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  • ON THE HIV BEAT IN BOMBAY

    This article is an attempt to capture my experiences in Mumbai, the new official vernacular name for Bombay, on the evening of Jan 29, 2000. I wanted to learn about the dangers that HIV poses to men having sex with men (MSM) and understand how the Humsafar Trust was practising HIV intervention. Humsafar Trust is a pioneering Non Government Organization (NGO) dealing with issues of MSM and HIV intervention in that community. It was co-founded by Ashok Row Kavi, who publicly acknowledged his gay identity in the mid eigties and since then has been working towards helping MSM in India come to terms with their sexuality. With the current explosion in HIV infections in India, and especially within the MSM community, the Trust has lead the way in dealing with issues specific to MSM. It was therefore an obvious place for me to begin my education. After an introductory half hour with Ashok Row Kavi, the evening was spent accompanying Harish, an outreach worker, on his beat to distribute condoms to MSM.

    Humsafar Trust

    I had wanted to meet Ashok Row Kavi on his home turf of Humsafar Trust in Mumbai for over a year. Knowing him only through his fiery articles on the impending devastation of MSM by HIV and via e-mail was somehow inadequate. However, I must confess that meeting him on the second story landing of the rundown building that houses Humsafar Trust was a shock -- I had expected a more upbeat establishment. Ashok quickly explained that this was essentially an abandoned building that he had saved from demolition and was trying his best to make functional. All the funds were going into working with people and there was not enough money to worry about decorative infrastructure improvements. Any doubts I could have had about the functioning of the organization quickly vanished as we started to talk about their work. First, I witnessed the community program for about 60 "street kids" and what it takes to prevent them from becoming victims of crime and violence. Then he introduced me to two of his outreach workers, Harish and Sweetie, whom I was going to accompany on their beat that night.

    The conversation turned more serious when we began discussing the recently started Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and HIV testing clinic. Operational since July 1999 and run by Dr. Maninder Singh, the clinic had already tested 210 men and has found a shocking 17% of them to be HIV+. The people being tested and those infected come from all walks of life. Also 37% of those tested had a history of STD infection. There is, as expected, complete correlation -- those who tested HIV+ also had a history of STD's. Faced with these statistics, it is hard to dismiss Ashok's fright -- the implications of these figures when extrapolated to the half million MSM in Mumbai, and perhaps to the 20-50 million in India, are devastating. Ashok's mother-like concern for their welfare is very evident and heartfelt. I finally begin to truely realize the dimensions of the problem in the MSM community in India, something that Ashok has been forcefully articulating for years now.

    Ashok next described the outreach work. In addition to condom distribution, Humsafar workers spread awareness. To document this work on educating people, each outreach worker must fill out a three page report outlining the risk factors, places of carousing, and the person's knowledge of HIV and STD's before and after tutoring. Although the twentythree and twenty years old Harish and Sweetie display a childlike enthusiasm for their work, it is evident that they take this job very seriously. Tonight, Harish would bypass this key aspect of his job, educating others, in order to be my guide.

    We rush through my introduction on what lies in store for me that evening since Harish had to leave for his beat. Ashok begins by pointing me to a map of Mumbai on which he has marked the "hot spots" for the three types (extremely risky, very risky, and risky) of MSM activity. He stresses the obvious -- knowing where men rendezvous to plan or execute sexual encounters is the first necessary step in their intervention strategy. He outlines that today Harish would first visit urinals on XXX station platform (the name of the station is being withheld to prevent police harassment) which are labeled extremely risky as there men actually execute anal penetrative sex on the way to and from work and the police often intervene with violence. The second stop will be the promenade by the sea near the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba -- a very upscale area and a tourist must. This area is listed only risky as young adults, between eighteen and twenty five years of age from middle class and higher backgrounds, go there to romance and pick up partners. This preparatory talk is over in five minutes, and before I am fully able to grasp the implications of what I have set myself up for, Ashok hands me over to Harish, asks him to take care of me, gives directions on where we should eat dinner, and wishes me good luck. And we were off.

    Getting to know Harish

    In the taxi on way to XXX station and over dinner, I try to get to know Harish. He opens up immediately and is very communicative. He is excited that I can speak Hindi. During the course of the evening he keeps repeating his original worry -- what would he have done if I did not speak Hindi. Without any hesitation or reserve he tells me how it all began for him. His first sexual arousal was at age twelve with an older boy of nineteen who was tutoring him. It began with fondling while lying together. For two years he did not allow anal penetration, thereafter, since age fourteen he has been enjoying sex with men with a passion and has no interest in women. He often finds himself checking out men as he walks through the streets. At times he has to be careful so that his wife does not become suspicious. Hearing that he is married I ask in dismay -- Why did you get married if you have no interest in women? Again, without any reserve that his behavior may seem contradictory to a stranger, he says that she, and his relationship with her, is different and one of a kind. He has known her for seven years and while he was having sex with men throughout that time, he never touched her. They got married recently, and now he pleases her as often and as much as he does himself with his male friends. He shows me her picture and laughingly tells me how surprised Ashok was when he told him that he was getting married. Driven by curiosity I ask if she knows of his second life. No, he sends her to her parents house on saturday nights, as those are his, first to do his job as a HIV intervention worker and after midnight to revel with his friends. On other days he works as a tailor and plans his escapades such that he is home at the regular expected hour. He works three jobs, the third being HIV intervention, but the hectic schedule is no sweat as he is just twentythree and needs only four to five hours of sleep.

