Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 32, July 2013

The Dialectics of Visibility:
Locating AIDS and the 'Big H' in My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country

Neeraja Sundaram

    Oh yes, there were the other Hs: hemophiliac, Haitian, heroin, heterosexual.
    But the big H always stood for Homosexual

    Abraham Verghese – My Own Country (1994)

  1. In this paper I am interested in exploring the intersection of the social reception of disease, the gay body and medical discourse in popular representations of the treatment and experience of AIDS. The paper will focus on one of the categories within AIDS discourse, the male homosexual—still viewed within popular media as a primary risk category—to identify the various means in which this 'risk' category continues to be viewed as such, even within so-called 'socially conscious' texts that aim to dispel widely held stereotypes and misconceptions about the disease. This paper will use as texts, Onir's 2005 film My Brother Nikhil,[1] one of the few national-release films in India that deals with AIDS and homosexuality and Abraham Verghese's My Own Country,[2] an Indian doctor's account of his experiences of treating homosexual AIDS patients in Tennessee, America. Both these texts attempt to recreate 'real-life' experiences of their homosexual protagonists and subjects—Verghese's My Own Country is a memoir that recreates for the reader, the intimate relationship that the physician-narrator builds with his predominantly homosexual AIDS patients during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America and integrates along with case histories, the various 'stories' that these patients bring to the medical institution about their 'little-known' lifestyle and culture. Onir's My Brother Nikhil, though a fictionalised account of a gay champion swimmer's experience of AIDS stigma in Goa in India in the late 1980s, is acknowledged by the director to be based on 'true cases' of atrocities against homosexual AIDS patients in Goa at the time. I use the label 'AIDS' in this paper, rather than 'HIV/AIDS' to emphasise firstly, the greater focus in these texts on the terminal and contagious variant of the disease (AIDS) as opposed to the (often portrayed as curable and therefore not stigmatised) condition of being infected with HIV.[3] This is evidenced by the narrative reconstruction effected by these texts, where the reader/viewer is made aware at the very outset that they are witnessing events that have had a terminal consequence and are being introduced not to 'survivors' but representations of 'victims' claimed by a fatal disease. My Brother Nikhil is narrated to the viewer after Nikhil's death, with narrators (his mother, father, sister and friends) exhibiting grief at his suffering and subsequent demise while simultaneously reconstructing the events that preceded his death. In My Own Country, Verghese similarly recreates events preceding the inevitable succumbing of his patients to AIDS in the early years of the epidemic in America. Secondly, these texts are explicitly situated at the time of the genesis of the epidemic (the 1980s) and as such focus on the ethics of end-of-life decisions, the futility of medical science and medical intervention rather than the management and cure of an infection (HIV) with its attendant ideas of the benefits of early diagnosis and the triumph of medical care/cure.

