Published: 01st December 2017
World AIDS Day: Why Venkat still can't tell his college friends that he was born with HIV, 21 years ago
Venkat was kept like an outcast by his family until he aced his board exams and did better than his cousins
Venkat* is a 21-year old who's half way through the final year of an undergraduate programme. He's not a very social person but he has a close group of friends that he loves and respects. But when he listens to them talk about their problems or feelings, he has this deep urge to blurt out his story as well. But he can't. He can't risk judgment.
You see, Venkat has HIV. He was born with it.
When he was in the third standard, his father committed suicide. To this day, Venkat is still trying to figure out why. After his father died, his frequently ill mother decided to go get herself checked. She had it too and yet her son didn't get tested. When he was in the fifth standard, his mother passed away too leaving him all alone in the world.
It was only after her death that Venkat was tested for HIV. When the results came, he was too young to fully comprehend what the doctors were saying, "There was this nurse at the hospital who held me and told me not to get scared. She told me I should live my life to the fullest. I didn't understand what she meant but it made me feel better," he recalled.
But for the next three months, he progressively became weak, "I couldn't even smile for the ID card picture, I just couldn't move a single muscle in my body. People would mention something about immunity and I would hear snippets of the conversation but never understood anything." But eventually, young Venkat got better.
Since he had no home to go to, his grandmother and uncle took him in, and from the 5th to the 8th standard he lived with them. During this time, he met volunteers from the NGO "Buds of Jesus" which works for children affected by HIV. It was at one of their workshops that he fully understood what HIV was, "They made us aware about medicines, how often we should take them, what sort of food we should eat, how we should always be hygienic and how we have to remain brave. That is when I began to realise what HIV was," he reveals.
But it wasn't easy of course, "I would spend nights just pacing up and down wondering why this happened to me. Why did I have to suffer? I felt like my problems are the biggest in the world. I began to worry about how my life was aimless, I fell into depression." But what changed his perspective was the fact that there were so many like him and he mingled with them deriving strength from unity. He went through a lot of counselling and motivational sessions, which he says changed his life.
Fighting the disease: Venkat has taken it upon himself to educate other infected children and motivate them to become confident and self-sufficient
He decided to put all his heart and soul into studying hard. The urge to be better was further strengthened by own relatives' hostility towards him. "My relatives would always ridicule me, they would say "Mathirai yedithiya?" (have you taken your medicine?) but it was never out of concern, they thought it was funny. When they would invite me to family functions, I was thrilled at the thought of being included only to realise that there were places that would be demarcated for me. I wouldn't be allowed to go anywhere near the celebrations," the 21-year-old recalled.
So, Venkat took it upon himself to prove that he is in no way lesser than anyone else and the one way he could do it was to get high marks in his public exam. He managed to score 390/500. "Everyone would tell me 'I hope you pass', they had no idea I would do so well. Many of my cousins also wrote the exam but didn't get marks anywhere near mine. My whole family was shell-shocked. After that they called me home, would appreciate me and stopped treating me differently," the young man said.
Venkat is now in college and is continuing to study hard. He continues to be part of the NGO and does a lot of leadership training, "I want to be a role model for the younger lot. I don't want other HIV patients to go through what I went through, I want them to know that life can be fulfilling and enriching and even healthy if we take good care of ourselves. Nothing can stop us."
He is consumed by a desire to squash all the prejudices surrounding the disease. Even in his college, he hears people joke about HIV, talk about how it can be passed on by just by touching people, about how it affects people who are promiscuous. He wants to stop them and tell them that they are wrong but he stops himself. "I'm in my third year but nobody knows about this. I really want to tell my best friends at least but I can't. I can't risk losing my friends, they are very nice people. Maybe they'll ostracise me or maybe they'll hug me and say its okay. But I have no idea what they will choose to do," he says. He has another HIV friend on campus and the two talk a lot about their issues, "We're always there for each other no matter what happens. It's good to have his support."
So instead of trying to change the regressive ideas of his college mates, Venkat is devoted to making children with HIV strong enough to ignore and fight these prejudices. He's working to make others like him stronger because we as a society continue to fail thousands of people like him.
(*name changed to protect identity and maintain privacy)