India's new untouchables: Children living with AIDS

India's new untouchables: Children living with AIDS

As the International AIDS Conference prepares to meet in Austria, CNNGo reader and author Shelley Seale looks at the impact of AIDS on one Indian family, that of 12-year-old Yesu Babu

Imagine you are a 12 year old boy. You live in South India, on the outskirts of a city called Vijayawada. Your name is Yesu Babu.

Your home is a tiny two-room concrete block, approximately 200 square feet, in a slum called Vambay Colony. You share this small home with your grandmother, Durgamma, and your nine-year-old brother. You live with your grandmother because your parents died of AIDS -- first your father, who brought the infection home, in 2001; then your mother followed in 2004. There was no one left to take care of you and your brother except your elderly grandmother, who never expected to be raising children again. 

AIDS in IndiaGrandmother and HIV-positive grandson in the Vambay slum, India. Soon you learn that although you are HIV-negative, your young brother is HIV-positive. He begins to grow ill. He battles many infections. He cries in the night when he’s sick and calls for his mother.

Almost crippled with severe joint pain, your grandmother can barely walk and cannot physically work; even if she could, someone has to care for your brother. There is no one else to provide an income for this new family that has formed. So you let your brother go to school, although his future is painfully uncertain, while you work. You leave home for a week at a time to travel for migrant construction or agricultural jobs. You are paid Rs 30-50 per day -- roughly a dollar or less.

You are just a boy. You know you should be in school. You should have a childhood, but it has been traded in far too soon for adult work and worries, for hardships that no 12 year old should ever have to face. But what can you do? There is no one else. There is no other way. From a normal life with a mother and father, school, a childhood, possibilities -- to this previously unimagined reality.

This is your new normal.

I met Yesu’s family while traveling throughout India, researching the country’s AIDS epidemic and its debilitating effects on children for my book, "The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of Indi"a. Vambay Colony was most striking because of what was missing: the middle-aged population. What was happening here was happening in hundreds of towns and villages across India in a slow, silent obliteration. The country has the most AIDS orphans of any in the world, and as many as 40 percent of them live with grandparents in the wake of the epidemic’s impact on the middle generation.

I want to see [my grandchildren] through to eighteen, but if something happens to me, what will become of them? — Durgamma, grandmother of Yesu Babu and Venugopal

“It is very hard taking care of my two grandchildren,” Durgamma tells me. Her face is deeply lined, her hands like delicate parchment paper as she holds them to her head. “I am only one. I want to take care of them, but it is difficult. I want to see them through to 18, but if something happens to me, what will become of them?” she asks, her brow etched in a permanent expression of worry.

It is the same question in my mind as I glance at the little brother, HIV-positive Venugopal, curled up on the bed next to me. Their situation seemed so tenuous, their survival entirely dependent on this hobbling old woman and a 12-year-old boy.

Though troubled and exhausted, Durgamma is dry-eyed and matter of fact about their situation. Tears are an indulgence these elders have neither the time nor the luxury for. In their daily scrabble for existence they cannot afford to keep accounts of regret. 

This family’s plight is an all-too-common legacy of India’s exploding AIDS epidemic, and a familiar story in Vambay Colony. Yesu and his grandmother gaze at me listlessly as we speak, both with the same vacant eyes. In those two pairs of eyes lays a world of despair, devoid of any hopes or dreams. They wait patiently for my next inquiry. I know I am supposed to ask more questions, but I can think of no other words. Silence seems to demand all the space between us. Everything I want to know is there in those eyes that stare back at me.

For more information about this family and others, and ways to help, visit www.weightofsilence.net.

The International AIDS conference convenes in Austria on July 23. To find out how you can impact the fight against AIDS, visit www.worldaidscampaign.org

About the author: Shelley Seale is a freelance journalist and author of "The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India", which explores the impact of AIDS on children, as well as other issues such as poverty, orphanhood, child labor and trafficking. Seale has written for National Geographic, Globe Pequot Press, the Seattle Times and InfoChange India among others. She can be reached at www.shelleyseale.com

Shelley submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.
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