    Homosexuality, AIDS and narrative
  2. The centrality of the 'male homosexual text' in the generation of an 'epidemic of signification' in the early years of the AIDS epidemic has been addressed, especially by Paula Treichler.[4] In addition, Sander Gilman (1988) has identified the historically entrenched visual iconography of patients of sexually transmitted diseases that lends a readily available vocabulary to frame the 'deviant' and 'excessive' AIDS patient.[5] Both Treichler and Gilman underscore the greater significance of the socially constructed 'meanings' of AIDS (frequently appropriated within medical discourse that labels this social dimension of the disease as 'lay opinion' or 'misconception' and thus attempts to retain its own 'factual superiority') within which the male homosexual body is embedded. Frames of reading the 'deviant sexuality' of the male homosexual AIDS patient are thus already in place within popular culture.
  3. The narrative framing of the 'story' of AIDS within My Own Country and My Brother Nikhil is indicative of these texts' attempts at foregrounding the social pervasiveness of the illness. Stigma faced by the homosexual patients portrayed by these texts often precedes either the medical pronouncement of HIV or AIDS infection or the patient's own knowledge of his condition. The close-knit community that Nikhil inhabits in My Brother Nikhil, for instance, is aware of his being diagnosed with HIV before he is informed of his own condition. Nikhil and his family's ostracisation from the community precedes, even within the narrative organisation of the text, their knowledge of the virus now lurking in his body. More significantly, Nikhil's homosexuality is addressed overtly in the film, only following the revelation (to his family and to us, the viewers) that he has been infected with HIV. The film's narrative here attempts to effect a complete break from causation and the 'discovery' of HIV status, thus making clear the critical project of the film, which is to disassociate sexuality and lifestyle from the illness. Both these factors, especially in homosexual patients, are too often easily conflated with AIDS, in attempts to place limits both on the unknowable nature of the virus and the unknowable (to the general heterosexual public) nature of sexual minorities like gay men.[6] Verghese's My Own Country also demonstrates the social pervasiveness of AIDS in a variety of ways. In addition to citing 'real-life' cases of homosexual patients who are treated as 'victims' of the AIDS virus even prior to a medical diagnosis of their condition, Verghese presents his own story, as a 'foreign', immigrant doctor in the States as parallel to the entry and reception of AIDS and PWA's (Persons with AIDS) in America. Verghese narrates to the reader how, over the course of his stint as an infectious diseases specialist in rural America (Tennessee), despite the relative invisibility of the AIDS virus there, his already tenuous link to the city (on account of being foreign/immigrant) is further destabilised and tainted on account of his very personal engagement with the management and cure of AIDS patients, many of whom are homosexual men. Verghese narrates how he is able, through his medico-social interactions with his gay patients, to disprove and eventually expose the invisibility of the AIDS virus in Johnson City, Tennessee but is simultaneously able to uncover a so-far hidden gay culture and gay population in the city.
  4. While these texts attempt to present 'real-life' stories, it is significant that their 'recounting' is also historically situated—that is, they frequently call attention to the time frame in which these stories are set, the early years of the epidemic both in India and America and thus frame the disease as 'event' rather than as a continuing reality that inhabits the readers'/viewers' 'present.' Moreover, AIDS is often perceived as a 'rupture' and provokes 'urgent testimony and confession.'[7] My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country thus exemplify the necessity to narrate/testify/confess. The 'story' in both texts is often directed by uninfected, heterosexual narrators—in the case of My Own Country, the uninfected, heterosexual physician-narrator and in the case of My Brother Nikhil, Nikhil's heterosexual, uninfected sister, Anu. These narrators offer an 'urgent testimony and confession' to their viewers/readers to counter feelings of guilt (for having participated in the very social prejudice they set out to conquer), medical and caregiving impotence (the inability to offer care and cure to alleviate suffering), vulnerability (to social and bodily infection, to 'becoming-tainted') and to chronicle a heroic story of struggle that would otherwise be lost. Verghese describes this fear when he writes, 'Our little towns were unaware of the drama, the gallantry of their dying heroes; there was great danger that there would be no memory of the lives lost.'[8]
  5. While the narrators of these texts attempt to memorialise the stories of their gay protagonists and subjects through testimony, confession and acts of witnessing, I argue that within the narrative are enfolded, acts of testimony and confession undertaken by these gay protagonists and subjects themselves. These embedded testimonies form a part of the moral discourse in these texts that serve to set their homosexual subjects apart as illustrative examples of the fatal effects of sexual practices and lifestyles coded as 'unsafe' or 'dangerous,' a point to which I will return later in this paper.
  6. Studying these texts is crucial as they demonstrate the ways in which AIDS and the gay body are made sense of 'socially.' My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country occupy a place within 'responses' to the AIDS crisis, as important socio-historic documents and as part of the cinematic response to AIDS in India,[9] read as an 'entertainment-education' strategy within mass media enlisted in public health promotion respectively.[10] While the authors of these texts attempt to unravel their homosexual subjects from stigma and seek to reinstate them socially, I argue that they nevertheless rely on pre-existing narratives and structures of visualising the homosexual afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease that exist in the viewers'/readers' socially accumulated knowledge of such diseases and disease subjects. In attempting to reconfigure ways of 'seeing' the male homosexual AIDS patient, these texts set forth new structures within which the threat of the unknowable AIDS virus and the 'excessive' and 'deviant' gay body can be contained.
  7. In this paper I am interested in exploring how the male homosexual continues to be represented as a source and victim of his own pollution. Both texts on which this paper focuses engage with the 'social' and medical construction of AIDS that situate the 'source' of the illness within marginal groups like homosexuals, citing sexually deviant practices as the primary cause of illness, simultaneously pathologising their sexual preference along with the illness. Even though popular media has begun to engage critically with stereotypical representations of the gay AIDS patient, by effecting for instance, a narrative break between causative factors like homosexuality and AIDS (My Brother Nikhil) and 'particularising' or 'individualising' the gay AIDS patient (My Own Country), they continue to 'normalise' the deviant, uncontrollable and unknowable nature of the AIDS patient by locating him within the normative confines of family and community. As Kirsten Ostherr has argued, a parallel exists between the 'elusive origins' of HIV and the 'elusive indexicality' of AIDS and this poses challenges for the virus's visual representation.[11] Since AIDS cannot be identified as a 'thing in itself' and consequently cannot be 'visualised' as such, it manifests as an invisible contagion that threatens to invade national and bodily boundaries from without. The fear of this invasion is dispelled, Ostherr argues, 'by visualising the threat in the form of a racially and sexually marked body with spatially and temporally distant origins.'[12] Ostherr foregrounds the crisis and anxiety about 'visibility' that affects public health discourse on account of its struggle to 'visualise' for audiences, the threat posed by predominantly 'invisible' pathogens. In narrating the story of an 'invisible' virus and its effects on a relatively 'invisible' component of the population, I argue, there is also a dialectics of visibility at work in My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country. These texts attempt to visualise the 'invisible' threat of contagion, posed by the AIDS virus as well as the sexuality of the gay protagonist/subject, by mapping those spatio-temporal locations coded in the narrative as 'dangerous' and 'high risk' and then de-populating these locations within the narrative. These texts 'visualise' for the reader, sets of 'safe' and 'unsafe' spaces through and between which they negotiate the physical and moral movement of their gay protagonists and subjects. These strategies of visualization will be studied here at three different levels: the individual, the family and the community.

