By Puja Awasthi,Womens Feature Service
Satya Narain, 28, and Anjana Patel, 32, have come to the Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) Centre at the Lucknow-based Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University (CSMMU) to get their dose for the month. “All I wanted was a partner, who would understand me and is ready to stand by me,” says Patel, who lost her husband to AIDS in March 2007. Narain adds, “My family was in shock over the discovery of my status. But now they are at peace that I have found a partner.”
Narain and Patel are part of the increasing band of HIV positive people who are looking to marry or in many cases re-marry with positive partners in a bid to have a second shot at a normal life. They do not see HIV as the end of existence, but choose to learn their lessons and move on.
However the going is not easy. Besides trying to deal with the trauma of being HIV positive, they also have to overcome pressures from family members and society at large when it comes to being with a partner of their choice. Being HIV positive is not the only criteria when looking for a prospective spouse; caste considerations are still a part of the equation. Take Savitri Gupta, 27, and Mohan Singh Kushwaha, 34. The two first met at an advocacy awareness programme in Etah, 280 kilometres from Lucknow. At the time Gupta was a nodal officer at an HIV/AIDS drop-in centre in Kanpur. The two liked each other and decided to marry.
When the duo announced their decision, Gupta’s family opposed the match citing caste as a factor. “My father had no objections. But my brother brought up the caste issue repeatedly. He told me to think of the fate of my three younger sisters and the negative gossip it would generate among relatives. But I was determined,” says Gupta, who now signs her name as Savitri Devi.
Kushwaha’s family in Etah, fortunately, had no objections. They were just happy that their wayward son was finally settling down. The marriage was fixed for July 11, 2000. Four days before the nuptials, Gupta’s family declared that they would have nothing to do with her. It was then that the UP Network for Positive People (UPNP+), part of a countrywide network of the positive people, stepped in. A counsellor discharged the duties that Gupta’s father would have performed during the wedding ceremony.
Kushwaha, however, chose to keep one detail from his family: That Savitri had been married at the age of 14 and had contracted the infection from her husband, an autorickshaw driver in Mumbai. He explains why he did this, “I wanted her entry into the family to be as smooth as possible. How do such things matter? At that age she was so innocent. What would she have known about HIV?” says the much-in-love young man.
Now they are planning to have a baby. Clad in a bright blue sari with silver embroidery and wearing a ‘mangalsutra’, Savitri sports a shy smile as she says, “The family wants a child and we are trying.” The couple works at Etah’s District Network For Positive People that offers counselling, in addition to carrying out advocacy and awareness programmes. Although her brother has not forgiven her even after 10 years, she believes life is too short to spend it on worrying. “I want to live it to the fullest,” she states.
According to Dr Harjeet Singh, Head of Department of Psychiatry, CSMMU, “The stigma of HIV-AIDS is so strong that the immediate reaction is either nonchalance or extreme anxiety. If one can find a partner to share the trauma, the pain eases considerably.”
Shalini Misra’s world came crashing down in 2005 when the 29-year-old discovered that her husband, Ajay, was HIV positive and that he had mortgaged their house to one Rajendra Sood, who knew of Ajay’s positive status and was blackmailing him. Ajay committed suicide in a Lucknow hotel in November 2007, leaving behind Shalini and their four-year-old son. Locked out of her own home and shunned by a family, who had publicly beaten up her husband, Misra was at her wits’ end when she got in touch with Lucknow’s Network For Positive People (LNPPlus). It was through LNPPlus that she met Jaspreet Singh, a spare parts trader from Biswan in Sitapur. Singh, 32, had discovered his positive status in 2007. His wife’s first reaction was to leave with their six-month-old daughter, Mannat. Divorce proceedings were initiated and in an out-of-court settlement Singh gave jewellery and money to his former wife so that he could have his daughter back.
When Misra and Singh decided to share their life together, Singh’s family was not happy. They objected to Misra’s presence in the kitchen and worried that she would pass the virus to others if by chance she injured herself while peeling vegetables. They also felt that she would not be sufficiently attached to baby Mannat. But once those doubts were settled, Shalini was rechristened Shalini Kaur, her son was renamed Tarandeep, and the couple tied the knot in an Arya Samaj temple.
“My son was a little hesitant about his place in the new scheme of things. But he was mature enough to tell me: ‘Mummy you must get a new husband’. Today he is more attached to my husband and goes to him with his demands,” says Shalini, who is a regular at the local gurudwara (Sikh temple).
A visibly content Singh says that these days he can easily manage 14-hour workdays, often prompting people to wonder whether he actually has HIV. Adds Shalini, “I am lucky to have found a family, which showers me with gifts and affection. Life is not bad at all. What matters is how you handle your status. We have chosen to take it in our stride. Our CD4 counts (tests that determine how well the immune system of a HIV positive person is functioning) are healthy and we hope to be around to see our grandchildren.”
Dr Saurabh Paliwal, counsellor at CSMMU’s ART Centre says that it is the patient’s attitude in dealing with the virus that determines how well s/he will fare. “The treatment for HIV is life-long. And it helps to have the requisite care and support at home so that one can adhere to the strict treatment regimen. Besides one’s parents, a spouse is the only one who can be counted upon for such unwavering support. When a positive couple gets married, not only does it send out a very strong message to society at large, all those who attend the wedding and the service providers connected with it – photographers, caterers, and so on – get a better understanding of the issue and shed some of their prejudices. The ripple effects are tremendous,” he says.
Kavita and Amitabh Awasthi is the couple that has initiated this positive ripple effect in Lucknow. Kavita contracted HIV during the birth of her daughter – she was operated upon and it could be the result of use of unsterilised instruments. Soon after, her husband’s family turned her out for being sick all the time. She met Amitabh in January 2007 and the two were married later in May. “I had never felt so alone. Though my father knew, he did not disclose my status, even to my mother. Then I met Amitabh and things fell into place,” she says. Although UP-based Kavita came from a Punjabi family and Amitabh was a Brahmin, caste was never an issue for their families. Today, they run LNPPlus, with Kavita as the District Network Officer and Amitabh as its President. Together they give hope to many couples like them – and send out the message that being HIV positive is by no means the end of life.