India's marriage bureau for people living with HIV
Shabana Patel, 29, is the founder of a community network near Mumbai, which operates India's only marriage bureau for HIV patients, run exclusively by those with HIV. She describes the work she does helping people in a difficult situation to find a life partner
Living with Aids is tough, especially if you're a young widow in a country like India. I may be a mere speck in a vast ocean of a whopping 2.5 million HIV-infected Indians, but daily life is a challenge. Apart from the health angle, the dreaded disease has overt social, economic, and emotional connotations too. And those are tricky to handle.
But there's a positive upshot to HIV too. Living with it teaches you to value each and every moment of your life more intensely. You start attaching more value to your relationships; each friend, sibling, kid, spouse, or your parents suddenly take on a larger-than-life dimension. Like the oxygen you can't do without. They become the very fulcrum of your existence. Each new friend, new contact, even your doctor, feels so precious.
I've always been empathetic to the cause of HIV/Aids patients, even before I got infected with it myself. After college, I plunged with fervor into community activities associated with the disease and have been doing so for the past decade. I am the President of NTP+ (Network in Thane by People Living With HIV/Aids), an organisation that, with some Unicef backing, aims to enhance the life quality of people with HIV and provide them with a sense of security, camaraderie and belonging. NTP+'s membership is open to all HIV-infected people living in Thane (a Mumbai suburb), irrespective of gender, caste, religion and age. Confidentiality is assured to all our members.
NTP+ also provides a networking platform for HIV patients. Last year, out of NTP+'s monthly support group meetings, was born the idea of launching a marriage bureau for its members. I think it was a brilliant move because we've got an overwhelming response to it. The youngest registered member of the network is a 15-year-old girl who hopes to find a good match for herself once she's eighteen! Even though she's under no pressure from her parents to marry, the teenager feels her life will be more secure once she finds an 'understanding' husband. She feels she won't have parents to take care of her all her life.
Our marriage bureau also engages the services of four counselors who advise our members about marriage and sex-related issues. Often, HIV-infected people have serious misgivings about their bodies, about how they ought to conduct their post-marriage life, about having children etc. So the counselors sit with them and clarify all these niggling doubts. Both potential life partners are advised to attend our counseling sessions together so that issues can be thrashed out better. We want our members to have access to authentic medical advice so that they can feel more confident about marrying, remarrying, having kids and sex-related problems.
There have been many poignant cases amongst people visiting NTP+'s marriage bureau. For example, Mohan Ganguly was disinherited once his father found out his son had become infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. His parents and siblings, he told us, crowded around his hospital bed to finalise plans about shifting his daughter to an orphanage after his 'death'. But Mohan's daughter held out hope for him, encouraging him to start his life afresh. That's why he's at NTP+ – to seek a mother for his only child.
Though there have been some happy pairings at our bureau, it's still tough for widows with kids to find a match. Ditto for young girls, due to the stigma attached to their characters. Besides, familial pressures often mess things up. Indian parents often insist on settling for daughters-in-law from the same caste even if their HIV-infected sons are open to other options. Also, finding a match gets tough for males due to the skewed sex ratio. Of the 40-odd registered members at the bureau, only 12 are males.
Also, there's no denying that a male person with HIV has a vastly different mindset from that of a woman here. Males and their families often have serious reservations about things like a potential spouse's kids, her background etc. A woman, on the other hand, has a holistic picture in mind and will seek out a balance for herself, her partner, his family and the kids.
Regardless of these few bottlenecks, I think forums like NTP+'s marriage bureau hold out tremendous hope that all's not lost for the HIV-affected. That despite this negativity, there's still reason to remain positive about our future. That's why, I guess, our motto is 'Be Positive. Think Positive'.
Marriage, the second time round for me? Well, why not? Nobody appreciates the value of a life companion more than people like us. Of course, losing one's spouse the first time is traumatic. But there's no point moping about it forever. It's not fair to your parents, family, or friends. You have to move on in life, whatever's left of it. Don't you?
So I'm very hopeful of finding another like-minded life partner for myself. One who will be respectful and empathetic and will sweep me off my feet. After all, we only live once. And I want to make that experience special.
"¢ Shabana Patel was interviewed by India-based freelance journalist Neeta Lal.