    The individual
  8. In narrating the story of the gay AIDS patient, I argue, he is foregrounded as being like 'anyone else' who may be at risk from the virus—however, rather than situating him as a 'normal,' 'everyday' individual, the gay AIDS patient is particularised, elevated to the status of an individual extraordinaire—one with whom identification is only possible through the confirmation of his 'uniqueness.' The 'individualising/particularising' narrative works at several levels within these texts. As argued earlier, the narration in My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country is directed by uninfected, heterosexual narrators who are intimately connected with the story they narrate and the subjects of this narrative. What is significant about these texts is that their narrators are also set apart as 'unique' and 'individual' to authenticate the telling of this story. My Brother Nikhil frequently draws attention to Anu's bravery—she stands by Nikhil even after his parents leave Goa, unable to face their now 'pariah' status in their hometown. As noted earlier, Verghese frequently draws attention to his status as a 'foreign'/immigrant, AIDS doctor and how this enables him to gain the trust of his gay patients. Verghese believes that they are linked through their doubly stigmatised status—he is an immigrant infectious diseases specialist (Verghese also refers to the infectious diseases specialty in medicine as the 'pariah of specialties'[13]) who is now solely treating AIDS patients in his town, where the disease was virtually unknown before his arrival and his gay patients are not only alienated on account of their sexual preference but are now othered on account of harbouring a deadly infectious disease. Speaking of his role as an AIDS doctor, Verghese writes, 'In those early days, dealing with AIDS made us an elite group, un unexpectedly glamorous group.'[14]
  9. While My Brother Nikhil is narrated primarily by Nikhil's sister Anu, the film pieces Nikhil's story together through confessional monologues of other family members, his lover, Nigel, his lawyer and friends. Anu, Nigel and Nikhil's parents testify to the social ostracisation they share with Nikhil on account of their associations and the nature of their relationships with him. His childhood sweetheart Lena, who, unaware of Nikhil's sexual orientation and infection, comes back to Goa to marry him, also testifies to how people in the town began to look at her as though she were a 'dirty thing.' Though Nikhil rejects his parents' proposal that he and Lena marry, she says to the audience that 'we were considered a couple' and this association alone suffices to make her feel not-at-home in Goa and prompts her and her family to move to Mumbai. Verghese and the narrators of Nikhil's story are thus also set apart in their 'experience' of being othered, a shared stigma with the subject of their story that validates their role as narrators. It is thus significant to note here, that the particularised, 'individual' nature of the narrating 'self' in these texts is also coded as a 'heroic' battle against the unwarranted 'tainting' of their otherwise normative social status. The 'normative' roles of these narrators are also extremely relatable, the perspectives of a distraught father, mother and sister in My Brother Nikhil and the vulnerable nature of the doctor treating AIDS patients.
  10. In contrast, the homosexual subjects of these texts, as argued earlier, are elevated in the narrative to the status of an individual extraordinaire, one with whom identification is only possible through the confirmation of his 'uniqueness.' I argue that this 'uniqueness' of the homosexual male works within the narrative to effect a 'rejection' of or 'ousting' from the normative structures of home. Verghese often reports in his narrative, the many descriptions of 'uniqueness' that are communicated to him about his gay patients by their family members, often in retrospect, after they have discovered their sons' homosexuality and HIV status. Verghese is interested in the social history of his patients' contraction of HIV and towards this end accumulates information from patients' families about when their sons' sexuality first enters their consciousness. He notes that in several cases, the families of gay AIDS patients report a certain 'uniqueness' of personality that they couldn't 'define' clearly at the time, but in retrospect understand to be a different sexual orientation. Writing about one of his patients, Gordo (Gordon, referred to as 'Gordo' by his family), Verghese reports for the reader what his sister Essie has to say about Gordo's uniqueness,

      I used to wonder how in the world could he be so good, so capable of always doing something different, something unique that he had thought up. It was a God-given talent.[15]

    Commenting on what Essie has observed about her gay brother, Verghese writes,

      In the years that followed, I heard different but strangely similar versions of this story from families of gay men: there was always the God-given talent that accompanied the God-given sexuality, always the special creativity and humor. This fascinated me. Was it part of the subconscious effort to compensate for their difference? Was the charm and talent as biologically determined as the sexuality?[16]

