap a few rupees from selling their daughters while police and petty bureaucrats take a cut (and free sex) from sex workers on their beat. The concentration of HIV in particular risk groups rather than across the population as a whole echoes Elizabeth Pisani’s findings from her work in Southeast Asia (The Wisdom of Whores, 2008). Various writers of Indian ethnicity, birth or residency—including Salmon Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Vikram Seth—depict the daily grind of sex workers, drug addicts and long-distance truck drivers, each providing a take-home message. Even in the occasional tales featuring such atypical AIDS sufferers as a servant, a physician or a noted filmmaker, the same issues persist: difficulties in implementing condom or clean needle use; overwhelming ignorance about the disease’s cause and transmission. Stigma leads to secrecy, shame and avoidance of treatment, which in India is largely free. A family pleased to live off the earnings of their daughter when she was healthy dumped her in a corner of their house and let her starve to death after she developed AIDS. William Dalrymple poignantly portrays a lovely young devadasi sold by her parents into prostitution at age 14 in a corrupt modern version of the ancient Hindu cult dedicated to the goddess Yellamma. A foreword by Nobelist Amartya Sen and an introduction by Bill and Melinda Gates both argue that we must cease stigmatizing and blaming hapless victims if we are to find real solutions. Among the few bright spots here is the fact that some of the infected protagonists have gone to work for NGOs and now counsel their peers.
A cautionary volume that stresses the need to educate, treat and create jobs.