A Month in an ‘Alternative’ World
When I entered the living room, Krishnendu was in his usual place, sitting on the sofa with his face glued to his laptop and a cigarette clutched tight between his fingers. The circular turtle-backed ashtray on the coffee table in front of him was full of burnt out stubs. I mumbled a half-hearted hello. Krishnendu didn’t respond. He never did, at least not in the usual ways. He was glued to the screen, with a manic expression on his face. He was chatting online, one of his passions, and occasionally a hint of a smile would cross his face.
I had grown used to Khrishnendu’s moody ways over the course of the month that I stayed with them. Actually, he was my friend’s flat-mate. I was new to the city and was staying with them till I got my own accommodation. Krishnendu and Anand (my friend) worked in an NGO that worked among HIV affected groups. It was a community outreach NGO: by the community, of the community and for the community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people or LGBT. One of the stipulations of the NGO was that HIV positive people would constitute a certain percentage of its employees. Another was that it employed only gays.
The flat was a ten minute walk from their workplace and Anand had assured me that I could stay with them till I found my feet. It was a large, spacious house with two bedrooms, one for Krish and one for Anand. A young Nepali cook prepared the meals and flirted with the kirana girl downstairs when he went out on the pretext of grocery shopping every evening.
It was a good life and I slowly discovered the world of my flat mates. I used to be out on work all day and return late in the night exhausted, only to find my two mates along with office colleagues and assorted friends gathered around the mahogany coffee table in the living room. Anand would be in a ‘compromising’ position with ‘Indu’ (Indus actually) swigging cans of beer and making risque comments. “Arre, andar aati kya kothi,” he would hoot to cheers. “Abhi nahi re panthi, baad mein chalti hoon main,” they would reply (Kothi and panthi are terms used among MSMs to refer to the active and passive partners during sexual intercourse. The term kothi is an amalgamation of two words according to urban legend: kothi [Telugu for monkey] and kut [Persian for ass]. The first denotes friskiness or playfulness). Krish would be blowing out immaculate smoke rings clad in a white towel. The moment I entered all the men would wolf whistle and pass faux comments. Often Krish winked at me and indicated the bedroom. Sometimes they openly hinted that I should have sex with one of them. A deadpan expression or a lame joke was the only way out. But to be honest, I secretly enjoyed watching them interact, not least because their ‘world’ was a completely new experience for me, one that I hadn’t even imagined existed, let alone experienced.
It was uncomfortable being around Krish. He was not the most expressive person at the best of times. Silent, brooding, intense. Everyone walked on tiptoes around him. I knew that Krish valued his privacy and resented sharing his space with strangers. And though I shared a flat with him, I did not know anything about him apart from the bare bones: He was gay, he worked with MSMs (men who have sex with men) and he had AIDS.
Krish had contracted HIV seven years ago from one of his partners and it had developed into fullblown AIDS. The prevalence of AIDS is high among MSMs (almost three times the rate among lesbians). Though there is no known cure for AIDS yet, with proper care a patient can live for upto 10 years. Krish could have, if he took proper care of himself. He didn’t. He abused his body like there was no tomorrow. Apart from his chain smoking and binge drinking he never wore a shirt inside the flat, increasing his chances of contracting a chest infection. He never had his meals on time and when he did he nibbled at his food. He was oblivious to everyone’s pleadings that he look after himself.
I had never before known a person who was even HIV positive and now I was sharing a flat with someone whom the doctor had given a year to live. Since we lived in the same house there were a lot of things of daily use that Krish and I shared; utensils, mugs and buckets, books and newspapers. I knew, at some abstract level, that AIDS is not transmitted through the sharing of household items. And yet a lot of people would never live with a person who had AIDS, much less drink coffee from the same mug or sit on the same commode. And yet, at no point did I feel I was in a dangerous situation. I was gaining an insight into alternative sexuality; the passion, politics, stoicism and, dare I say it, the suffering. It is an issue that is shoved under the carpet in India.
Krish was reserved with me. We didn’t converse more than what was absolutely necessary: maybe a word about the house keys or coordinating timings so that none of us would be locked out. Hi’s and bye’s were redundant in his scheme of things. Krish often got friends home – office colleagues, bosses, but mostly random people he befriended in the neighbourhood. You see, where we stayed was one of the hipper addresses in town. It was also a place where LGBT’s congregated because of the work being done by the NGO.
Most of the ‘boys’ Krish brought home were of the same orientation as him. They would bring food and booze, get drunk and crack jokes. Anand once explained to me that since Krish was HIV + no one wanted to fuck with him. In fact, one of the main problems that MSM’s (men who have sex with men) with AIDS face is the lack of sexual partners. Out of sheer desperation he was forced to befriend random men on the street and have sex with them. It was strange watching Krish in such situations. He would invariably be drunk and pleading with whichever partner he was with at the moment. Once they found out he was desperate they would turn the screws on him. Blackmail him for petty things, money, expensive gifts. Krish would acquiesce, because he didn’t have much more time left.
I’ve often wondered what a person living out a death sentence might experience knowing that you have to die someday but not knowing the exact moment when your body would kick in. Krish was indifferent to life, as if daring it to do the worst it could. He was beyond caring about the ordinary things in life, things that you and I might live for: like a walk in the woods or a drench in the rain.
I once contracted hepatitis and was bedridden for 4 months. Hepatitis is a boring disease because you can’t move as it makes you feel tired and your diet is restricted because of a bad liver. There were times when I felt utter hopelessness. At such moments life seemed bleak indeed, like a dark wall with no future. Impotent rage, born of utter despair, would make me flail out at anything and anybody. But I survived.
Krishnendu conducted himself much better than I did when I was temporarily down. I never saw temper tantrums or emotional outbursts. He never did a self-pity routine either. He just stoically went about life, or what remained of it. Maybe he had withdrawn from the social trappings that oil our daily transactions and keep relations between humans smooth. Maybe he didn’t feel it was necessary to indulge them.
I never asked him how he felt. He didn’t encourage it and I couldn’t nerve myself to ask, however tentatively. Truth be told, his sullen ways were intimidating and he made no effort to dispel the pall of sternness that hung around him. So I continued to observe him while he continued to ignore me. We barely acknowledged each other. For all we were concerned, though we lived in the same flat, we might have been on different planes of existence altogether. Anand once told me that Krish had a ‘crush’ on me. Was I flattered? Maybe.
I didn’t feel sorry for Krishnendu or pity his condition.
Its been over a year since I moved to Bombay and last met Krish. Anand was in town recently with some disturbing news. Krish was terminally ill. He was on his deathbed, barely able to move. It was a question of a few days, at most. His family had signed a bond to the effect that they were washing their hands off him and in the event of his death his NGO should conduct his last rites according to Hindu traditions. They would have nothing more to do with him.
As in life, so in death.
Note: All names have been changed