  11. Similarly, Anu remarks in My Brother Nikhil that she was surprised, on finding her brother's diary, at 'how beautifully he expressed himself.' Nikhil's mother confesses to the viewer, that Nikhil was quite artistic. This 'most beautiful side' of Nikhil, she tells the viewer, was suppressed in the interest of making him a sportsman. She blames herself and Nikhil's father for refusing to see this 'artistic' side of Nikhil, something that is shared with the viewer only after Nikhil's HIV positive and homosexual status is revealed in the narrative. Verghese also cites the case of a particular gay patient who confesses to never being 'himself' around his family. 'His natural state,' Verghese writes, 'was to be happy and to laugh, but it went along with his being gay.'[17] This patient found it difficult, Verghese explains to the reader, 'to hide his gayness and maintain his outward fun persona.'[18] Verghese, who is haunted by this remark, confesses that he has 'grown to realise through years of treating gay men how few of their families were able to see their sons' best, most engaging selves.'[19]
  12. Equally significant in these statements about the 'uniqueness' of gay patients is also the 'surprise', the 'retrospective realisation' or often the 'lack' of recognition of this 'uniqueness' to which the families of these patients testify. I argue that it is precisely this 'uniqueness' that becomes 'excessive' for the 'normativity' of the home, and compels the movement of the gay body in the narrative out of the home/small town towards the wider network of big cities, towards a cosmopolitan life, coded within the narrative as potentially 'unsafe' and 'dangerous.' Both My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country foreground the close social monitoring of the immediate community and the small-town conservatism of the families that their gay subjects inhabit. Nikhil's parents are asked to leave the club that they have been frequenting for years on account of his now HIV positive status and it is at this moment that his infection is first addressed in the film. It is significant that the community that Nikhil's family inhabits knows of his illness before it is announced even to him and that this determines to a certain extent, Nikhil's ousting from his home. Nikhil is forced, the night of his banishment, to go and stay with Nigel. In an interesting depiction of close social monitoring, the next morning, news of his banishment and HIV positive status is shown to reach the local police who arrest Nikhil immediately even before he has a chance to communicate to Nigel, the news of his infection. The 'invisible' pathways of information through social surveillance are an interesting 'visualisation' of the anxiety of infection that pervades the film. This social and now legal surveillance further curtails Nikhil's movements until he is quarantined for being in violation of the Goa Public Health Act of the time. Similarly, Verghese recounts the desire for leaving home felt by many of his gay patients, to escape the close social monitoring of their small town. Describing the town's only gay bar, the Connection, Verghese recounts for the reader, his own visit there as part of his efforts to increase AIDS awareness and the sense of trepidation and unease that he experiences. His visit to the Connection is framed in the narrative by the fear of being 'mistaken' as a patron but also the fear of being 'noticed' by the town's well-honed systems of social surveillance. Writing about the heavily monitored surroundings of the Connection, Verghese describes the displeasure openly communicated by the residents—referred to in the narrative as 'true Johnson City Brahmins'—who live around the bar. These residents, 'were adept at distinguishing the cars of bar patrons and were willing to express their disapproval from time to time with brickbats thrown at a windshield or by slashing tires.'[20]
  13. In addition, the local newspaper was eager to 'expose' the patrons of these bars, as well as reporting other lapses in 'normativity'—which of the townsfolk had filed for bankruptcy, those that had been driving under the influence and filings for divorce, among others. 'To be seen leaving or entering the Connection,' Verghese writes, 'or to be there when the police had cause to visit was as embarrassing as posting a picture of yourself with your pants down onto a billboard on John Exum Parkway.'[21] Verghese thus acknowledges the 'difficulties' in being an actual 'patron' of the Connection and signals to the reader, the difficulties his gay patients had in being 'out' in their small community. The tight social surveillance coupled with the 'uniqueness' of their personality forces most gay men out of the small town into the big cities. Verghese's patient Gordo, for instance, leaves town 'inevitably' after his schooling. The 'inevitability' of his departure is linked by his family members to his 'uniqueness'. Verghese records about Gordo,

      After their schooling, it was clear that most would return there. But equally clear was the fact the Gordon would not. He had metamorphosed into a dazzling self-creation, aware of a world far larger than their little hollow. It was as if he came from a different planet than the others.[22]

  14. Verghese's other patients similarly narrate the story of their first departure from their hometowns, in search of a life where they could 'be themselves.' Like Gordo, whose transformation into a cosmopolitan young man after his schooling in the little town was inevitable, Verghese's other patients are forced to leave their homes in search of a more 'accepting' and 'inclusive' social environment. Their desire to leave, as Verghese describes it, though motivated by reasons like a better job and better education, 'like any heterosexual male,' was also motivated by an 'awakening sexuality.'[23] These patients' 'uniqueness,' their desire for a cosmopolitan life and their 'dazzling self-creation' is visualised in the narrative as 'excessive' to be contained in the home. It is significant to note at this point, that Verghese himself acknowledges his 'cosmopolitanism' as the driving force for his encounter with 'gay culture.' Being educated in India, Verghese confesses to one of his patients that

      I had gone through college with little or no awareness of the existence of a real gay culture. I was aware of homoerotic acts among men in the college, even aware of men who were rumored to be gay. But, in general, Homosexuality in India was regarded as a joke of sorts, evidence of the frustration of the Indian college male who has very little contact with women. And how it was only with my return to America, and with the onset of the tragedy of AIDS, that I became truly aware of the existence of a gay culture, not just in the big cities, but even in the small towns of America.[24]

