In this immersive story, artist and activist Charan Singh explores the fluid nature of language and identity as mediated through the economy, education, and social locations that are not central to most conversations about HIV/AIDS. We begin in a domestic space where a mother and her son navigate a shared and mostly silent moment in their full house of sleeping family. The son struggles to find an intimate moment before he heads out for the day. The scene then changes, and the young man is in a hospital room, speaking among other HIV-impacted people in the capital city of India: talking about the virus, the response from non-governmental agencies, and the role constructed identity plays in their everyday life. The story comes full circle in the end with the young man returning home, contemplating his day on the bus.
Among Four Friends draws up Singh’s experiences as an educator, community member, and artist. He aims to challenge readers to consider notions of the public and private as well as health, and harm reduction strategies as they relate to people who often face discrimination of various kinds. People whose lives have become a permanent feature of epistemological and social studies that then later are reduced to stories of survival. To underline what gets lost, overlooked, and assumed, Singh has included a Glossary of terms at the end of the story, filled with words and ideas that AIDS workers may take for granted.
– by Theodore (ted) Kerr
Among Four Friends
Conversations before and in a hospital waiting room
[ On a porch ….]
Her favourite song was interrupted by a news update on the radio: a sign of the turning hour. “Oh, it’s 8 o’clock, paani chala jayega. I should fill water in all the buckets before it is too late.” Seven minutes later—she thinks to herself: “Oh ho, I must wake him now.”
“WAKE UP, it’s 9 o’clock, don’t you have to go somewhere?”
You cannot tell by looking at her irritable face that she has just lied about the time; the smirk begins deep within her eyes. There is only one bed in the house, on which his father sleeps until late. The rest of the family member sleeps on the floor. He is in her way to clean the house; put away the bedding, and move on to the rest of the chores. She wants him to get up now. She walks past (over) him to open the window. The sun is strong, already, on a summer’s day.
“Oh god! Is it 9 already?”
He gets up in a frenzy and runs to the porch. It is where everyone in the house takes their bath, brushes their teeth, and where all the other washing and cleaning happens. There is a large barrel with stored water and three buckets, also filled. He sits on the Patra, and begins to bath himself. The window is open. His mother can see him through the window. This time, she speaks with her eyes. She points out to him to look at the clock. It is not 9 o’clock as yet.
And then he tells her, “Oh, you were making an ass out of me?”
He was annoyed that she was watching him. He was almost urging to have a private moment. “I never thought that I would ever get this thing called—privacy, but today I could have done some use of it,” he thought to himself, “though, I know, I could not afford privacy, nor would I need it, in any case.”
After he left, she wonders why he looked so strangely at her as he bathed. “We always talk to each other in the morning, when others are asleep.” It does not matter much to her: she has things to do, thoughts to have, responsibilities to tend to. She will see him later, and that will be nice, like always.
[in a hospital waiting room]
Asif: I can’t even begin to tell you how ashamed I am!
Sameer: But why? There is nothing to be ashamed of…
Asif: I knew all about it, but I still got it. It is all my fault.
Reshma: Perhaps! Admittedly, not all of us knew about it, not entirely, not even after all that work.
Udaybir: Sister, I have been coming here for years. It all gets normalised after a while.
Sameer: Don’t blame yourself, haven't we all suffered enough, already?
Udaybir: Well, you are straight (almost), and you have a family, it’s not bad as it is with us. Coming here has become an inseparable part of my life.
Sameer: Really? Do you think? (pointing towards Asif)
Asif: What he meant is, you can ‘pass’ safely as straight, whereas ones who ‘looks’ feminine, like us, face a lot more challenges and violence daily. And trust me, I can relate to it. I used to fear to step out of the house, but then for some of us houses were not the safest place either.
Sameer: Aha! However, I am that ‘Giriya’ who wasn’t even included in those HIV programmes, initially. Moreover, this ‘passing’ prevented us from accessing ‘safe-spaces’—whatever they might be. I feel stuck between marriage and my duty to perform ‘masculinity’, and to be a man. So ‘passing’ didn’t protect me. So, I still end up here, with you all.
Asif: I know. However, wouldn’t you agree that the burden of practicing safe sex was put on our shoulders as if only we control the entire game?
Reshma: Haha. Do you remember that ABC rule?
Asif: Those were bizarre. Abstinent, Be faithful, and use Condom. (they all laughed)
Reshma: Haha. See, I am a Hijra! Neither here nor there. Also, I feel that the ‘programme’ is not always beneficial. Sometimes what looks like ‘help’ can paralyse your desire to live, and even to think freely.
Sameer: Why? What’s with all that you being divine and with the power to bless and all?
