wenty-six-year-old Gopika glows like any bride-to-be. Later this year, she will be married. Her parents have gifted her gold jewellery; she has bought her first trousseau sari; and now she and fiance Vishal are planning a hill-station honeymoon. None of the 1,000 guests expected at their wedding will guess at the terrible secret the soon-to-be newlyweds have learnt to hide so well: both of them are HIV-positive.
"For us, marriage isn't about starting a new life. It's about living what life we have left to the fullest," says Gopika, summing up the rationale behind Mumbai's only marriage bureau for HIV-positive people, run by HIV-positive people. It is believed to be the only such marriage bureau in the country.
"No one understands better than we do the value of being married," says Shabana Patel, founder of NTP+, short for Network in Thane by People Living with HIV/AIDS. This community-based organisation in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai, has been running a marriage bureau—Jeevansathi—since April 2006 to help people with HIV find companionship in marriage. And almost everyone working here is HIV-positive. "You might have parents, siblings, friends, but everyone needs that one single person to turn to," says Shabana, herself HIV-positive.
For Gopika, though, marriage is more about being the only way to stop tongues from wagging. After she discovered she was HIV-positive less than two years ago, her parents had to turn down all the marriage proposals that came their way.
"There is no place for an unmarried girl in our society," she says bitterly. "My older sister got married and everyone asked my father, 'Why haven't you seen someone for Gopika?' The pressure on him was tremendous."
"Vishal is tall, well-educated, from a family of lawyers, well-off, living independently..." she continues, listing all the plus points of her husband-to-be. "Now everyone is congratulating my father on finding such a good match for me. If I wasn't HIV-positive, where would I get such a good proposal? My father would have had to sign away at least four lakhs in dowry!"
Gopika's humour is hard-earned. After contracting HIV from a former boyfriend—he died three years ago—Gopika's world came apart rapidly. She rued being honest with her parents. "I was suicidal, I cried all the time, and my father blamed me for bringing this upon the family," she says, holding back the tears. "I had nothing to blame, only myself and my relationship with that boy. It would have been better to say I was raped."
Then Gopika registered with NTP+ and met Vishal. By marrying him, Gopika hopes to ease her parents' worries—and to escape the social alienation and utter loneliness of being HIV-positive.
Many marriage-hopefuls at NTP+ have to bear the same onerous secret. Ashok Dhokle, 32, was diagnosed with HIV five years ago, but he hasn't told his aging parents in the village. "My mother says, 'I won't be able to die peacefully till you get married.' What do I tell her?"
Mohan Ganguly, 35, a widower with a two-year-old daughter, was abandoned by his family after they found out that he had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. "There I was, lying in hospital, and my brother and my parents were already discussing what to do with my daughter after I died, about putting her in an orphanage. Soon enough, they all stopped coming to see me and then, my father disinherited me."
For Mohan, it was his daughter who spurred in him the will to live. "She had no one else, and I had to live for her," he says. That was when Mohan registered with NTP+, to find a mother for his child.
Only a few months ago, Mohan met and married Manisha, 28, an HIV-positive widow who had lost her husband and her two young children to the disease. "Only someone who has lost a child knows what the love of a child is," says Mohan quietly. "Now she and my daughter are inseparable and we are all very happy."
Mohan and Manisha's is one of only two marriages that have taken place so far. Finding a match is hard, particularly for the men—only 12 of the 38 registrations so far are women. A caste bias doesn't make it easier.
"There was a boy whose parents insisted on a girl from the same caste even though they knew he was HIV-positive," says Vanita Ghadge, a NTP+ counsellor, shaking her head in disbelief. "Having caused so much pain to them already, he didn't oppose them and he's still looking..."
Even though the bureau is a social niche outside the mainstream, orthodoxies of the outside world tend to filter in: few men will settle for an unmarried girl with HIV because of the aspersions it casts on her reputation. Widows with HIV often find it harder to gain acceptance for a second marriage if they have children from their first marriage.
Bharti Sonawane, 30, hopes that a suitable match through the bureau will help her forget the only man she loved. When she met him she was long separated from her husband, who had died since. "He had a first wife he had not told me about," she says. Just as she was contemplating a second marriage—a marriage for love—she got word that her husband's first wife was dying of AIDS. "I got it from him," his first wife told Bharti. "And I think you might have it, too."
"I ended the relationship after I found out I was positive because I loved the boy too much," she says. Yet she hopes, wistfully, for marriage and a child of her own some day.
Inevitably, marriage will bring its own challenges. For instance, Vishal wants children, and Gopika doesn't. (Medical advancements have made it possible for HIV-positive women to become mothers without infecting their children, but stories abound of how doctors and nurses shy away from treating HIV-positive mothers.)
But for now, wedding bells are ringing and Gopika is busy making plans to pursue an MBA degree thereafter. Meanwhile, Ashok is saving up enough to be financially prepared for a marriage in which medical expenses for both partners are a given. And Mohan, now a peer counsellor at a leading city hospital, persuades other 'positives' to follow his example and start living. His daughter attends one of Mumbai's best schools; each month he puts aside some money for her.
"You might do yoga, take medication, eat well, but if your mind is negative, you won't survive this," says Gopika. "That's why this is called a positive disease, isn't it?"
(Some names have been changed. To contact NTP+, call 0251-231 6459 or 0251-653 4939; or e-mail email@example.com)