    Verghese has here demonstrated for the reader, how the awareness of a gay culture and lifestyle exists alongside the travel and migration that is inevitable for a condition of cosmopolitanism. The condition of being and participating in a cosmopolitan culture however, also exposes one to the 'risks' of fatal diseases and infections that travel, like their human hosts, all over the world. The condition of 'being gay' or experiencing 'gay culture' is again situated 'outside the confines of one's home.'
  15. Similarly, Nikhil's lifestyle at home is increasingly at 'odds' with the life that his father visualises for him and this is a point of friction even before his infection with AIDS. Nikhil finds it difficult to face up to the pressures of his swimming career and being the sibling (between him and Anu) who faces greater expectations from his parents. The subject of his marriage to Lena, his 'good-for-nothing' friends and frequent 'partying' all lead to frequent domestic disputes. When he loses first place at the State swimming heats, his father blames his 'lack of concentration' owing to how often he is out at a party and when Nikhil refuses marriage and gets into an argument with his father, he is asked if his erratic behaviour stems from 'using drugs.' Social monitoring and stifling have thus already narratively preceded the moment of discovery of his infection with AIDS and his homosexuality. Thus, although Nikhil's banishment from home is visualised as a direct consequence of his infection with AIDS, he is already not-at-home on account of his growing discordance with his family.

    The family
  16. My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country both underscore the importance and 'security' afforded by the normative structure of the family. This is coded in the narrative structures employed by these texts as the 'desire for home' articulated by the now-infected gay subjects who undertake a journey 'home' to their families, in order to avail themselves of terminal care and to be 'accepted' in their now-transformed state. The ailing bodies of these gay men however, are now stripped of their 'uniqueness' and are integrated instead, into a moral discourse about the effects of 'leaving home.' After arresting Nikhil, the policeman at the local station addresses the viewer about the 'necessity' of 'containing' the threat of contagion posed by him. He talks about the importance of safeguarding the health of the many 'uninfected' whose lives cannot be jeopardised on account of one individual's callousness. What is most significant about his address to the audience, however, is his acknowledgement of Nikhil's rejection by his own family. He says to the viewer, that his ordering of Nikhil's arrest and quarantine are inevitable and in any case 'parallel' the actions of his family. Once banished from his home, Nikhil is already 'tainted' in the eyes of the law, as someone who now occupies no sanctioned social space. The family is also foregrounded in these texts as the space that can contain the now-infected and errant body of the homosexual. In My Own Country for instance, Verghese often sees his gay patients at his clinic as 'couples.' These infected 'couples' bring to Verghese the story of their infection, but also the story of their own courtship. Within the narrative, Verghese often draws parallels between the gay couples and other heterosexual couples, identifying within the stories of these gay couples, factors that are common to any 'couple' in attempting to 'normalise' and 'humanise' them. However, Verghese struggles to bring his social sanctioning of his patients' status as a 'couple' within the medical institution. When Ed Maupin, one of Verghese's patients, requires to be put on a ventilator on account of severe pneumonia, his lover, Bobby Keller, communicates to Verghese that Ed had no desire to be 'put on the machine.' But given the presence of Ed's family in the hospital, Bobby's communication of Ed's wishes not to be placed on a ventilator is sidelined both by the family and by Verghese. Ed's oldest brother requests Verghese to do 'everything' for Ed, including placing him on a ventilator and in justification he stresses, 'We are his family. We are legally responsible for him.'[25] Verghese narrates Bobby's reaction at this juncture thus:

      We are his family. I watched Bobby's face crumble as he suddenly became a mere observer with no legal right to determine the fate of the man he had loved since he was seven years old. He was finally, despite the years that had passed and whatever acceptance he and Ed found together, an outsider.[26]

