By Pinak Pani Datta:
Manipur, mid 1980s:
The Manipuri youth were enticed by a new wave of drug coming from the Golden triangle through the porous India-Myanmar border. It was cheaply and easily available in every street and corner of Manipur.
According to L. Deepak, the president of Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+), in the beginning he and his friends were lured by the purveyor known to them that it was the happiest thing happening in America and was doled out without charging any money.
And of course later on, they were forced to buy. So the early 80’s were also an era when crime increased in manifold in the Manipuri society as the loony drug addicts hunting for their daily dose started stealing, robbing and snatching gold earring from small kids occasionally killing them in the process (It is a custom for Meitei boys and girls to wear gold earrings until they reach adulthood). Due to these incidents during that murky era, it was even rumoured that drug addicts are vampires who suck blood.
Like any ordinary youth of that era, Pradip Kumar also fell prey to the set up. A 13 year old guy took refuge to drugs. He started with heroin, “I started doing drugs just for fun. I was probably 14 when I tried heroin for the first time and then marijuana,” he says. But the narcotic high doesn’t always last forever. By the time he decided enough was enough, in 1992, what then looked like a promising career in wrestling and power lifting was already in tatters.
But the worst was yet to come. The syringes had taken their toll. In 2000, he was diagnosed with HIV. “I thought my end was near. I kept telling myself: I will die today, tomorrow or, probably, the day after. It frustrated me and I was dying a slow death,” he told TOI.
He remained aloof from the world, from the indivisible society confining himself only to his house. ART (anti retro viral therapy) at that time was not freely available as of now and every month his family has to cash down about INR 35,000 a month. In spite of that, his health was failing from bad to worse and literally he started crawling. After staying indoors for two years, Pradip Kumar finally decided to battle the dreaded disease. He joined a gymnasium in July 2003.
According to him living with HIV means ‘my immune system is weak’ and he says he has never been affected with any form of malady since he started body building. The only sickness he had experienced was the ‘mental depression’ caused by the untoward remarks of people about his HIV status.
In December 2007 he won the Mr. Manipur title in the 60 kg category. The celebrated day was also the time when he made a crucial stirring decision to stand up for those living with HIV/AIDS. Consequently, he bluntly and boldly announced to the world that ‘he is HIV Positive’. He thought by revealing his status to the world, the discrimination and stigma towards the HIV+ people would eventually decrease.
Henceforth followed a frenzy of media and public attention. He went for the nationals and won the silver in the 50th senior national bodybuilding championships in Margao.
From being infected with the killer virus in the summer of 2000 and hiding it from the world till 2007 when he became Mr. Manipur to winning a silver medal at the National championships, his is the stuff that we thought only the legendary Magic Johnson was capable of.
“It’s been such a tiring journey,” confesses Pradip Kumar, who is now the brand ambassador for Manipur AIDS Control Society.
Today Pradip may be a famous HIV Positive but also a disgusted man with the attitude of some of the agencies and especially the Manipur state government. The Manipur State Aids Control Society made him their brand ambassador for two years from march 2008 to march 2010 paying him INR 6000/month. But he was not happy with the way they were functioning or using his HIV status.
Sometimes Pradip Â feels like an HIV+ animal exhibited in the zoo for the world to see. He only wants ‘the society to be his walking stick’ and expects all HIV+ people to be treated fairly. He affirms again, ‘nobody wanted to be an HIV+’ and that it is not HIV/AIDS that kills the person but the discrimination of the society.
His message for those who are living with the virus is :”body building is the best medicine”
[Excerpts from Pradip Kumar’s interview by Oinam Doren, a freelance journalist]