In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I heard this story often. A man on a scooter gives another man a lift. A little later, the pillion rider gets off. As he does, the scooter owner feels a slight prick on the shoulder. When he turns to look, the hitchhiker, who now has a syringe in his hand, tells him, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”
Sometimes the setting would vary. In a movie theatre, a man feels a prick on the arm. The stranger sitting next to him says, “Welcome to the world of AIDS”, and leaves. In every version of the story, some things would remain the same. The message. The complete innocence and randomness of the one welcomed to AIDS. The moral of the story was not that you could be the next victim of a global pandemic. It was that you could be the next victim of the deliberate malice of someone out there who wanted to ensure you became HIV positive.
In a marginally less hit-you-over-the-head version, a Malayalam short story from that time tracks the sexual goings-on of various urban loose and forward types. The story ends with the protagonist, a fellow called Prince, about to bed his new and virginal wife. Only the audience knows that Prince is about to pass on HIV to her. The story stops short of an off-stage cackling “no one escapes The Curse, bwahahaha”, etc.
HIV and talk of it was everywhere back then. As someone who had finished high school abroad, I had to get an eligibility certificate to join Bangalore University, meaning extra fees and an HIV test. As if in 1997 Bangalore University wanted to pretend HIV was coming from abroad. As if we didn’t have, what’s the phrase, oh yeah, community transmission.
I waited in the crowded waiting room of a neighbourhood polyclinic for the results. My father—a doctor, and, more importantly, someone who plans his jokes—parked his car, entered the clinic and boomed down the corridor to me: entha di AIDS undo (So, do you have AIDS)? For a moment, everyone in the room looked like they wanted to jump out of the window. Then they settled for uneasy staring at the strange man and his giggling teenage daughter.
And that was the primary morality play of my 20s. We knew people who were positive (HIV positive, not corona positive). We were familiar with the big gusty sighs of relief after testing. The embarrassment of admitting you had tested. The embarrassment of admitting that you only talked the big talk and had never tested. The embarrassment of admitting that you only talked the big talk and didn’t always use condoms. We worried about participating in blood donation camps. We knew people who died. We knew people who committed suicide after testing positive. We knew people who lived. Then we saw India forget about HIV.
2020 is giving me intense déjà vu. It’s the morality play of AIDS played at 10x speed. If you now know someone who is “suspected” to have the coronavirus, then without a doubt you have also heard or been asked—how did she get it? The question is almost never a sympathetic, mournful how did she get it, oh no, poor thing, how can we help. It is—what did she do that she got it, what has she been up to? It is the medical equivalent of “what was she wearing?”
Contact tracing is the state-sanctioned, socially approved, medically sound way to cast the first, predictable stone. Medicine and diagnosis has always been rife with ridiculous stereotyping. In the same way that until the 1960s, no one thought cardiac disease killed women too, in the same way that until the 1980s, schizophrenia and autism were supposed to be caused by having a mean mommy. In the days when HIV was on everyone’s radar, your diagnosis and treatment was often affected by whether you were in the blameable category, such as gay men or sex workers. If you were a young housewife, for instance, you were never asked to get tested. And if you were found positive, it would be assumed that your husband’s sexual peccadilloes were to blame.
A pandemic takes our society’s deep desire for blame, blends it with medical stereotyping and unleashes the joy-sucking dementors. I recently heard of a case where, in a family with multiple coronavirus cases, the only member who had travelled abroad but tested negative is continuously being probed by the medical establishment—how is it that you are not the carrier, how? It’s as if someone has edited the adage that accepting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Apparently, blame is the first step.
Instead of dealing with this illness and its infinite tentacles, we are once again engaged in lightning rounds of the blame game. Blaming the Chinese, blaming bats, blaming meat-eaters, blaming the Tablighi Jamaat, blaming madrasas, blaming the tenants, blaming the security guards. The madman with a syringe is now the madman with spit.
This, combined with our bone-deep shyness in blaming the ones whom we voted to be in charge of fixing our problems, viral or otherwise, leaves us only with that Robert Bloch line: “The man who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone else he can blame it on.”