    My restrain in giving him advise breaks down when he tells me that he diligently uses condoms when having sex with men, but does not do so when having sex with his wife. I try to tell him that he should, but it is obvious that he sees no reason for it since he has eliminated the risk. My words of caution that condoms protect but don't guarantee 100% safety fall on deaf ears.

    Many times during the revelation of his fairy tale existence my mouth opens to articulate a "but". I am glad, however, that I did not. Many times I feel embarrassed as he recounts his lusty and romantic escapades oblivious of the taxi driver or the waiters at the restaurant. My attention to his fascinating and at the same time comic descriptions, accompanied by obviously feminine gestures and much rolling of the eyes, is far from complete. I am very keenly aware of the waiters, wondering what they must be thinking -- ah! another sugar daddy? The dinner over, the bill paid, we walk over to XXX station. My relief at leaving the possibly judging eyes behind is substantial.

    On the beat: XXX Station Platform

    The station is not very crowded as 10 pm is way past the rush hour. The urinal looks just like any other and empty; yet this is supposed to be where things happen. We walk through it and on the other side Harish spots someone he knows, runs to him, pulls out a condom package from his backpack, embraces, kisses, and hands over the treasure all in one flowing movement. I stand rooted to the ground wondering if this is how it is supposed to be done!

    Next Harish introduces me to "Savitri" and "Nona". They will be coming with us to the Gateway of India. Harish quickly tells me that she, "Savitri", is a fiesty one. She will beat anyone up if after giving a blow job, the partner does not let her screw him. I am wondering how such strength could be harbored in such a thin body when I notice her carefully manicured nails. It will take me much longer to accept that "Nona" too is a she.

    We linger around, and even though nothing obvious is said, I can sense that the decision to get on the next train and head towards Victoria Terminal (called VT by all) is fermenting. Suddenly, Harish darts into the urinal and is back in five seconds. To my obvious quarry he responds that he went to give a condom. To whom I ask? He points to a person through the stone grill window who seems to be peeing. No, says Harish, don't I see he is shaking his penis. To drive home his point he walks me through the urinal, pointing out the two men in adjacent spots, both shaking their penises and sizing each other. Whether or not they find each other acceptable, they will need a condom tonight and it is his job to make sure they have some he says as a matter of fact.

    Harish, Savitri, Nona, and I take the next train. Harish is relieved that no one actually "did it" in the urinal while we were there. I feel cheated as I will have to simply take their word that such wanton acts actually happen in open view and accompanied by the sounds of others peeing and spitting.

    On the train Savitri pulls out a photo album. I am shown pictures of them dressed in sari. They talk about the party at Humsafar Trust when they all went dressed as women and how Sweetie was such a delicious hit. Nora and Savitri flow in and out of each others embrace while I try to avoid the eyes of the other passengers.

    As we near VT, Savitri pulls off his shirt revealing a lycra like T-shirt underneath. Next, out comes a makeup kit from her handbag and she proceeds to highlight her eyelashes, put on powder and lipstick, spread her shoulder length hair, practice her gestures, roll her eyes and finally declare herself ready for the night. Next Harish dons a little of the same. Nora does not and he still baffles me, there is nothing effeminate about him and yet they assure me he is a she.

    On the beat: Gateway of India

    From VT we bundle into a taxi to get to the gateway of India. Part two of My Journey begins. But before that, just outside VT, we run into two women in their thirties. There are greetings of familiarity and they talk quickly. One of the women then complains of night sweats and chills. Hearing that I am all attention. I ask Harish her background -- she is a prostitute and has been one for many years. With her beauty fading she is increasingly taking on cheaper customers. The symptoms are ominous so I ask her if she has diarrhea -- No. Does she drink heavily -- she used to but not any more. I sense the struggle in her, I think she knows about HIV but does not want to accept the possiblity. To save her immediate trauma I suggest that it may be jaundice (hepatitis B) and ask Harish to take her to Humsafar on Tuesday when the blood tests are done. They fix a time to meet on Tuesday, he asks her to take care of herself, and we are off. I wonder if this all there is to the life of a prostitute and dealing with pain!

    Sitting on the half-mile long stone wall separating the ocean from the city were happy and cheerful teenagers and men in their early twenties. Harish exchanged loud greetings with many and accompanied this by much embracing and kissing on the cheeks and the ritualistic passing out of the condoms. Outreach workers from Humsafar had already carried out the awareness program with most of them and distributing condoms was all Harish was going to do tonight on my account. All of a sudden he gets excited and says "there is Sweetie". I fail to recognize the person with flowing shoulder length hair, a bold swaggering walk, and an animated personality approaching us as the second worker Ashok had introduced me to earlier at Humsafar Trust. What a transformation -- and how obvious it now is why she would be such a hit at the Humsafar party in a sari. Unfortunately, since Sweetie only speaks Marathi we continue our separate journeys after a brief attempt at conversation. In the ensuing silence I ponder the fact that the driving force behind this congregation of youth from middle and upper middle class families is the desire to explore their love for people of the same sex. One cannot deny it, one can only try to make sex safer.

