Hard tales, soft telling

In the early 2000s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India was at its peak. There were fears that it could spiral out of control. In 2003, Ashok Alexander left his high-paying job of 17 years at McKinsey, the global consulting firm, to head a programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to stem the spread of HIV in India. Alexander, then in his 40s, knew nothing about the subject, or about public health for that matter. But having combined “amazing cockiness with a certain deep insecurity”, he took the plunge, assuming he would quickly have the disease figured out. What followed was a rude awakening—he realised that raising awareness about the necessity of using condoms was not the problem as every sex worker “knew everything there was to know about safety”. He had to address the deep, vicious malaise of everyday violence which kept them from using protection.

In his book, A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India's Sex Workers—a richly detailed memoir of his experiences with community sex workers—he talks about pervasive violence against women hustlers such as Kamla in Medak, Telangana, who was gang-raped while her babies lay in the dust and Theni in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, who was slapped hard by a client and told to spread her legs when she tried to get him to use a condom.

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the author started a programme, Avahan, focusing on six states—Nagaland, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—where HIV was most prevalent. It expanded rapidly to become the largest HIV prevention programme in the world. During his decade-long stint heading Avahan, Alexander also observed that women in commercial sex work 'exercise leadership in the highest sense of the word and with a combination of attributes I have rarely seen in business leaders'.

With 19 chapters divided into two parts, the book is a richly detailed ethnography of sex work in India. It is filled with heart-warming stories, like the personal narratives of two sex workers—Kavita and Shahid.

Although it deals with a dark subject, the book is anything but depressing. Rather, it is an insightful journey into an India where “women would sell themselves for fifty rupees and 14-year-olds injected drugs”, even as the government at the time continued to remain in a state of denial and indifference. “The government had the feeling that the 'pure' Indian women would never indulge in sex work and that Indian men would never go to a prostitute, citing the 'purity' of our people,” says Alexander, “ there was no compassion for sex work either.”


Author: Ashok Alexander

Publisher: Juggernaut

Pages: 320

Price: Rs699