Twenty years ago, in the space of two short years, 10 of my friends died of AIDS. The disease would soon become known as my generation’s world war.
At least two of these friends committed suicide without even knowing they were HIV-positive - they feared they had contracted AIDS and were too afraid to be tested. The possibility was enough. Two more were condemned to early deaths because their HIV tests took so long to become official - their blood samples were frequently stolen, so rare were HIV-positive samples for research. They were hospitalised as terminally ill patients long before their diagnoses were finalised.
Two more contracted HIV for the mistake of sharing an intravenous drug needle with an HIV-positive friend. Another died having acquired AIDS after being raped. The rest of this list of casualties became HIV-positive from unprotected sex with men or women who were unknowingly carrying the virus.
It’s said that it is impossible to have anything to do with South Africa without knowing someone who has been touched by AIDS. The burgeoning arts and media communities in 1980s New York were exactly the same. In a very short time, we were forced to understand the new phenomenon of AIDS because our friends, co-workers and bosses were literally dying of it.
Some braved the art of dying publicly, writing about the heartbreaking humiliations of parents being too frightened to visit their death beds for fear of infection; about rampant discrimination in medical care; about the brutal despair of dying from something no one knew how to cure, or even fully understood.
As a social sampling, this loose bunch of New York writers, editors, artists, djs, musicians, activists, restaurateurs, journalists, prostitutes and, for good measure, a doctor could not have been from more diverse backgrounds - American, English, Mexican, Australian, Spanish and Italian friends all gathered at this ghostly banquet of the damned.
Two decades later, fast forward to India’s beautiful, ebullient and savvy young urban adults, the generation that will soon be in the driving seat in many sectors of this country. They are original and creative thinkers, emboldened by India’s economic progress, politically liberal and motivated to change the status quo - in short, very like young, educated, middle-class adults in many other parts of the world.
True, there are a number of social factors distinguishing young Indian adults from their Western counterparts, particularly the fact that many still live with their parents, let alone the persistence of social taboos against frank and open discussions about sex. So, while Western teenagers have long absorbed the imperatives of safe sex as the main means of HIV prevention, the idea of talking to young Indians about the same subject was initially met with reluctance and discouragement - most distinctively from the very people one wished to speak to.
But beneath the mass outbreaks of squirming the subject of young Indians’ sex lives typically evokes, most in our informal group of educated, Indian 18-25-year-olds often appeared under-confident in their HIV-prevention strategies and awareness of the disease. Many, when our discussions turned to AIDS, shied off, claiming they believed they had too little information about the subject to be qualified to speak.
Contradictions about the acceptability of unmarried young adults enjoying sex in Indian society abound. “AIDS is rampant in Indian society, but we’re still not very comfortable talking about it,” says one young university student. Among the young people we spoke to, much of the reluctance to discuss sex and HIV was as much because of these overt prohibitions against unmarried sex.
“My parents never talk to me about it because if they did talk about sex, HIV and condoms, it would mean they were OK with me having sex before marriage. Even though it’s widespread now, we still can’t talk about it openly,” said a respondent.
Another says, “We can’t talk about it at home, but with friends, the topic comes up very often. Even though we joke about it, we have serious conversations that give us serious information. But as far as school is concerned, I was 17 when I had my first sex education class, but our teacher was so embarrassed she just gave us a few scientific words and dropped the subject.”