Rohit walked into our HIV-testing center in South Mumbai one busy morning. I was struck by how stylish he looked in his jeans and casual linen shirt, very different than the usual patients who visit our sprawling public hospital campus. He paced back and forth in a corner, looking at his watch and whispering into a cell phone.
I guessed that he'd chosen this crowded setting because of the anonymity it afforded; here he stood little risk of running into an acquaintance who might start to wonder.
During Rohit's pre-test counseling, he confided his fear of being HIV-positive. He told us about having unprotected sex with female commercial sex workers during overseas business trips--and about a routine insurance health checkup that had hinted at something wrong.
He was here to learn the truth.
The next day, when he came for his results, Rohit was astonishingly calm.
"Your blood sample has tested positive for HIV," I said and, per our routine, handed him the lab report so he could see for himself.
Rohit held the piece of paper and sat, gazing deeply into nowhere. Just when I thought he might have a million questions, he forced a smile and abruptly stood up. "Thank you, Ma'am," he said, avoiding my gaze, and was gone in an instant.
A week later he came back, as we'd asked, bringing his wife Anjali.
I was prepared to meet a meek, submissive housewife. Instead, Anjali was an attractive executive who worked for a well-known multinational corporation. She came across as independent and confident, yet she also had a childlike naivete that made me want to reach out to her. As our counselor Neha and I sat with her, Anjali told us how devastated she'd been by Rohit's diagnosis.
And there was more.
Except for the first few years of their marriage, Rohit and she had never really gotten along. Rohit had always been suspicious of her business trips with male colleagues. She'd tried to convince him of her innocence, but to no avail. The real issue, she suspected, was that Rohit's male ego was threatened by her successful career.
It took a lot of coaxing before Anjali would herself agree to be tested for HIV.
"I was furious at Rohit when he broke the news to me," she said. "I felt betrayed, hurt, angry with myself, lonely, depressed--all at once. I even wanted to end my life." Her eyes welled with tears. "Can you please tell me this isn't true? That it's just a bad dream?" She began sobbing uncontrollably.
"Anjali," I said gently, "we have no doubt about Rohit's test results. The sooner you can accept it, the easier it will be for all of us to deal with."
"Yes," she answered. "I have to live to care for Rohit, to cherish the memory of the wonderful times we spent together, to forgive him for a mistake he committed, probably in a stray moment when he wasn't himself...."
As Anjali spoke I glanced over at Rohit, seated outside, without a hint of regret in his eyes. I felt fury rising inside me.
Here was a woman with beauty, brains and a high-profile job. This man had virtually destroyed her life, yet she wanted to forgive him and devote herself to him! She was acting as if she were God. Or, muttered an inner voice, just plain stupid.
Anjali's test came back positive for HIV.
In some ways, she was like so many of the women we see here, day in and day out, women infected by their husbands, whom they had trusted unquestioningly.
When we broke the news to Anjali and Rohit, we expected a verbal blame-game. But they surprised us again: Each seemed to want to act as the other's emotional anchor.
We told them that, although no cure for HIV currently exists, with regular treatment and follow-up, appropriate nutrition, exercise and a positive attitude, they could lead healthy lives. Both discussed the treatment options. As Rohit gently held Anjali's hand and helped her out of her seat, they seemed geared up to fight the disease together.
I couldn't help but note that, although the ecstasy of independence had torn them apart, the agony of suffering had drawn them closer. Ironically, HIV had given their marriage a new lease on life.
As Rohit and Anjali left to start therapy at another hospital, I felt oddly happy for them. HIV had snatched away the arrogance born of freedom and was instead fostering mutual reliance. I hoped that they would continue to seek, nurture and cherish their love for one another--a love that had seemed lost beyond recall.
I found myself smiling as an unlikely thought came to mind: Every cloud has a silver lining!
The story did not quite end here.
There are two types of HIV virus: HIV-1 and HIV-2. While doing further testing for research purposes, we found that Rohit had been infected with the HIV-2 virus, and Anjali with HIV-1. Apparently they had each acquired the infection from a different source! It looked as if someone other than Rohit had infected Anjali.
Were his suspicions of her well-founded after all?
I never found out. In fact, I never saw Rohit and Anjali again. We considered calling them to inform them about this new twist in the plot, but after much deliberation decided against it. I wasn't sure that this new information would be helpful to them. How many more skeletons were waiting to tumble out of the closet?
More than that, I didn't want to shatter their fragile relationship, now held together by shared sorrow. Their decision to battle HIV together seemed to have united them.
And so I chose, in the end, to let it be.
About the author:
Reeta Mani is a virologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India. "Since childhood I have always loved to write. My profession earns me my bread and butter, but as a writer I have the freedom to express what I cannot possibly as a doctor, fettered by decorum, scientific reasoning, political correctness and ethics."