Reshma: Arrey. Those were different times when our Gurus were considered to be divine. They had their say and status in the king’s court, but these ancient stories, now only good for getting funding, in real-life there is not much currency in them. The truth is that most of us are still not embraced by our families. Everyone looks at us with ridicule or fear—that might curse them. Trust me, when all you want is love, this feeling of rejection is not very pleasant to wake up to, day after day, every day.
Udaybir: This isn’t a competition to claim who is more oppressed than other. I am a double-decker, who never gained the trust of any. So, let’s fuck this. For better or worse one thing has tied us all, and we are all here. Though, I wish we could have been brought together in some other way.
Asif: You are right. However, my question is, why are we like this? Why do we suffer and for what?
Reshma: Err… We suffer because we are different, and we resist, my dear. Perhaps, if we conformed to their norms, then we might not.
Asif: Who are they? Also, how can they decide for so many of us?
Udaybir: The ‘us’ always mystifies me, how ‘us’ is being used, in what context and by whom? Who is included in this ‘us’ and who is being excluded? It is power as well as oppression. However, it is such a frightening thought. What would we ‘be’ without the ‘us’?
Sameer: Oh drama-queen, please be quiet.
Asif: What, what did you say?
Sameer: See, we don’t live in isolation. Here, at this very moment, we have formed our own ‘us’. So, we are all part of a more extensive system, which works for whoever is in the majority, even though it is democratic. However, it doesn’t work for everyone… sometimes this doesn’t even work for those who conform with their ‘norms’. Sigh!
Reshma: True. We were all born into it, we are all products of this system which retroactively programs us, and we respond to it inevitably, unconsciously, automatically.
Udaybir: Ahem. Then why do they say democracy is the best possible solution for humanity?
Asif: And silly me, I thought we all are free citizens.
Sameer: We are, but as I always say—freedom is a myth, and so is a democracy.
Udaybir: Haha. Listen to him. You were talking about resisting earlier on. I don’t think we resist, consciously, it’s quite the opposite. To me, it’s an impulsive reaction to this systematic oppression.
Reshma: You are confusing her. Her question is, why do only some of us suffer? One of the answers to that could be patriarchy, the system we have been talking about, that controls the state and societies. It is fundamental to maintaining the hierarchies of all the systems— religious, social, economic—that regulate you and me. So, we are all subjugated by it.
Asif: Yes. But if you remember, as children, we all were forced to believe that there is nothing that matters beyond our family boundaries, that we do not exist outside. That’s where this yearning to belong comes from, and we still hope that they accept us, the way we are.
Udaybir: I am not sure why we gave so much leverage to the family and its values… I don’t feel the need for my family’s approval; they will never give it to me, so why do I even bother? I have other families, I have you all.
Sameer: Yes, and I did all the right things, family, children. Didn’t I?
Asif: You did; hence, you are that system, too.
Udaybir: How does it relate to people like us? We are already outside the family structure, so do we even exist?
Reshma: We all exist. We are all flesh and bones. YES, we exist, we are, just not acknowledged by the majority.
Udaybir: You know what, your ‘just’ is killing me, although it all makes sense.
Asif: But now I am more confused. Patriarchy belongs to men, right? And, we are all men, including you, who was born into a male body. So?
Reshma: Well, now you are talking about gender and its related troubles. However, patriarchy is more complicated, and we all must put up with it. Having said that, be also eful, there are hierarchies within patriarchy based on caste and class, which in other societies could be race and religion.
Sameer: Wait a minute, it would be worth thinking about what this ‘we’ or ‘us’ means, which we use so casually?
Udaybir: Oh, dear! You all are sounding like those meetings that we used to attend, years ago, where they gave away so many condoms. However, never translated what was happening in the rest of the world with the disease, so what was the point? How can you all talk like them? How can you all use the same language? A language that isn’t us. And yes, I am calling all those people ‘them’; they are not one of us. Otherwise, they would be sitting here, right now.
Reshma: That’s little harsh to say. Although, I feel your pain.
Asif: Well, it is important that we learn the language of discourse and be aware what’s happening in our names. Don’t you think?
Udaybir: I know change is natural, but isn’t this too much? To me, it’s like the victim becoming the perpetrator!
Reshma: Haha nahi re! It’s not that bad yet. We are just helping each other to understand things better.
Udaybir: Again, this ‘just’ is working as salt on my wounds. Maybe, there is no one answer, or am I too cynical about it?
Asif: See, these are the kinds of things that bother me. But, at this moment, my most burning question is, if this is suffering, as they say it is, then why only us? And if this is true, that we are suffering, and it is only ‘us’ who are suffering, then at this pace, would there be any of ‘us’ left to suffer in the future?
Sameer: It will get better, trust me.