  17. Verghese notes later that it was in his power to dictate the situation, since offering the option of life support was his decision. 'I had,' he notes, 'when it came down to the final moment, given Ed's brothers the power of family. Not Bobby.'[27] Family is thus coded in the narrative as the inevitable medico-legal arbiter in matters of life and death and Ed is, in his death, given over to the normative confines of family. Verghese also attends and collects information about the end-of-life experiences of his gay patients, most of whom come home to die and are thus laid to rest in their hometown by their families who have now accepted their 'errant,' prodigal sons in their death. Verghese's project is thus, to create a space within which his gay patients can be accepted as such. Such a space, Verghese realises, is more important than medical care and cure, which at the time that Verghese is writing, was faltering in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Writing about another of his gay patients who is unable to find medical care on account of his sexual orientation and HIV positive status, Verghese observes how the promise of filial support stands in for medical care. He says, 'I gave Petie and his mother the one thing the family wanted most: a promise to take care of him in the months to come, no matter what happened. The fact that I had no therapy directed against HIV to offer him was almost unimportant.'[28] Verghese begins to realise here, the significance of filial functions of care, security and support and significantly, also simultaneously feels the desire for home and community. Increasingly alienated by associations with his gay patients and AIDS, Verghese is no longer able to feel at-home in Johnson City. Verghese thus struggles to build for his patients, a filial network of care, a network that he no longer has.
  18. As argued earlier, the narrative strategies employed by these texts also code 'family' as the 'desire for home' expressed by the now-infected gay subjects and protagonists. After the period of 'ousting,' like Verghese's gay patients who make the voyage home from the cities to die, Nikhil constantly expresses his desire to return home and meet his parents. His life with Nigel is thus coded as 'exile,' as Nikhil is seen to desire meeting his parents and 'returning' home after his stay at the hospital. His two-year 'exile' culminates in his 'return' home, but Nikhil makes the journey home in order to die. Echoing a childhood memory, Nikhil, upon meeting his father after a period of almost two years, when the latter finally relents and asks Nikhil to return, asks his father to say to him that what is happening is a bad dream and he will soon awake. This is significant in the context of Nikhil's return home, since with this return to a childhood state (when he needs to be assuaged by his father after a bad dream), with his request that his father treat him as such, he is 'purged' in a sense, restored to a state of 'innocence,' a state prior to infection, before he returns home.
  19. The 'excessive' body of the homosexual AIDS patient is thus 'normalised' and 'laid to rest' within the normative confines of family. This is coded within the narrative as a 'return' from those 'unsafe' spaces located 'outside' the home, as a 'return' to a state prior to the departure, also equated in the narrative as a state prior to infection. The moral discourse at work here in these texts, situates the identity of their gay subjects in a 'sacralization of sexuality'. Alex Duttmann has argued that to such a subject corresponds, after the historical rupture effected by AIDS, 'a subject who has "converted" to "new forms of sexuality".'[29] 'Coming out' for these subjects, he argues, 'consists of an integration by which the subject constitutes itself as a part of the "common cause" of those directly or indirectly affected by AIDS: the cause of the AIDS community.'[30] The following section outlines how the gay subjects in these texts are appropriated by and enlisted in the 'common cause' of AIDS.

    The community
  20. The gay AIDS patient in My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country is appropriated by the 'common cause' of AIDS by proving his social usefulness or currency by participating actively in the identification and subsequent restitution of similar patients. This is achieved in the narrative by framing stories of gay patients' battles with disease as an 'ideal' method of dealing with an experience of illness. Verghese for instance, feels a greater degree of identification with his 'activist' patients and frustration and self-doubt when faced with those who give up 'without a fight.' Describing a gay couple that he is treating, Fred and Otis, Verghese writes about Fred,

      He had spent a lifetime training for the role of AIDS activist in Johnson City. The stakes had never been higher; his activism now had a clear focus. It would be his therapy, it would give him long life, it would greatly better the lives of persons infected with HIV in upper east Tennessee. Otis could object all he wanted to; but he had better realize that Fred needed to be involved in TAP for his psychic well-being, as much as I needed to be a physician for mine.[31]

  21. Fred's activism is almost directly linked to the degree of his suffering from AIDS—as an activist and a productive member of the community (Fred is an active member of TAP—the Tri-City AIDS project, a rehabilitation or support group for AIDS patients in Johnson City), Fred faces a longer life than Otis, his fatalistic and reticent lover, who succumbs to his symptoms earlier. Similarly, My Brother Nikhil visualises Nikhil's productivity in the setting up of the support group People Positive, the viewer is informed, meant for 'people like Nikhil.' Significantly, when Nikhil's sister Anu finds a lawyer who is willing to fight for Nikhil's release from his forced isolation, Nikhil informs the lawyer that he would like her to take up his case not just for his own sake, but for all those people who are 'like him.'
  22. In addition, the gay subject in these texts is also integrated into the 'common cause' of AIDS as an instructive example. Crucial to this integration is a 'sacralisation of sexuality' that is implicit in such an integration. Talking to Verghese about his reasons for joining the Tri-City AIDS project, Fred says,

      That was one of the major reasons for my joining TAP, for my spending time I don't have working with TAP. I want us to hold ourselves out as examples if necessary. Before I was diagnosed, I felt immune; my denial was very strong. You can talk yourself into anything in the interest of sexual release.[32]

