APR 19 – Muna Gurung busies herself in the kitchen while her husband, Raj Kumar, strums the guitar in the living room, the pleasant sound of his singing soon filling their one-storied house in Kalanki. It’s been two months since Raj Kumar revealed to Muna that he was HIV-infected. Though horrified at first, Muna has now overcome the shock, putting everything aside to take care of him.
Raj Kumar works as a counsellor at the Sangati Extended Care Center in Lalitpur, and had sought the help of friends, colleagues and other counsellors for the ‘impossible task’ of disclosing his condition to his wife. He had already grown heavy with the guilt of keeping such an enormous secret from her for so many years, but just couldn’t find the nerve to open up. “I kept waiting for a good time, a good moment to tell her, but I couldn’t find the right one” he says.
That right moment was almost a decade in coming.
In 2004, Raj Kumar already knew he had HIV. But he says he didn’t feel like he could tell his wife, for fear of the trauma it would cause the family, and the stigma he was sure he would face from society in general. “He was mostly afraid Muna would leave him,” confides one of his counsellors. “He didn’t want to risk his marriage.”
Ramesh Maharjan, an official at SPARSHA Nepal—a community-supported NGO that focuses on reducing stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS—and another of Raj Kumar’s counsellors, says that they had all been pressuring him to be honest. And so, when he finally decided to take the step, Maharjan, along with friends and counsellors Uttam Shrestha and Govinda Adhikari, were all there to guide Raj Kumar through the process.
“We tried to be gentle when we told her,” Adhikari says. “We gave her examples of other people who are living normal lives despite being HIV positive to try to show her that it wasn’t the end.”
Muna broke down at the news, understandably, but eventually pulled herself together, promising them that she would be there for her husband. “It’s the sort of thing you never imagine could happen to you, like having a huge hole in your heart,” she says, recalling the day she found out. “But I was grateful to have finally been told the truth, as late as it had come, and I knew I had to deal with it.”
That very day, Muna got her blood tested to see if she’d been infected as well.
“Thankfully, it was negative,” Maharjan says.
Raj Kumar and Muna had gotten married when they were 26 and 17 respectively, under arranged circumstances. Raj Kumar had developed a drug habit when he’d been younger, but by the time he met Muna, he was already clean, recovering, and undergoing counselling.
“We had this very short and very sweet first conversation,” he says. “Then we started talking on the phone more and more, and found that we liked each other.” They were married within three weeks.
In the 11 years that they’ve been together, there have been many ups and downs, Muna admits, describing her husband as a man of extremes. “He’ll be very, very loving at times, but he’ll also swing the other way when he’s not happy,” she says. “He’s a very stubborn person.”
Having to take care of Raj Kumar, their child, and her mother-in-law, Maiya—who didn’t know about her son’s condition either for a very long time—can get challenging, but Muna is determined to carry on, because she believes their bond transcends these rough patches. “We have a great sense of understanding between us,” she says. “It’s what’s gotten us through all of our difficulties so far.”
Raj Kumar’s childhood had been a relatively pleasant one. The only son in the family, he had been the apple of his mother’s eye, a cheerful, playful child. And music had presented an instant fascination for him from a very early age.
But there were tensions simmering under that happy surface. Raj Kumar recalls, in particular, the quarrels he frequently witnessed between his father and stepmother, and how he’d always felt neglected by his father. And in the eighth grade, he began using, keeping his drug habit a secret for many years.
“It started with cigarettes, alcohol, and before I knew it, I had moved into hard drugs,” he explains. “I had friends who were doing it, and it just seemed natural at the time.”
It was the sharing of needles with other users that got Raj Kumar infected with HIV. He reckons he knows the moment it happened, too; he’d been in a drug-induced haze and had accepted a needle from a friend. “That was it, that one instant,” he says. “It changed everything.”
But it wasn’t until he got arrested by the police some time later, and his blood was tested, that the terrible consequences of his mistake were revealed to Raj Kumar. “When I found out I’d tested positive, I didn’t know how to react, what to do,” he says. “For almost half a year, I was in denial; I took even more drugs just so I wouldn’t have to face it all.”
He was later diagnosed with gland tuberculosis and jaundice.
Raj Kumar says the knowledge had been overwhelming, and it had even driven him to the point of suicide—twice, in fact—but he hadn’t succeeded, although he’d injured himself both times. That was when he’d decided enough was enough—it was time to stop feeling sorry for himself and do something.
He began treatment for tuberculosis and jaundice, eventually recovering from both. And six years since starting on medication, his health has improved substantially today. None of it, however, would’ve been possible without the kind of support system he’s been blessed with, both in terms of family and friends, he says.
And all he wants to do now is help others like him, which Sangati has allowed him to do.
“He’s been such a compassionate, positive presence at the centre,” Adhikari says. “People are able to identify with him, and he’s inspired quite a few to come in for treatment.”
Raj Kumar is among the many Nepalis who have gotten infected with HIV via contaminated needles. At present, he says his hope is to adjust to his illness as best he can, and find some semblance of normalcy. And, of course, sing.
That childhood dream is finally materialising thanks to the moral and financial assistance from his friends at Sangati, and he is currently devoting himself to music.
“He has a great voice,” Adhikari says. “It would be a shame for it to go to waste.”
Having taken guitar lessons in his mid-teens, the aspiring singer is in the process of composing a number of songs that he hopes to record soon. One in particular, titled Mod was written while at Sangati. It has been recorded and even has a video shot for it. Raj Kumar says the lyrics derive from what he’s been through, the unpredictability of life.
“It’s a very sad piece, and it makes you want to cry,” says Muna. “But I like to think it’s also telling us not to despair, that on the other side of all this, our good days are coming soon.”
HIV stats: Nepal
Nepal’s first HIV case was reported in 1988. According to government data, an average of 1,437 new cases of HIV-infections are reported each year. In 2011, 50,287 people were living with HIV, out of which 3,804 are children.
Of the total HIV cases reported in 2011, 87.9 percent were found to have been sexually transmitted.
Encouragingly, the number of reported HIV infections in the country has been declining steadily in the last five years. In 2007, a total of 64,585 people were believed to be living with HIV.
Government figures currently put HIV prevalence in the adult population at 0.3 percent.
The high-risk group includes injecting drug users, female sex workers and their clients, men who have sex with other men and male migrant labourers.
Dr Ruben F Del Prado, country director of Nepal at UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, says that people with HIV are not a threat and they need to be guided and supported so that they can be treated successfully, and return to normal, productive lives.
“It is unacceptable that people living with HIV are discriminated against,” he says.