Asif: How? I am not even talking about the amount of shame we are carrying on our shoulders. I am crumbling beneath it. Sometimes it feels like I will die from the sheer weight of it. And you still believe that things will get better! What do you say to me?
Silence. Although, in these silences, there are voices that started to emerge; voices for dissent, voices for desire.
[On a street heading towards home….]
He is back on the bus home. After a few stops, he found a seat, that was a relief. He takes a deep breath in, one that lasted so long he thought he would be home before he exhaled. A long journey ahead. He was sitting anxiously, mulling over everything he talked about with his friends—systems, the AIDS programme, and its imagined population. His eyebrows were coming together and forming a mountain of worries on his forehead. He couldn’t help himself; his fingers were starting to move in the air as if he was telling them to write something. And then, a poem was coming together in his mind –
I was a concept, a description
A number, a table, a graph
but no image
An idea, a noun
but not a thing itself
and no image
An apology on a page, on the margin
A footnote, or a quote
An example sometimes
but no image
Real or unreal,
but always elsewhere
Did I even exist?
How can I exist?
After the long bus ride, he arrives at his doorstep, listening to his mother’s humming. He can smell the caramelised garlic and onion on the lentil, which brings him a smile.
A noun, a name, and a definition that has no real meaning, as far as these high-risk (creatures) communities were concerned. At times, the ‘proper’ discourse was situated afar, and even the images in most of the early informative brochures were adopted from African countries, which did not have any cultural references to us—the local Indians. Moreover, all in a peculiar, scientific language; and we are dealing with the underclasses here. So how does one make sense of the thing itself? What is AIDS?
The ‘closet’ presupposes that you were in fundamental darkness before, and that you leave this darkness behind by coming out. The closet also seems to be a repository of shame and a negation of self. And by saying that you are coming out of the closet, it creates an immediate dichotomy between the covert and the overt, sorrow and happiness. Once you are out, you join a transparent world. A world where you then would have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, the closet shapes your mind-set, which needs to be unlearned, undone, in order to maintain the supposed transparency, truthfulness which you may have brought to the world. The danger in speaking in metaphors. How does a culture create its meaning in relation to time and space? Especially when the metaphor is referring to a life, a real life, then there is a lot at stake. No word, no language is ever enough to talk about a life.
By nature, the HIV virus is not a form-of-life; in fact, it requires an external body, my body to survive, to exist, and to flourish. So how can that be powerful, a virus which does not even have a life of its own? Wait… am I talking about HIV or the agencies who wanted me to learn about HIV? These agencies could not have existed either, without me, without naming me, without calling me the high-risk population. Who needed whom, I wonder?
According to late 1990s popular mythology—MSM was a homogenous group of men those who spoke vernacular languages as if they were doing something wrong by speaking in their mother-tongue, but did they actually speak? And who was listening to them? Performs receptive role when playing, as if their desires were ‘fixed.’ And very importantly they were from lower-socioeconomic-strata, an adjective that doesn’t even have a home in my dictionary. This made me think, so much trouble they took to define ‘us.’ But how can one define a person?
Programme made in heaven just after the great storm when Noah made his ark. It was to re-invent people, identity, and to create a new form of colonialism. MSM was conceived, a hierarchy of oppression was theorized, and all were grace to MSM, and they also inherit the closet. This resulted in that life embraced as a matter of survival and therefore never lived.
They say suffering is good for the soul and for an afterlife. And life seems to be a project whose ultimate goal is to lead a painful life to attain a peaceful death, and it is good for one’s character. If death is the only goal of life, then why so much fuss about race, class, privilege, power, refugees, and nationalities? But if the ‘life’ is what we are meant to live, and not just survive, then the goal should be to live to the fullest. Although, one may ask if people have choices to live or die?
In his speech on Independence Day, Nehru made a promise “to bring freedom and opportunity to the common man,” to the citizens of India, those who were starved to dream. Perhaps, this dream is the birth of the system of faux democracy.
System is that pseudo lover who leaves their things everywhere, reluctant to invest in you, and you always feel their presence, but they are never around when you need them. System could also be understood as an ex-lover; the one who can be to blame for all the unfortunate things that happen to you but no one can be held accountable, and you think it costs love and all. But in reality, the system has many lovers, hence, millions of lives are at stake to wash their dirty laundry.
Charan Singh is currently a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London. He was an artist resident at the FIAR, New York, July 2017. His most recent published work is Delhi: Communities of Belonging with Sunil Gupta, which was shown at CAMH, January 2018, and previously exhibited at sepiaEYE, New York, 2017. He earned a Magnum/Photo London award in 2016 for his portrait series Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others that was also shown in I Am a Camera at FotoFest Houston, and The Photographer’s Gallery, London in 2015. This series is featured in the Photoworks Annual, UK, 2017.