sahodaran


as the HIV pandemic escalates, what can transform the fear and ignorance that sustain it? friendship.

Arriving in India feels like coming into a cosmic war. There's an initial revulsion, an instinctual recoil of your body as it is bombarded by the chaos and cacophony of too many souls trapped in one place clamouring to escape. Dead bodies float through the streets on the shoulders of men; Bollywood dancers spin and sing from TVs in tea stalls; Divine utterances spray over the city from gaudy temple tops and Islamic spires; three-wheeling diesel rickshaws, taxis, buses and thousands of motorbikes spew clouds of fumes into visible heat; masses migrate from village to city, from city back to village; the rich, the middle class, the poor and the poorest of the poor swarm in the streets, moving from tinted-glass software complexes to squalid squatter shacks made of mud and thatch.

Despite the painful realities of this schizophrenic nation of many peoples under one flag, I feel oddly at ease here even at home. I first traveled to India five years ago, and it was here that I learned my body itself would teach me how to live with HIV. I spent two months in Mysore studying yoga. I remember nothing could have prevented me from doing so, not the nightmares I had of getting sick and being admitted to Indian hospitals, nor the warnings from doctors. I needed to come to India to not only face the fear of traveling with HIV, but to also face what was ultimately behind every diagnosis the fear of death. And yoga became my lifeline, the only thing I could trust in those difficult years before and after I was diagnosed. Yoga kept me sane and safe.

When I returned to Chicago, I began teaching yoga to others with HIV, which led me to South Africa to attend the International AIDS Conference and offer a workshop on the benefits of yoga. Being among activists and teaching others with HIV demanded that I embody more deeply the healing and transformative nature of yoga. A year ago, I sold my belongings and left my teaching post, determined to tell the story of how those around the world are transforming themselves as they transform their communities despite the fear and ignorance that sustains this pandemic.

This pursuit has brought me back to India, and as I arrive in Chennai, a city exploding under the weight of too many people and too few resources, my teacher will not be an aged guru, but activists, doctors, sex workers, and those like me who live with HIV.

I am on my way to meet a man named Sunil Menon who works in AIDS prevention with both sex workers and men who have sex with other men, MSMs, as they are termed in AIDS parlance. Western terms like "gay" don't apply to the kind of situational cultural conditions of South Asia, where some men may choose to have sex with other men because they have no other sexual outlets in a society like India where premarital sex is taboo.

As my taxi pulls to the curb in a tree-lined street of Chennai, the dark-haired, cherubic-faced Menon appears, scoffs at the price of my taxi, grabs half of what I am about to fork over, pays the driver, and with a theatrical flourish escorts me up to a second-storey flat into the cramped three rooms of Sahodaran. Inside, young men sit at a table and flick wooden plugs about a board game, two more attend phones at desks, others mill about socializing.

Upon my entry, hands quickly go through thick waves of shimmering black hair, shirts are straightened, pants dusted. One by one they approach my sweat-soaked shaggy self, offering their hands, nodding, staring directly into my eyes with daring confidence.

Sahodaran ("friendship" in the South Indian language of Tamil) is an organization that promotes community development and safer sex practices for these young men. Started in 1998 by the London-based Naz Foundation, Sahodaran addresses the growing sexual health crisis among males who have sex with other males since the rise in cases of HIV and other STDs. Sahodaran aims to establish a community among these generally uneducated and poor young men by training and educating them on the risks of HIV/AIDS. The "boys," as Menon fondly refers to them, even though most of them are in their twenties, are trained on how to advocate for safer sex practices by handing out condoms and introducing Sahodaran to men whom they meet on the streets.

"They have no place safe to socialize, to be themselves without getting teased or hurt," Menon explains with a sigh. "Most days I can't get them to leave when I go home." A doctor comes once a month and provides basic care, and if they choose they can be tested. However, many don't choose to do so. They don't want to find out, knowing that if word gets out of their positive status they will no longer be able to work. Menon hopes that in the future they can provide job training for the young men computer skills, English, tailoring but funds, of course, are scarce and just having a little food and tea on hand for them eats up the tiny budget.

Out of a back office emerges Shiva-nanda Khan, Naz's director from London, in jeans and a black shirt, with equally black hair. Computer printout in hand, Khan's attitude is all business, fierce and passionate, matching his lionlike face. He sizes me up, tilts his head and listens when I blurt out who I am and that I'm there because I want to write about the lives and work of activists who are HIV positive. He nods, "You taking the cocktail yes?" It's the question that I know I will have to face many times in the next several weeks a fact that is almost harder to say than admitting my status, as it underscores the vast difference between those who have access to treatment and those who don't.

"I've got to get a cigarette or I'll go crazy," Khan jokes as he goes out the door, but then pauses and turns back. "D'you mind if I reveal your status to the boys? They need to meet people like you." He turns to Menon and nods my way. "Let's get Michael to talk to them."

"Sure, sure," I say, eager to please, but not knowing what this might really mean.

Khan has helped to set up other programs like this one for MSMs in several other Indian cities as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is the activist's activist, summing up the situation in India for me with a sarcasm that could only come from one who'd been seasoned by his third decade of deaths and governmental indifference to the rights and health of South Asian men who, like him, do not conform to either the narrow moralistic illusions about sexuality held by Indians nor to those Western models that misidentify MSMs as "gay."

Menon gathers the boys so that Khan can go over a few things and do a demonstration on condom use that they can duplicate in the field.

Khan's voice is passionate, belying a deep sadness in his eyes. He knows the odds that these young men face and the risks they pose for other men as well as women most of these young men are either married or will be. Like everywhere in the world, HIV/AIDS has become a disease of the young. He implores them to trust one another and make this community work. "You have to take responsibility for yourself and each other. Who is going to look out for you? The police?" The boys all laugh.

"Look," he says, with Menon interpreting into Tamil, "we're all at risk in here." And to my surprise he points to me. "Ask our friend here from America how easy you can get it." Suddenly twenty pairs of eyes are scrutinizing my body, trying to find that hint of illness. "How many people know someone who has died of AIDS?" he asks. All hands go up.


Michael McColly is writing a memoir about his travels into lands and lives affected by HIV/AIDS. For more of his work:
http://mccolly.ecorp.net/

contact information for organizations referred to in this article:

Naz Foundation
Palingswick House
241 King Street
London W6 9LP, UK
www.nazfoundint.com

Sahodaran 127, Sterling Road, First Floor
Nungambakkam, Chennai 600 034
sahodara@md3.vsnl.net.in

Positive Women Network (PWN+)
23, First Floor, Brindavan Street
West Mambalam, Chennai 600 033
poswonet@usa.net

Y.R. Gaitonde Centre for AIDS
Research & Education (YRG CARE)
1, Raman Street, T. Nagar, Chennai 600 017
www.yrgcare.org
(This is the clinic that Michael visited.)

Prakriti
6, Jagannathan Road
Nungambakkam, Chennai 600 034
Prakritichennai@hotmail.com
(This NGO is the umbrella organization of which Sahodaran is a part. They work with other at-risk youth.)


Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life