  23. Fred's sexuality and infected status are here held as instructive examples against a life of 'excesses.' Similarly, Gordo's sister Essie, acknowledges the instructive potential of her brother's now-decaying body when she narrates to Verghese how she allowed her friend Jack, rumoured to be gay, to 'look' at the effects of AIDS on Gordo's body. At first, Jack catches Essie cleaning up Gordo by accident and she turns to find him looking on, in shock. She tells Verghese, 'I don't think it had really hit him till then how bad this disease does you. Well, I stopped what I was doing and just let him see that—I wanted him to see it. Gordo's face was turned to the wall; he didn't know Jack was watching.'[33] Essie goes on to tell Verghese how visibly afraid Jack was at the sight of Gordo's body and how she tries to tell him that it is important that he 'understood everything about it, that he protect himself.'[34] Gordo's body has here been appropriated and made productive as an instructive example to prevent a kind of sexual practice—Jack is instructed on account of his 'potential' status as a gay man and his 'potential' exposure to unsafe practices and deadly disease from which he needs to be 'protected.'
  24. While preparing for their campaigns to free Nikhil from his forced confinement, his lawyer similarly advises Nikhil's sister, her fiancé and Nigel about the importance of explaining to people the events that transpired after his infection, rather than focusing on the causative factors for the illness. The lawyer also recommends that in order to garner public sympathy, it is important for them to let people know that Nikhil was a 'champion' swimmer and not a criminal. Particularising Nikhil's socially 'acceptable' traits and appropriating them for the campaign allows his integration with the 'common cause' of AIDS. As argued earlier, these texts attempt to visualise the 'invisible' threat of contagion, posed in these texts by the AIDS virus as well as the sexuality of the gay protagonist/subject, by mapping those spatio-temporal locations coded in the narrative as 'dangerous' and 'high risk' and then de-populating these locations within the narrative. These texts 'visualise' for the reader, sets of 'safe' and 'unsafe' spaces through and between which they negotiate the physical and moral movement of their gay protagonists and subjects. My Brother Nikhil foregrounds Jeffrey's Bar where Nigel and Nikhil meet for the first time and where, presumably, Nikhil pursued relationships with other women, before Nigel. Nikhil's father, in one of his addresses to the audience, expresses his distress at people's insistence on 'labelling' Nikhil's sexuality after his death. Moreover, as his father confirms, not only was he a polite, disciplined and well-behaved boy, he also had numerous girlfriends. Nigel too, testifies to how Nikhil was always surrounded by women at Jeffrey's before they become a couple, however, he perceives a lack of interest in them on Nikhil's part. This deliberate ambiguity in Nikhil's sexuality nevertheless still maintains focus on Jeffrey's as the town's sanctioned space for such 'high-risk' encounters to take place. In those scenes in the film that are set in Jeffrey's, the bar is notably populated by young people—it is also where Nikhil's sister Anu, meets her future husband, Sam. Jeffrey's thus functions like Verghese's descriptions of the Connection, the small town's epicentre of sexual encounters and is part of the film's dialectics of visibility—following Nikhil's diagnosis with HIV, the characters notably address the viewer from very different locations in Goa—the beach, shopping arcades and their homes, but never again at Jeffrey's. Jeffrey's thus, like the 'big cities' (New York and San Francisco) in Verghese's narrative, is depopulated by the 'return' of the infected gay patients to their homes.
  25. Despite the film's noticeable evasion of the subject of how Nikhil was infected, the narrative still enfolds within it, Nikhil's moment of fear about the threat of contagion his body poses when he is yet to discover that he is infected but has already been summoned by his team doctor about 'problems with his blood.' Nikhil, at this stage in the film, possibly only harbours suspicions about what may be wrong with him but anxieties about the potential for infection still pervade the film at this juncture. During his meeting with his doctor, when Nikhil is asked if he had ever received a blood transfusion, he responds humorously that he never has had reason to and instead, has himself donated blood several times. The irony of this remark cannot be lost on viewers who recognise by this time in the narrative, that they are witnessing the story of an HIV positive person. Later, driven perhaps by this fear of imminent contagion, Nikhil asks Nigel if he has been with other people and when Nigel balks, he refuses to explain his query. Nikhil is here articulating anxieties about the etiology of his illness, an anxiety that pervades the film despite its paradoxical disavowal of addressing the factors that caused his infection.
  26. In My Own Country, Verghese is able, by virtue of his professional expertise as an infectious diseases specialist, to visualise for the reader and the people of Tennessee, the various routes taken by HIV to enter his rural town. These 'routes' are inscribed on the bodies of the AIDS patients that he treats, the homosexual men whose individual stories of travel are then re-plotted by Verghese on a map of America to dramatise the virus's entry into the national body. For Verghese, this map that traces the 'routes' taken by the AIDS infected bodies of his gay patients, tells the story of

      how a generation of young men, raised to self-hatred, had risen above the definitions that their society and upbringings had used to define them. It was the story of the hard and sometimes lonely journeys they took far from home into a world more complicated than they imagined and far more dangerous than anyone could have known.[35]

  27. Verghese goes on to admit that he will never be able to forget the 'cruel irony' of what awaited these young men in the 'big city,' thus mapping within the narrative, the movements of his gay patients between the 'safe' haven of home and the danger and threat of what lies outside. In his own journey away from Johnson City at the end of his memoir, Verghese still takes comfort in the fact that were an AIDS patient to make a voyage back home, he may find a 'community in Johnson City better equipped to deal with him, to accept him. I have faith in the town and its people.'[36]

