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In Memoriam – Old Man

3 September 2015 Posted by No Comment

ShantanuShantanu died last Wednesday. Not yesterday. Last Wednesday. I’m still processing this. And like other deaths of those I love, I’ll probably always process last Wednesday.

Shantanu was my peculiar window into Bengal. My mentor. He was also a person who used drugs.

“A fucking addict! So what?”

I remember stolid Calcutta nights in his makeshift living room when his toddler son used to fetch his ceramic box of green, and Shantanu would look at me and laugh.

“Am I a bad father?”

Perhaps you were. But I know how much you loved your son. Perhaps all fathers are bad, in some way. Perhaps this is what it means to be human. Just hope that your bad fathering didn’t fuck him up too much. Isn’t this our only hope, in the end? Which of us can claim different?

What a shocker. He was an absolute shocker. His personal and professional life was regularly in disarray. Wonderfully chaotic and dramatic, and rarely free of conflict. My last communication with him was over email a few weeks ago, when he was berating the International and Asian Networks of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD & ANPUD), and I responded with encouragement, in private. “You tell them old man”, I said. He immediately posted my response on the network threads. What a wonderful Chuth.

“How are you, you rascal?”

“I’m fine old man.”

Some heeded you still old man. The mad who still dream. You taught us courage to be, to become who we are, despite who we were, and you reminded us that this becoming never ends. You were fearfully and wonderfully made. Fewer did it better than you old man. Fewer still even try.

One afternoon in Pune, after a particularly difficult few days when we were still losing people to AIDS…

“We’re not the only ones who do this. We’re not alone. There are others that are HOT! Hotter than us!”

When you’re washing and cleaning and wrapping and burning, washing and cleaning and wrapping and burning, to know that we were not alone made us feel less hopeless. It also grounded those of us who had delusions of grandeur, Mother Theresa complexes, Save-The-World psychoses. We do because we can, not because we must. We do because we chose to, there is no absolute imperative. We do because, if we didn’t, someone else might not. Those pomegranate abscess days, those rats in the morgue days, those cow dung pyre days… old man, you said those will someday end. And for me, they did. I escaped old man. I came home.

It’s different here. It’s not as bad, and it’s also worse. Over here the government provides free HIV treatment and the HIV industry is alive and well, despite claims of donor funding drying up. Those affected are also under 3000 reported cases right now, and mostly from low socio-economic backgrounds, which include a few sex workers, both male and female, and also a handful of drug users. In India we followed the science. The research you did, when you weren’t off your head, has informed advocacy, helped us formulate plans that work. Even here, Harm Reduction in relation to drug use is part of the National Strategic Plan*developed by the Ministry of Health (MOH). But forget about it. The gamut of treatment options available to people who use drugs here begins and ends with abstinence. Most don’t inject drugs here, as born out by the MOH statistics on HIV transmission **, and harm reduction = needle syringe exchange programmes, therefore, unnecessary. After all, needle syringe exchange programmes only condone, even promote drug use.

Also old man, when we talk about women living with HIV having healthy HIV free babies, we’re told that this is irresponsible. Apparently we don’t have the technology. An HIV positive woman having a HIV negative baby is like building the Six Million Dollar Man over here. “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife” for we have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. MDG5 achieved ahead of schedule. And still, we walk into to operating theatres in bio-hazard suits to operate on a known HIV positive mother.

Universal Precautions  are not always practical.”

“But if you know that the person soon to be under the knife is HIV positive?”

“If we know, then we get fully protected, like recently we were performing a C- section on a woman who was infected with HIV, so we were prepared.”

“Like walking on the moon? A bio-hazard suit?”

“Something like that.”

“Won’t you scare her?”***

Remember how we used to rant over a bundy bottle of Old Monk? That one week when we lost those we hardly knew. “Shall we drink?” you said. “Why not.” I said. “You rascal!” you laughed. I rarely have a good rant over here old man. It’s just so fucking confusing sometimes as to why people don’t understand. Why they ignore the facts, the science. It shuts me up until it squeezes itself out when I sit down to write. And then, I edit. I take out all the fucks. I pad my punches. I try to be as respectful and tactful as possible. You never did. You were the King of Spades. I’ll miss you. I’ll miss knowing you’re there; in Calcutta, in Assam, in Delhi’s belly. I’ll miss hearing that laughter, or will I?

“Look at how beautiful my wife is, and look at how ugly I am. I must be very good in bed, no?!”

Good night and good luck old man, you ugliest of fuckers. May the force be with you.


*Click and you arrive at the landing page, choose a language of your own before proceeding.  We’d love to let you know which tab to click on exactly, but the site is down at the moment. Not ideal.

**Click and you arrive at the landing page, choose a language of your own before proceeding.  We’d love to let you know which tab to click on exactly, but the site is down at the moment. Not ideal.

***A Grassrooted interview on Universal Precautions with a surgeon at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital.



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