A small idli shop (Savory cake) at Usilampatti in south Tamil Nadu is the talk of the town which is otherwise notorious for female infanticide. At daybreak, people begin to crowd around in the bustling marketplace to buy idlis and dosas from a woman who is HIV positive.
Vijayarani’s customers are aware of her condition, but have no problem patronising her. Vijayarani and her co-worker Sumathy, 40, who is also HIV positive, run the shop together, earning up to Rs 500 per day. On the eve of World AIDS day, the duo serve as yet another reminder of the manner in which the stigma attached to the disease can be overcome even in a socially backward town like Usilampatti.
It was only three years ago that Vijayarani’s world fell apart. She and her six-year-old son were diagnosed as HIV-positive. But when her husband, Elango, tested negative, he began taunting his wife and finally told her that he was leaving her for good. Vijayarani had contracted the disease from her first husband, who had died a few years earlier.
“Initially, I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do. Then, I heard about the Vaigai network of people living with HIV/AIDS,” she said. These women do not hide the fact that they are carriers of the deadly virus, but say that the society around them has come to accept them. “People have come to realise that mere physical contact with a HIV-positive person does not spread the disease,” she pointed out.
Frail and thin, Vijayarani started out on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) soon after the diagnosis, and alongside struggled to achieve financial independence. “I look as healthy as any woman in our village and we have a successful business. Isn’t that proof enough?” she said in between ladling sambar for her customers. Vijayarani admitted her son in school after informing the authorities of his condition. Now the nine-year-old is a student in the fifth standard who comes within the top ten ranks in the class.
T Rajapandian, a local, who frequents the shop, vouches for Vijayarani. “There is nothing to beat her two-rupee idlis and dosas and the tasty accompaniments. I also take parcels home for my children at nights,” he said. P Annathai, who had been instrumental in spreading awareness about the shop, said, “I told my family and friends that we should help them and not shun them.”
Dr E S Thangapandian, programme manager of the government-run district AIDS Prevention and Control Unit said, “Theirs is an example for many to follow”.