Tag Archives: HIV

Cycling Around The World: Somen Debnath

The statistics and the breadth of ambition are daunting to say the very least. 14 year journey which started in 2004. 154,800 km on bike. Traveled through 150 countries. Currently biking in the United States. On his way to Canada through the West Coast. Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS among rural people in India. 

I spoke with Somen Debnath, a cyclist who has broken many an endurance record with his stupendous journey to cover 190 countries one kilometer at a time, reaching his goal of 200,000 km in 14 years. 

I asked him about how this passion started. “When I was 14 years old, a man who lived close to my village died of AIDS. The West Bengal AIDS prevention society carried newspaper articles which pointed out that AIDS could be deadlier than cancer.” This information about the potentially deadly disease stayed with him, as did the circumstances of growing up in a village in Bengal. “About 80 km. from Kolkata, I grew up in the village of Basanti,” while adding, “which is in the middle of the Sundarbans region, where we have mangrove forests and the largest tiger reserve in India.  have always been inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings directed towards Then, I read Bimal Mukherjee’s book – Du Chakay Duniya where he describes using a bicycle to travel the world for eleven years. His trip started in 1926. Reading this book made a deep impression on me, since I had always wanted to see and experience many places in India and all over the world too. I was raised in the forests. From there, it was my desire that has taken me to so many places across the world.”

When I ask him about the condition of his bike, he told me that this was the eighth bike that he is using. This bike was gifted to him by Indian-Americans living in Texas, and with that he reached California. From here, he planned to go to Portland in Oregon and onto Seattle in Washington. From there, it would be northwards to Canada, the North Pole and then through Siberian Russia. He commenced this journey in May of 2014 and hopes to end it in India in December of 2020 after a journey of 16 years. 

When asked to name his most interesting experiences, he said that traveling through Bangladesh, being captured by the Taliban for 24 days and seeing wild animals like rhinos, cheetahs and lions wandering around in the African grasslands were unforgettable. He also said that his trip elicited a lot of curiosity among people all over, with kindness and empathy coming next, helping him tide over to the next part of the trip. 

“Indians all over and Indian-Americans have been very kind to me, welcoming me with open arms. Everyone can help me through monetary donations and by keeping track of my trip by going to my website at https://www.somen2020world.com/

Pedal up and pedal down. One kilometer at a time; 200, 000 km in 16 years. What passion!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

Lovesick in San Jose

Check out this movie for yourself on Saturday Oct 20, 2018 in San Jose! Details here: https://indiacurrents.com/events/film-show-lovesick/

I watched Lovesick at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which comes with the usual homey discord of diasporic film festivals. The people behind me were passing tupperware filled with aloo gobhi. The harangued IFFLA staff member was pleading people to lower their voices as he introduced the filmmakers. I was at once amused — as a film student, I’m usually surrounded by a much more reverential crowd — and admittedly irked — I would like to hear the filmmakers’ introductions and nobody passed me any aloo gobhi. Under the wafting smell of aloo gobhi, I feel at home and alien. It was under these classically clashing circumstances that I watched Lovesick, which also seemed to be trying to navigate pleasing two worlds and settling neither here nor there.

The directors of Lovesick, Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai, were both working at PBS when they came across an article about Dr. Suniti Solomon, the first person to find HIV in India. In the film, we learn that Dr. Solomon is more aptly described as the first person to even look for HIV in India, which she found widespread in sex workers. She then left what she described as “her prestigious academic job” to found a clinic for people with HIV.

Here’s where it begins to get wacky. Through founding the clinic, Dr. Solomon somewhat organically created a matchmaking service to help HIV positive people find partners, a practice which the directors claim is now common in Indian HIV clinics. Ann and Priya decided Dr. Solomon’s story was too big for a throwaway article, and through a mutual connection decided to meet her in person. Eight years later, they birthed Lovesick, a longitudinal documentary on Dr. Solomon’s life and the story of a successful couple she matched.

The film is humorous, poignant and tender. Dr. Solomon matches couples because she too was madly in love for many decades. Her late husband was Christian and she is Hindu, yet, in a tale as old as time, love conquered all. I’m a sucker for a sappy love story, so I was moved when I saw Dr. Solomon read out passionate letters her husband wrote to her, which she now keeps sealed in a ziplock bag. Later, she waters the purple orchids surrounding her husband’s picture. “His favorite flower,” she remarks, standing next to a shelf of Christian and Hindu paraphernalia. We begin to understand why Dr. Solomon is such an advocate for finding love.

Through her matchmaking service, we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her “lovesick” patients. Their faces are not shown for most of the film because HIV is still so taboo in India — best evidenced by a sequence in the film where Manu’s Mother asks if she can say the word “HIV.” Both Manu and Karthik are sweet and lovable, but there is a certain emphasis placed on the fact that neither was “to blame” for contracted HIV. Karthik was given tainted blood and Manu was married to a man who never revealed to her that he was HIV positive.

In fact, the communities Indian society would like to blame for HIV, are curiously absent from the film. For example, Dr. Solomon first found HIV in sex workers, yet not a single sex worker is interviewed in the film. We know HIV to predominantly exist in the gay community, but Dr. Solomon’s matchmaking service seems to only match heterosexual, or seemingly heterosexual, couples.  

As sweet and deserving of love as Manu and Karthik are, the fact that they are able to find it is predicated on his Brahmin caste and her educated background, as Dr. Solomon’s staff giddily relay in the matchmaking process.

By the end of the film, Manu and Karthik decide to allow their faces to be shown. The couple even spoke at the screening in New York and have committed to be the public faces for HIV clinics in India.

The film is an homage to the remarkable Dr. Solomon, who passed away before the film was released. At times, she even even goaded men into coming in to receive treatment by telling them they would only find love if they took care of themselves. She understood the interconnectivity between human wellbeing and love — and all of its accoutrements, like desire and compassion — and her own love for others will always be remembered.

Urvashi Pathania is a film-maker who writes from Los Angeles, where she attends the University of Southern California. You can learn more about her at urvashipathania.com.

This review was originally published by India Currents in April, 2018. It was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

 

 

Lovesick: A West Coast Premiere

After discovering the first cases of HIV in India in 1986, Dr. Suniti Solomon left a prestigious academic job to build her own clinic focusing on treating HIV/AIDS patients. Several decades and breakthroughs in treatment later, her clinic is one of the highest regarded in the country and her patients are living longer lives. While surviving, some of

HIV infected Tcell

her patients are not thriving. Being Indian, they feel immense societal and personal pressure to marry, but simultaneously face a stigma of being HIV-positive. Now in the twilight of her impressive career, Dr. Solomon takes the next step in her treatment by creating a matchmaking service for those seeking marriage. Through the service we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her patients who want to share their lives with someone but are fearful they never will. Shot over eight years and told with compassion and care, filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai give us a surprising and hopeful story about the universal healing ability of companionship and love.

Priya Giri Desai’s work in print and broadcast media spans two decades and includes work for outlets such as LIFE magazine, PBS and independent film projects. Desai is a graduate of Duke University and a founding board member of The India Center Foundation, a cultural non-profit organization in New York dedicated to the study of the Indian subcontinent, the promotion of its cultural life, and the unique relationship between India and the United States. Ann S. Kim is an independent filmmaker who has reported on a range of science global health issues for public television and radio. From 2016-2017, Kim served as the first Chief Design Officer for the U.S. Surgeon General, bringing design thinking into government and urgent public health issues of addiction, opioids, and social isolation.

Lovesick had its world premiere at DOC NYC in November 2017. It will screen on April 14 at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and again on April 29 at the International Film Festival Boston.

More info at lovesickthefilm.com