(Names changed to protect identities)
One of the more difficult conversations to have is explaining why you like someone, and why in spite of that you have to turn them down. Even more difficult is why you have to turn them down because you like them. I recently spoke with two of my gay friends, Sagar and Raunak, on their almost-relationship, and the bittersweet experience of choosing to live with a perpetual what-if hanging between them.
The famously mellow Bangalore climate lets people walk around its tree-lined streets at night throughout the year. It was on one such night that Sagar met Raunak after exchanging a series of messages on Grindr. Sagar works as a pilot in an international air carrier, while Raunak keeps his nose to the corporate grindstone at a consulting firm. Raunak had been a little disappointed when his increasingly direct suggestions did not appear to evoke any reaction from Sagar, but the late night WhatsApp messages from him suggested there might still be some hope. A few days later, Raunak called Sagar when he was back in Pune, and asked him if he wanted to go on a date.
I won’t date you…
“I would love to, but…”
“But what? Please don’t tell me you’re married, Sagar, I’ll slap you.”
“What! Of course not! Let’s just meet and talk”
When they met on a Saturday evening, before Raunak could get a word in, Sagar silently handed him his iPad.
“Just read it.”
Raunak quickly scanned the iPad with mounting disbelief. “Who does it belong to?”
“It’s mine,” said Sagar, face turned towards the wall. “You can give the iPad back and walk off. I won’t blame you. Just please don’t tell others about this – I can be kicked out of my job.”
In the next few hours, Raunak got a harrowing look into the world of living with HIV.
It is not a communicable disease like tuberculosis – you cannot catch it from an HIV+ person if they sneeze around you. It is no longer the certain death sentence it used to be even a decade ago, thanks to the tremendous advances in research and canny marketing by pharmaceutical companies.
Related reading: A love that is holding on against disease and distance
He buys his life, one day at a time
However, getting a timely diagnosis matters almost as much as getting the right diagnosis. Sagar had to buy his own life at around Rs 1,500 a month, a price that a commercial pilot could easily afford but perhaps not a student studying on a scholarship, or a daily wage worker. The doctor, one of two in Bangalore at the time who were specialists in HIV and related infections, had become not only Sagar’s physician but also his best friend, psychiatrist and confessional minister rolled into one.
Sagar suffered through weeks of debilitating drowsiness induced by the medicines, and sleep would not help his drowsiness, because his tortured dreams would leave him no peace in his own mind.
Every year Sagar had to file his medical report to the airlines, and he prayed every year that the medical report did not screen for HIV. He had repeatedly turned down offers to work from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at many times his Indian salary, because the airlines would screen him for HIV before they let him enter the country. Sagar never shared his food because he was worried about the remote chance he could infect someone else.
The pathos of Sagar and Raunak’s unrequited love made me feel that it must take a heroic disposition to brave the ordeals of the virus, and a pure, undying love unheard of in this day and age. When I said as much, they gave me their best tinkling laughs: “But don’t you get it? I am not some Meena Kumari living in a daydream of a happily ever after – I go to work, to the gym, use Grindr and eat dinners like this with this idiot all the time,” said Raunak, grinning a big smile.
“And what bravery are you even talking about! I never chose to get the disease – whatever bravery you think I have is merely me living,” Sagar chortled.
As I raised a toast to them, I caught Sagar between peals of his practiced laughter gazing into the candle kept at our table. Raunak, meanwhile, ignored the distinctive buzz of his Grindr app, as he stole a longing glance at Sagar and quickly downed a mouthful of whiskey.