On most days when Suresh wakes up in the morning he is engulfed with sadness. He has no memory of his parents. He simply has a photo where his father, dressed in a white shirt and mundu, with black moustache and beard, is sitting on a chair, cradling his chin with his fingers and his mother standing beside him in a blue sari and small earrings. Suresh looks indifferently at the photo. ‘I don’t know them,’ he says.
His family lived in Idukki, Kerala. But when he was merely five-six years of age, both his parents passed away. His father, who was a labourer, had AIDS. He infected his wife. Among his three children, only Suresh, the middle child, was infected.
At 9 am, Suresh walks across to Shine On vocational centre in Snehadaan NGO, Bengaluru, which has a candle-making unit. There are four others present, along with Uma, a widowed mother of a five-year-old. All of them are HIV-infected patients. As work begins, they put a container with water on a gas stove. Inside it, they place a saucepan of wax. “This is called double boiling. If you melt the wax directly a part of it becomes vapour and we lose quite a bit of it,” explains Suresh.
A kilo of wax takes approximately 30 minutes to melt. While the wax is still in its liquid form, crayons of different colours such as red, green and blue are added followed by a liquid perfume. These include fragrances such as lavender, peach, strawberry and lemongrass. Thereafter, the wax is poured into different mounds and left to dry. The candles, are used as return gifts at weddings, schools and corporate events. It is also used in churches during festivals of Easter and Christmas. The designs are eye-catching and pleasing. Many are in the shape of flowers and trees, while others are tubular or circular-shaped.
Founder and director of Shine On, Father Biju Joseph, of the Order of St Camillus, is jubilant about the candle-making efforts. Youth from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have started coming to the centre for HIV treatment. “Some of the youngsters, mainly from Kerala, are orphans. I felt that I should create job opportunities for them,” he says about the initiative.
Even as they work, they continue to be on Antiretroviral Therapy which helps fight the AIDS virus. Once every three months, the patients have to take a blood test to ensure that their CD4 count does not go below 300. (CD4 are white blood cells that fight infection. When the virus attacks the immune system, the number of these cells goes down. When the CD4 count goes below 200, a person is diagnosed with AIDS.
The normal range is between 500-1,500).
Despite knowing that he is carrying a fatal virus, Suresh says he is happy. “I feel a sense of satisfaction with the work that I do,” he says. Simultaneously, he also faces a crisis of confidence. He admits that he is afraid to live on his own. “I am worried how people will react if they come to know that I am HIV-infected,” says Suresh, who has been living on the NGO campus for the last five years.