    At one point I ask Harish how he met Ashok. Right along here one night he says when they were both carousing and made eye contact. Ashok offered to train him and give money for the work, so he accepted immediately. A year later he loves the work, thinks educating others is very important, and finds it a lot of fun too. The only unbreakable rule he informs me is that he cannot play or have sex while on the job. However, since his shift ends at midnight while the night is still young this is hardly a limitation.

    As the evening progresses I notice the swagger of the hips, the increase in the pitch of their voices, the exaggerated motions of the arms, and the rolling of the eyes. These kids are in obvious delight at being able to act out their sexual identities. They are not worried about being seen or reported on. They are amongst their own.

    At one point I ask Harish about the men from the Middle East that come to Mumbai seeking sex with boys. To my surprise Harish rolls his eyes in obvious delight. Oh! we love them, they have such big cocks he says -- and with some longing adds that they come mostly during the monsoons when they walk around endlessly in the rain. I am flabbergasted -- I ask if he and his friends are not scared of getting HIV from them. No, he says, because he has taught all of them how to put a condom on the Arabian penis without the owner realizing that it is being done until after the act. The trick is to hold the condom in the mouth and put it on the other's penis without arousing suspicion. They had been taught this trick by Ashok, and now he, and all his friends, were well practised. I am speechless. I can barely stop myself from calling him insane for taking such risks -- little good that would do given his obvious excitement. So I drift off on my own trying to make sense of what I have heard. It is becoming more and more obvious to me why a stranger to this culture would have little success at intervention. Could I bring myself to learn how to hold a condom in my mouth much less teach someone else how to put in on yet another?

    Harish and I reconnect after twenty minutes of my aimless walking. We walk towards the dance club "Voodoo" he had mentioned previously. I want to go in but he declines saying that it is too expensive and why bother when his friends are outside on the promenade. Also, he says with a hint of disapproval that, he has heard that inside men sit all night long on toilets with their mouth open. Driven by curiosity I talk the bouncer into letting me look inside for a friend I was supposed to meet. The place is packed and as my eyes adjust to the darkness punctuated by strobe lights synchronized with the throbbing beat, I can feel the raw power of such a place. My horizons broaden -- I witness the outpouring of energy and frenzy on the dance floor. In spite of the long hair, scarfs, and occasionally a dress, I see no women inside. On tables couples are enjoying their tryst, their eyes locked and displaying the delight of mutual appreciation. At the bar men stand, their eyes roaming longingly. I feel uncomfortable just standing there trying to clinically absorb all the activity. Anyway, my time is up so I exit convinced that this is what a gay bar in America must have been (or be) like. Could I, in these few short minutes, have learned how this somewhat older -- aged twenty five to forty years -- crowd revels? Harish informs me that while there are other discos like this one in Mumbai, most of the upper crust will be found at the many private parties that happen every saturday night.

    It is nearing midnight, the jet lag is making my head woolly so I decide to go back to the guest house. Harish diligently packs me into a taxi, reinforces the directions I give the driver, asks one last time whether I enjoyed the evening, and waves me goodbye.

    What did I learn that night?

    If I had made this same journey without knowing what I was looking for, not having been sensitized to issues of homosexuality, I would, most likely, have not noticed anything unusual and I would have, in all honesty, concluded that such behavior is not common in India. On the other hand having written about it, will people accuse me of having created it, for it shatters their belief that all is well?

    I would fail miserably if I attempted to spread awareness in this crowd. It requires the Ashoks, the Harishs, and the Sweeties to give information without any "buts", and to make sex safer by distributing condoms as one of them.

    How typical is Harish's behavior? How many men in India live this double life without any thought of the contradiction in their sexual and emotional identities? Can men love and enjoy men and simultaneously be happily and harmoniously married to someone who is kept in the dark as to the other life? Can this bliss last a lifetime? I don't think I learned any answers to these questions that night.

    Ashok wants to enlarge his work to other cities and communities like the hijras (the supposedly ritually castrated minstrels, 85% of whom, according to Ashok, are actually whole). He is in despair about lack of funds. I believe wholeheartedly that funding must be found, and his efforts must be supported on a much larger scale.

    Can such an organization like Humsafar be duplicated in other parts of India or anywhere in the world without first having a mother figure like Ashok. Without his drive, passion, and a genuine empathy with a multitude to whom he is bound by sexuality, can another who simply wants to stop HIV succeed? Barring exceptions I believe NOT!

    For further information on HIV/AIDS and if you wish to explore ways in which you can help I can be reached by e-mail at aids-info@gita.lanl.gov. Links to information on HIV/AIDS and a summary of my work can be obtained from the web page http://t8web.lanl.gov/people/rajan/AIDS-india/

    Source:http://t8web.lanl.gov/people/rajan/AIDS-india/MYWORK/beatbombay.2.00.html

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