  28. Despite attempts to reconfigure ways of 'seeing' the gay AIDS patient in popular representations of the disease and those at risk, through a disassociation of etiology and identity (comprising in My Brother Nikhil and My Own Country, factors like sexual orientation, social embeddedness and lifestyle), the 'text' of the male homosexual continues to be interpreted within frames of deviance, a high propensity or vulnerability to infection and a need to be 'contained' within heteronormative structures of the family. These texts conflate homosexuality with a certain errant or viral cosmopolitanism, where the 'desire' to leave home and the heteronormative structure of the family to explore different ways of belonging and coupling result in a contamination of those routes of exit and necessitate a return. The viral cosmopolitanism visualised in these texts makes evident an anxiety over the contamination of traditional, normative modes of belonging and affiliation (the heteronormative family unit, local or national employment) by 'other' viral modes—where a different sexual orientation or a condition of harbouring a communicable disease necessitates a restructuring of modes of being and belonging (travel and migration, communities linked through infection rather than filial ties). The struggle to 'visualise' the invisible contagion brought on by disease can thus also be read as the struggle to make visible, as yet largely invisible non-normative bodies, lives and their modes of engaging with the world.


    [1] My Brother Nikhil (Hindi), directed by Onir with performances by Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla, Victor Banerjee, Purab Kohli and Lillete Dubey, produced by Four Front Films, 2005.

    [2] Abraham Verghese, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story, New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Although Verghese was born in Ethiopia, to parents who migrated there from Kerala, India, he traces his professional (medical) training and experiences as being shaped by his education in Madras, India in his memoir. In addition, Verghese's experiences as a 'foreign,' immigrant doctor in the United States, where he now practices and teaches medicine, are largely described in My Own Country as being similar to a growing community of Indian medical students who leave their homeland only to receive internships and job offers from relatively unpopular hospitals, treating unpopular diseases and communities. I have thus referred to him as an 'Indian' doctor here to reflect his affiliation with a community of second-generation Indian immigrants practising medicine in the United States. See also for instance, Verghese's inclusion in his own biography, the stories and aspirations of medical students from India in his article, 'The cowpath to America,' New Yorker (June 23 and 30 1997): 74–77.

    [3] See for instance, Phir Milenge (Hindi), directed by Revathi with performances by Shilpa Shetty, Salman Khan, Mita Vasisht and Abishek Bachchan, produced by Percept Picture Company, 2004. Phir Milenge is another instance of an AIDS-themed national release Bollywood film, however, the central character Tamanna (Shilpa Shetty), is a heterosexual working woman who contracts HIV after a sexual encounter with an ex-lover. This film is an instance of narrative emphasis in popular texts on the distinction between being HIV+ and being afflicted by AIDS, where Tamanna's HIV+ status is seen not as limiting or terminal but as an opportunity to prove her status as a 'survivor.' She is eventually cured and is seen to be reinstated socially and professionally, whereas her ex-lover (visualised in the film as having just returned from 'New York' and the source of HIV infection) is seen to succumb to full blown AIDS towards the end of the film.

    [4] See Paula Treichler, How to have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS, London: Duke University Press, 1998.

    [5] See Sander Gilman, Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS, London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

    [6] See Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic; Gregory Tomso, 'Bug chasing, barebacking and the risks of care,' Literature and Medicine, vol. 23, no. 1 (2004): 88–111.

    [7] Alexander Garcia Duttmann, At Odds with AIDS: Thinking and Talking About a Virus, trans. Peter Gilgen and Conrad Scott-Curtis, California: Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 27.

    [8] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 365.

    [9] See Howard Markel, 'Journals of the plague years: documenting the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States,' American Journal of Public Health, vol. 91, no. 7 (2001): 1025–28. Markel considers Verghese's My Own Country as a significant socio-historic document of the early AIDS years in America in the eighties.

    [10] See Arvind Singhal and P.N. Vasanti, 'The role of popular narratives in stimulating the public discourse on HIV and AIDS,' South Asian Popular Culture, vol. 3, no. 1 (2005): 3–15; See also Louis M. Bourgault, 'AIDS messages in three AIDS-themed Indian movies: eroding AIDS-related stigma in India and beyond,' Critical Arts, vol. 23, no. 2 (2009): 171–89. Singhal and Vasanti and Bourgault situate My Brother Nikhil as part of the cinematic response to AIDS in India.

    [11] Kirsten Ostherr, Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, p. 180.

    [12] Ostherr, Cinematic Prophylaxis, p. 180.

    [13] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 78.

    [14] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 78.

    [51] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 92.

    [16] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 92.

    [17] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 92.

    [18] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 92.

    [19] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 92.

    [20] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 57.

    [21] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 57.

    [22] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 90.

    [23] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 396.

    [24] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 189.

    [25] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 223.

    [26] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 223.

    [27] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 224.

    [28] Verghese, My Own Country, pp. 280–81.

    [29] Duttmann, At Odds with AIDS, p. 37.

    [30] Duttmann, At Odds with AIDS, p. 37.

    [31] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 194.

    [32] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 287.

    [33] Verghese, My Own Country, pp. 138–39.

    [34] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 139.

    [35] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 403.

    [36] Verghese, My Own Country, p. 429.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 12 April 2013 0957