True Life

Love in the Time of HIV

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When Najaraus met Maitri, she was an HIV-positive widow, and he an AIDS awareness worker. Nine years later, with a little grit and a little fib, they are married, living together, still in love—and Najaraus is still HIV-negative
It is the second real day of winter by the almanac of the sun, the day after the winter solstice. But it has been sweater cold for several days now, the pushcarts of smoky peanuts and sticky peanut candy have rolled out into the smog-laden evening for at least three weeks, and we have been rubbing our sleeping hands for warmth for at least a week.

This is why the nauseating, uninterrupted filth around transformer number 12 in Sangam Vihar does not smell as stomach-turningly bad as it would have even a month back. The strange thing is, the sight of open sewers on both sides leaking out on the kilometre or so of unpaved road, the mottled grey pigs squelching about, the snaking trails of lurid polythene packets all around are enough to make me heave even though I am breathing, unwisely, through my mouth. It is not smell or taste; sight alone can make the body convulse. My eyes water. I sound muffled when I greet Najaraus Lakra, who has come to pick me up.

Najaraus and Maitri’s two-room home is fragrant with the smell of boiling rice and preparations for a Sunday afternoon visitor. It is dark here, lit by the earnest white of a tubelight; the apartment is wisely windowless so as to blank out the filth of the alleys. Yo Yo Honey Singh is on the radio while Maitri hurries over the cooking, the dark cement floor has been mopped clean, a mosquito repellent device is kept ready to be plugged in. Remember when we rushed to finish everything to watch movies on Doordarshan? This is something like that: I have been invited to listen to a love story.

When Najaraus met Maitri, she had just started her ART (anti-retroviral treatment) therapy to keep her HIV in check. Her CD4 count—the number of infection-fighting white blood cells per micro-litre of blood— had fallen quite low to 140, close to the threshold limit at which ART is recommended. The Government of India had started free ART for the HIV-positive in 2004; this was in 2005.

Maitri nudges Najaraus, who squints about the date but says he remembers all the important and unimportant stories of the time they fell for each other. “She was not as beautiful then; she was so thin,” he says of his wife, who now has the slim, hipless frame of a 12-year-old. “No make-up, no jewellery, but I was impressed with the way she spoke. She was so thoughtful. I knew then that she knew of life and its insensitivities,” he says, smiling at the music system.

Najaraus was working for the NGO Population Concern International India then, part of 60-odd people assigned to participate in an all-India AIDS awareness walking tour. It was a heady time for the mostly male contingent— the adventure of a nomadic lifestyle but backed by a salary and the high of a heroes’ welcome in every state they visited. They were all falling in love a lot those days; the days were for walking and campaigning and the evenings for chatting, singing, dining with new friends. It was a time of intense conversations, no TV, no distractions of family. In Bengal, the PCI team was met by a delegation of the Bengal Network of People Living with HIV/ AIDS (BNPL). They were all women, all widows. Maitri was assigned singing and translation work. They had been warned not to flirt with boys who were unfamiliar.

“Fourteen or 15 of us fell in love in Bengal,” says Najaraus. “I took away her pen the first day. Mine was not working; I exchanged it with her,” he chuckles. “She followed me around all day.”

The walk through Bengal with the PCI team was Maitri’s first paid job, as she sees it, though she had been paid a stipend of Rs 400 for making tea and cleaning the BNPL office for a few months before this. It was only enough to cover the cost of travelling to the BNPL office from Domjur district, where she lived in a hovel she had built herself with bamboo and tin plates her father helped her buy. She got the land with the help of a cousin, a CPM worker with contacts in the Gram Panchayat. She strung up a wire to steal electricity from nearby homes.

Her husband’s family had made it clear she was not welcome to stay with them. Her husband, who worked as a jewellery artisan in Bombay, had died in a Bengal district hospital in 2004, leaving her with two sons and no savings. She had been married to him after her Class 10 board exams, so suddenly that she was too stunned to protest. She had no choice but to stay home. “He did not even let me speak to people on the corridor of our building,” she says.

She had found out she was HIV- positive in 2000, when her husband had to be hospitalised with bone tuberculosis and was diagnosed with AIDS. “The counselling in the hospital was terrifying; I thought all I could do was wait to die. I didn’t realise there was such a vast difference between AIDS and being HIV-positive.” She didn’t want to go back to her own family, where her aunts and uncles and sisters- in-law refuse to eat with her. Only her parents and grandma eat with her, but it means a closed-door, highly restricted existence for them with her at home.

Maitri’s main interest in the BNPL gig was the opportunity to learn about the condition, and to talk. She listened while she swept the floor and washed the cups and boiled the tea. She soon started functioning as the receptionist at the office. When the PCI project came along, Maitri was chosen to be part of the delegation to work with the walking team in Bengal: her monthly salary was Rs 3,000.

“It was my first job. I was very serious. From the first day, he kept teasing me, and I was annoyed. One time, he stopped me from falling while we were walking with banners by grabbing me around the waist. I was very angry with him for this public gesture,” says Maitri. The memory of the moment makes them turn towards each other with broad grins.

“Besides, we had been warned not to flirt with the boys from outside, we were widows and we were all positive. But the attention was nice. I had had no love in my first marriage, no affection. There was not much to do in the evenings; we found corners of quietness. Some 14 or 15 couples grew quite close,” says Maitri. “Only the two of us are still together,” says Najaraus, proudly. He also met Maitri’s younger son during the Bengal assignment; she brought him along to meet her colleagues when the walking rally passed close to her home.

