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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How AIDS touched my life

This is a story of an innocent life shredded to pieces and it will make many angry, still many will feel sad, but most will feel helpless in the face of the big terror called AIDS. It’s an incurable scourge that invades your body and once there, your entire life becomes hostage to it.

You can put on a cheerful mask and walk around among healthy people, but like the living dead.

This is the story of one such person. Shobha was a bright, pretty, hardworking teenager who came to Bombay to work for us. She lived on my grandmother’s island (A Village by the Sea; Mangalore), and my mum brought her to Bombay so she could have a shot at a better life. Her family were one of my grandmum’s neighbours back in Mangalore and their home was a hop, skip and jump away. But that distance didn’t reduce the fact that there was a world of difference between them and us.

My grandmum was the daughter-in-law of a family that rented out boats for fishing and these people were the hired help. In a village, a family’s economic situation is not as starkly visible as in a city, where slums and mansions co-exist. Shobha’s family had food to eat, a house to live in but a lot of mouths needed to be fed, as is always the case.

So, my mum brought her away to Bombay in 1977 and a year later, she was expecting me. So, it seemed like a perfect arrangement – mum got a young maid for herself, a nanny for me and Shobha got a better home and a lot of food for herself. She was around 12-13 years old at that time.

But by the time, I was about a year old, she had left us for good and gone back to Mangalore, where her family said they were looking to get her married off. She went away – suspecting nothing.


Shobha hovers behind me in this picture, I was 8 months old.

What happened to her after she went back is a subject of constant whispers and rumours, even today almost 27 years later. The most popular being that she was sold into prostitution by her family. They acted as pimps for her. She serviced fishermen who could afford her, contractors and engineers who were sent to the village to lay down roads or water pipelines, rich businessmen who owned the fishing trawlers etc.

The result was three good-looking sons from different men, who fortunately for them, looked like Shobha, so even though tongues wagged constantly, finger pointing was kept to the minimum. Those kids were always hanging out with my cousins and me, whenever we were at our granny’s for the holidays. It didn’t matter to us, what their mother did for a living and who their fathers were. Those were such innocent days, playing and running around with a prostitute’s children without a care in the world!

We never discriminated between her kids and ourselves but she was always hovering in the background apologetically. It didn’t occur to me until I was much older, why I was refrained from going that – hop, skip and jump distance – to her house. She had a affection for me that she obviously didn’t have for the others because she had helped mum raise me for a while. So, there were treats for me like ripe mangoes plucked and brought over or even the raw ones, which I love to slice and eat with salt. She also bought and gave us fresh fish, which my granny would insist on paying for. But she always stopped short of entering the house itself, no matter how much I asked her to come in – she knew something that I didn’t – she wasn’t going to be tolerated inside the house by the adults, no matter how much the eldest granddaughter wanted it.

During my college years, my visits to Mangalore became infrequent and I finally went back last year, after almost 10 years. So, much had changed in my life. I was no longer the kid who pranced around my grandmum’s fields and cowshed. I was a boring adult with a job! So, much had changed in Mangalore – there was a bridge built (from the jetty on the other side to the island), finally piped water connections would be given to each home, my uncle had torn down the old house and built a modern bungalow.

But Shobha was the same, amazingly thin, despite three pregnancies and so much else her body must have suffered. She still had clear, smooth, wrinkle-free skin, that would cause envy here in the city. She was smiling as usual and also keeping her distance, as usual. But this time, my aunts muttered to me under their breath, that I should just say ‘hello’ to her that was about it. I asked why and they evaded some more, as if I was 10 years old rather than the 27 year old I was.

Then I told my aunts, that I would ask Shobha herself, how life was treating her and how her kids were doing now, and why my aunts were pretending like she was a ghost to be avoided, rather than a flesh and blood person. They were suitably shocked and knew I would do exactly that, So, out came the truth – Shobha had AIDS. It was just a matter of time.

Everyone in the village knew about it – Shobha was treated as was normally possible by people, who have little or no information about AIDS, but only know it’s incurable and is fatal. If there was a camp for God’s rejected souls, then she certainly would have been left there, by her heartless family. Her meals never really filled her stomach. I guess the ghastly logic that must have gone around in the minds of her family members, who destroyed her life must have been – she’s going to die anyway, so why not starve her slowly and gently. These people had lived off her earnings and her body for so long, and now she had become a liability to them.

The sad part was that since AIDS really has no cure and symptoms can only be controlled, and only for that long, her family knew that - care for Shobha or neglect her – either way no one will know the difference. I was so angry about it and I wanted to do something for her – even hand her some money as a last resort. I tried talking to my aunts about who was the doctor treating her and they said, they didn’t know, and they thought her family was not bothering about taking her to a doctor, in the first place.

But Shobha herself, didn’t seem to care anymore. She didn’t want me or anyone else to worry about her. She also kept a more than an unusual distance and never came around to granny’s house the entire time I was there. She didn’t want to talk to me about her condition, her family’s ruthlessness - she had just given up on herself. I went to live with an aunt on the last few days of my visit, and that’s when she sent over a basket of raw mangoes. It was a farewell present – and one that I will never forget.

I came back to Bombay and I heard from my relatives that things had gone from bad to worse for Shobha. A few months ago, she died of the disease mercilessly stalking her body.

Or rather, as rumours go, she may have been murdered by her family. The story goes that one night, her family just lifted her up from her bed (by then she was unable to walk) and took her down to the river and drowned her! The official story is that she committed suicide, something which the rest of the villagers don’t believe in.

I don’t either. Shobha had too much spirit, to disappear quietly into the night. She must have realized, that the disease exposed her family for what they had done to her like no amount of whispering and gossiping would have. She was a stinging, living reproach to them, and their greed. She just had to be done away with.

But she lives on for me, in my memories. This is a tribute to her flawless style – the acceptance of a horrible destiny that was not bequeathed to her by God, but by her fellow humans – who have a lot to answer for.

1 comment:

Chickadeechoc said...

I just came across your blog randomly. This story of Shoba touched me deeply that reading it to the last sentence, actually made my eyes welled up with tears.

Nothing can be done now for her but pray that she would not suffer anymore in the afterlife.