01/12/2018 11:02 AM IST | Updated 01/12/2018 11:02 AM IST

The World Of HIV Sees The Best And Worst Of Human Nature

On World AIDS Day, the author of a new book on India's HIV/AIDS success story writes about a sadhu, a goonda and a sex worker.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Representative image.

In 2003, I left McKinsey & Company, to build Avahan, the Gates Foundation's programme to stem the spread of HIV in India. The number of HIV cases was climbing alarmingly in several parts of India and there were fears that the virus could spin out of control. Suddenly, I was thrown into an India I could never have imagined existed, a place of grinding poverty that compelled women to sell their bodies for Rs 50. Over the next 10 years I spent a lot of time in the field, and I came to realise that the world of HIV sees the very best and the worst of human nature.

The sadhu

In a small field in Visakhapatnam, just off the city's main thoroughfare, in the late hours of a summer evening, a young social worker and I ventured into the darkness. All around, couples lay strewn on the ground, sometimes just a few feet from each other, in different stages of sex. We moved gingerly and talked to some of the sex workers. I felt as though I was in a bizarre dream.

As we stepped back into the city centre, I was stunned. "It all seems, well, so chaotic and still organised, as though people had bought tickets for an evening in this field. How does all this go on, in the open, in the heart of the city?" I asked. The social worker smiled and asked, "Would you like to meet the person in charge?"

I walked away marvelling at this godman, business shark and super-pimp, all rolled into one, who dispensed blessings, even as he sold sex in wide open spaces.

Down a side street, outside a brightly lit coffee shop, sitting on a high chair, leaning against a kiosk, I saw a sadhu draped in deep saffron. An elderly woman passing by paused to touch his feet and receive a benediction. The sadhu had a fulsome figure, shoulder length oiled hair, and an exaggerated amount of holy ash across his forehead. The divine man's posture was benign, but he radiated an almost palpable malevolence.

My clammy hands folded in greeting. "How does all this go on in the heart of the city... what about the police?" I asked, a slight tremor in my voice. A slow, other-worldly smile passed across the sadhu's lips and he gestured broadly as though to indicate the street, the town, the world beyond. "Everything is shanti (peace) here, everywhere there is love," he said. "I take good care of everyone, and everyone is happy". Drawing up courage I asked — "But what about the police? Don't they interfere?" The sadhu smiled again, and said, "I keep them also happy, and if they are not happy, I take special care of them."

I walked away marvelling at this godman, business shark and super-pimp, all rolled into one, who dispensed blessings, even as he sold sex in wide open spaces.

The goonda

"What place is this, why have you brought me here?" asked Kavita, waking from her stupor as the train rattled on towards Mumbai. The last thing she remembered was taking a sip of juice the friendly aunty had offered as the train started. "Well, I said I would get you a fine new job, and here we are. This is Mumbai, let us go and meet your employer," said the aunty.

From the railway station in Mumbai, an auto-rickshaw took them to the base of a three-storeyed building in a crowded area. They climbed up a dank, dark stairwell into a brightly lit room. The aunty introduced Kavita to the owner, also known as Amma, who then told Kavita freshen up. When she came back, aunty was gone. Amma gave Kavita a short skirt and a tight blouse and asked her to stand on the balcony. Kavita refused and was beaten. The girls there said, "Amma bought you from the aunty for sex work, and she won't leave you till you have repaid the money." Kavita refused for a week, and then she broke down.

One of the girls, Lata, felt sorry for her. She told Kavita about a goonda named Bhim, who came there every Friday, and always got the new girls. Bhim would come that evening, and Lata urged Kavita to tell him her story. As Bhim — big, dark and forbidding — took off his shirt, Kavita cried out, "Please sir, help me get back to Shimoga." Kavita told Bhim her story. Bhim listened carefully, put his shirt back on, thought quietly for a long time, and then said, "Amma is very strict and she will not leave you, but I will try to convince her." He did not have sex with Kavita, but he went to Amma and said, "I had sex with her, she's good and I'll take her home for the night also." After that he told Kavita, "I'll come in the evening. Don't take any clothes or luggage from here. Just put on a dress and on top of that another dress and come with me."

That evening Bhim came in a vehicle and drove Kavita straight to the railway station. He handed her a ticket to Mysore and told her never to come back. He gave her two hundred rupees and a food packet for the journey. He said, "When you reach home, don't ever show your face to that aunty who brought you here. May god bless you."

The sex worker

Kavita had been born into an ordinary middle-class family in Shimoga. A brilliant student, her well-ordered life began to unravel when she fell in love and eloped with a college class mate, Raju. He turned out be a no-good and deserted Kavita within a year, leaving her with no money, and no roof over her head. There was no going back, because her family had disowned her when she ran away, and there seemed no way forward either. Kavita was duped by a kind 'aunty' who said she would find her a good job, and thereafter trafficked her into the brothels of Mumbai. There, a kind-hearted goonda named Bhim rescued her and she was back in Shimoga again.

Kavita needed someone to take care of her, and soon she married another waster, who also deserted her. The only difference was that this time she was left with an infant. With no choices left, she went into sex work so that she and her baby could survive. Soon she was found to be HIV positive. She became an alcoholic, living with her child on the streets of Mysore.

Five years after being picked up, drunk and destitute, from the streets of Mysore, Kavita had travelled to more than 15 countries and had served on the board of an international agency working in HIV.

One day she happened to meet the staff of Avahan, an initiative to reduce the spread of HIV in India, who were recruiting sex workers. They asked if she would join them and help other sex workers in dire circumstances. The native intelligence and drive for excellence that once made Kavita a gold medallist student, blossomed again. She taught herself English, and became a trainer, teaching street-based sex workers the importance of safe sex. She entered a rehab and gave up drinking. Over the next few years Kavita worked her way up the organisation. She became a well-known volunteer and was invited to train and mentor at programmes in other parts of India, and then abroad.

Five years after being picked up, drunk and destitute, from the streets of Mysore, Kavita had travelled to more than 15 countries and had served on the board of an international agency working in HIV. Today, she often tells her life story before the media to help others and is an inspiration for thousands of sex workers across the world. Her daughter is a confident young woman just finishing college and the two are inseparable.

The sadhu, the goonda, the sex worker — the bad, the good, and the wonderful, all stranger than truth.

'A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, leadership and Courage from India's Sex Workers' By Ashok Alexander, Published by Juggernaut.

Ashok Alexander worked with McKinsey and Company before leaving it in 2003 to build Avahan, a HIV/AIDS prevention programme in India for the Gates Foundation. He currently runs his own NGO, the Antara Foundation, which works in the field of maternal and child health in rural Rajasthan. A Stranger Truth is his first book.