They kept in touch over the phone for the next two years. She came to Delhi once on assignment with the BNPL. She had started working regularly by then. She brought him a gift: Rs 2,000 to buy a mobile phone so they could speak at leisure. He used to call from a landline. Another time, she saved up money to visit him in Delhi, and to check if he was serious about their relationship. They spoke only on the phone. She hadn’t met his folks. Her family was against the match: how could she marry again? And how is it that a young, attractive, HIV-negative boy wanted to marry an HIV-positive widow with two sons?

Yet he did, and Najaraus is surprised to be asked why. “I fell in love. I am not one looking only for a good time. I have a sense of responsibility. I told you how 14 or 15 of us fell in love during the rally in Bengal; we are the only ones who are together. A family makes you responsible,” he says. There is a sweet earnestness about him in spite of his tendency to clown around. He speaks then of his father, who fell into the habit of drinking heavily when Najaraus was in his teens and lost his job with State Bank of India. Najaraus started working to support his mother and siblings, and failed his Class 10 exams. He didn’t have the heart to try again.

In 2007, Maitri found a job for Najaraus as a manager at an acquaintance’s factory in Purulia where she was working at the time. It was for Rs 2,500, a lot less than the Rs 4,000 he would have earned in Delhi. They got married in a temple soon after. There were no guests at the wedding. Najaraus’ family didn’t know. Maitri’s family was not happy but she didn’t care. Her boys, however, were happy. The younger boy, Subhashish, treats Najaraus like an elder brother or a beloved uncle. The boy, all shy grins and jumps, speaks to Najaraus with the assurance of the indulged.

“I was so so happy I could be with him without worry or censure,” says Maitri. “Everyone kept remarking about how lucky I was to find such a love, how handsome he was, how generous. He didn’t like the job at the factory, so he took up a job as a security guard for Rs 1,200 near my office. Imagine. After my parents, John”—her name for her husband—“is the only one who has loved me so wholeheartedly.”

By 2009, they had decided to live in Delhi. The decision was two-fold: Najaraus had better job prospects in Delhi, and Maitri was keen to meet his folks. In her family, her father is fond of her husband but her siblings think she is shameless to marry again, especially with her ‘disease’. “My family thinks of me as diseased. My mother is scared of catching the disease from me. I work as an HIV/AIDS educator, and my own family ostracises me.”

Najaraus took her home to stay with his folks; the family was surprised, his mother peeved, that he invited a woman to stay home with them. He had a fully-rounded fib: he told his mother that he was HIV-positive, that he was lucky to find a woman who loved him and wanted to be his wife. “I could not tell her she is HIV-positive; she is not educated, she would not understand. I told her the boys are Maitri’s sister’s children, and we have adopted them. My HIV-status and the adopted children mean I can’t be pressured to have children,” grins Najaraus.

“What? You have to do these things,” he shrugs, at what must be my transparent admiration. Did his mother never wonder how he contracted his condition? “Well, she was surprised because I am the good responsible elder son of the house, but she hasn’t said anything,” says Najaraus.

Maitri’s mother-in-law lives a few doors away from them. Najaraus’ brother and sister have asked Maitri about her ART medicines. “I tell them that I live with your brother, there must be consequences I have to bear. I keep dropping hints that I am HIV- positive. I think they know I am HIV- positive, but they have not brought it up before his mother,” says Maitri. “I am grateful for this. I am uncomfortable with his mother. She hasn’t accepted me; she tolerates me as the wife of her son. She keeps asking him whether we will have children.”

“There is no data on sero-discordant couplings (where one partner is HIV-positive and the other not) in India. They are uncommon, but not rare,” says Vikas Ahuja, a member of the Delhi Network of Positive People who works with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), which calls itself a community- based movement for people living with HIV. Such couplings are more common among drug users. Also, people sometimes discover they contracted the virus after they got married; their partners might not be infected yet. “Cases like Maitri and Najaraus, when a couple marries with the knowledge that one partner carries the virus—those are very rare indeed.”

“It’s good to see cases where sero-discordant couples are getting married in spite of knowledge of the spouse’s status,” says Vinay Chandran, executive director of Swabhava Trust, which offers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and others support services in Bangalore. “Especially when the husband has ‘negative’ status, I would assume—although I don’t have data on this—that it is typically the wife who has the ‘negative’ status and gets/ stays married to positive husbands to care for them.”

Things have been good since the move to Delhi. Najaraus found a job making tea at a stall inside a mall, and Maitri is a counsellor with the Delhi Network of Positive People. More recently, Najaraus found a job with the quality inspection department of the hotel Leela Palace in New Delhi, with a “very good salary”: Rs 9,000. It has enabled them to move into their “two-room set” and get the younger boy to stay with them. For now, there is everything, Maitri says. Her death wish is that Najaraus cremates her in the wedding finery she did not wear at her two weddings.

On my nose-clipped walk back, I cautiously ask Najaraus what he makes of the difference between his filthy neighbourhood and his office, reputed to be the most expensive hotel in the country. He shrugs—it is a non- issue for him, what I imagine is a dramatic contrast. “I want to get a better job in a year or so. This is a very good job, but the boy staying here is a big expense.” Does he not want children of his own? “Well, you can’t have everything. I have this lovely family to come home to.”

We are nearly at the main road where I will find an auto, but there is one difficult question: what if Maitri dies? “I don’t think like that. She has been living with HIV for 14 years; she is still only on the first line of ART.” There are 3-4 lines of ART treatment. “Yes, that fear is always there in the background, but you must learn to live too. You can’t live like that. Or love like that,” he says, this philosopher of shrugs and winks and glorious fibs.

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