Under my byline

One for the road

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 23 August 2008

Q&A: Aman Sethi

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India

Negar Akhavi (editor)
Random House India
xii + 340

India’s first charity book (according to the publisher) will raise money for Avahan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation AIDS initiative in India. It contains 16 essays by leading writers (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Shobhaa De) on their firsthand experience of aspects of India’s AIDS crisis, from at-risk groups like hijras, addicts and sex workers to stories of individual sufferers and those at the frontline, including doctors, policemen and lawyers. Aman Sethi, journalist and essayist, hitched a ride down NH 31 from Siliguri to Patna in a truck piloted by “ustaad” Sanjay, to learn about the sexual life of the highways.

Why did you agree to contribute to this book?

For a number of reasons — I was initially intrigued by the prospect of writing on trucks simply because the only time one reads about trucks is in the case of accidents or transporter strikes. This assignment offered me an opportunity to get on board and view the world from the truck driver’s perspective. I have also always found most reportage on AIDS to be uninspiring at best and downright patronising at worst. Through this piece I wanted to break away from stereotypes of victimhood and heroism that appear to be characteristic of most journalistic work on AIDS.

Was it difficult to convince people, especially ustaad Sanjay and sex worker Pinkie, to share their experiences?

Obviously, inquiring about someone’s sexual practices is an intimate and delicate task that requires a degree of sensitivity. My sources were initially a little hesitant primarily because they were unsure if they could trust someone from the press. Sanjay and I were in the same truck cab for nearly 20 hours, so I suppose proximity bred trust. Pinkie seemed far more open to talking about sex than Sanjay. She also told me that I reminded her of one of her earliest clients — who was a bearded Punjabi like me. I guess that helped.

Your truck journey was quite chaste — any evidence that this wasn’t an ordinary trip?

I’m not sure what you mean by an ordinary trip — it was my first long journey in a truck, so I guess it was not that ordinary. I suppose you could call it chaste given that there were no graphic descriptions of “trucker sex” — but the point of the piece was to try to look at truckers in a way that moved beyond writing about them as agents of intercourse. I think there is something quite extraordinary about a life that is lived almost entirely on the national highways with only occasional visits home. A peregrinatory life such as this leads to a very interesting engagement with the world and affects the way Sanjay deals with the police, his assistant Kamlesh, television and his family back home.

Are sex workers and roadside businesspeople unhappy about the new highways on which truckers stop less frequently, unlike the old, potholed roads?

As the piece points out — sex work is gradually shifting out on to the highways. Among sex workers, there is a difference between brothel-based work and highway-based work. A change in the nature of driving obviously affects both. Those in roadside brothels are the worst affected — as trucks can no longer pull over to the side of the road for sex…

Pinkie said that this drop in business for brothels means that more sex workers were not shifting to highway work, where they literally stand on the side of the road near railroad crossings, gas stations, et cetera. [H]ighway work is more dangerous as the sex worker is often alone and not protected by the pimp or madam who provides protection to brothel workers. Brothels at designated stops like Sanjay Gandhi transport colony are relatively unaffected.

As an “urban ecology” correspondent, how much do you hear about AIDS in Delhi?

As an “urban ecology” correspondent I don’t really cover AIDS; I cover slums, JJ clusters and the communities that reside in such housing. I write on the social structures that permeate such so called “unplanned”, “unauthorised” colonies, among other things. This, in fact, is my first ever story on AIDS.

What is your first book (forthcoming) about?

My first book is a fictional manuscript inspired by three years of research on migrant construction labour in Delhi. It attempts to understand post-2000 Delhi’s rapid urban transformation through the lives of a group of itinerant construction workers.


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