Jayanta Kalita‘s new book “I Am HIV Positive. So What?” chronicles the incredible story of Pradipkumar Singh, an HIV-positive person who mended his failing health, overcame psychological trauma, fought stigma and discrimination to become an international bodybuilding champion. We speak to the Delhi-based journalist about how he came to uncover such a fascinating story.
Why the subject of Pradip and HIV?
I find his story unparalleled. Pradip was diagnosed with HIV in 2000. He was bedridden and his health deteriorated, his body was moving towards AIDS. I came to know about him through the media. During 2011 and 2013 I was in Guwahati working for a new newspaper. I started doing a bit of research, and over time collected a sufficient amount of material.
He was on his death-bed when he decided to change his life. It is because of his will power and determination that he survived. Although his story was in the media, it didn’t stick in anyone’s mind, especially outside the NorthEast. I thought that the story should go beyond the North East and the world should know about Pradip.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
This is a positive story which people can take inspiration from. There are still many misconceptions about HIV hence it is not discussed on public forums, in the same way as other diseases like cancer are. HIV is still a taboo in our society, and people living with it are discriminated against.
The number of new infections has halved in India, but the number of people living with HIV is still high. What can be done to increase awareness about HIV?
When Pradip was down and out, he faced a lot of discrimination, that was why he fought stereotypes laid against him in public. Now things are changing. There are people who are coming out to discuss, but we still need to create more awareness. HIV should not be a taboo. It is a health condition, which can be managed-like any other health condition including diabetes.
Why does Manipur have such a high prevalence of HIV?
Manipur had been a centre for drug smuggling in the 70s and 80s. At that time heroin became popular and drug addicts started sharing needles. This is the main reason why HIV spread so fast in Manipur. Youngsters took to drug abuse because of unemployment, frustration. The disease spread so fast, that nobody realised what was happening.
39 percent of those affected by HIV are women, especially sex workers, and women from lower-income groups who cannot protect themselves. Are prevention efforts enough? How do we make the conversation around HIV, gender neutral?
HIV has been made gender neutral a long time ago. There are many NGOs in Manipur doing good work such as the Social Awareness Service Organisation. They pioneered a lot of work in the field of HIV prevention among female injecting drug users (FIDU). Many FIDU were at one point sex-workers. There are many organisations with rehabilitation schemes, which propagate a safer way of doing drugs.
NGOs are playing a bigger role than governments in this case. Many people who run these NGOs are HIV positive themselves. They understand the situation and want to help others.
I even met Mary Kom. She told me that she provided financial assistance to Pradip so that he could go to an international tournament.
What was your writing process like?
Once I came back to Delhi from Guwahati, I made the proposal for the book. It didn’t take me long to write it since I had already done the research. I had even taken time off to spend time with Pradip. During the research, I met people who know him, and people who were working in the field. I even met Mary Kom. She told me that she provided financial assistance to Pradip so that he could go to an international tournament.
What would you say motivated Pradip to rise up beyond depression?
Pradip had a psychological breakdown when he was almost on his deathbed in 2000. One day, one of his sisters gave him a flower. That gesture gave him a ray of hope and he decided to change his life. So he started doing body building- after a month or two- he got back some strength. From that moment on there was unimaginable progress in his body. Bodybuilding became a medium through which he could reach his goals.
He became Mr Manipur, and went on to participate in competitions all over India and internationally. His big break was when he won the title of Mr South Asia. He is a champion in the true sense. He has fought not only against drug use, but also against his condition.
What is Pradip’s current status?
Initially, nobody paid attention to him. The Manipur government woke up very late, but they did acknowledge the tremendous work he is doing. He is now the Brand Ambassador for HIV/AIDS in Manipur. However, he barely gets enough money for this. The government has also appointed him as a bodybuilding instructor for those who want to compete at a national level.
He spends half of his salary on medication. Also, he has to take care of his diet, and his routine. Now he has started showing some of the side effects of the HIV medication, but he is still very positive. There is always a silver lining in his speeches. He is very inspiring and never gets disheartened.
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