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Debanuj DasGupta with Mathew Stuart Jarret. Stewart Jarret plays the character of Belize in the play & the Bethesda Fountain is one of the key Manhattan sites recreated on stage for the play Angels in America.
Debanuj DasGupta with Nathan Stuart Jarret. Stewart Jarret plays the character of Belize in the play & the Bethesda Fountain is one of the key Manhattan sites recreated on stage for the play Angels in America.
CategoriesMemory and SexualityVoices

AIDS, Melancholia & Queer memory

I lie in my hospital room on the top floor of St. Vincent’s hospital, my frail body connected to drips and an oxygen mask. The lights from the corner of Greenwich Street and Seventh Avenue dimly light up my room. I am sweating profusely. My best friend Rodrigo is changing my gown by the hour, and applies powder all over me. I do not recall much of that night except for the blurred lights from my favourite corner of West Village projecting up towards my room on the 14th floor of St. Vincent’s. The room is a large square, with the bed in the centre. There is a green couch in the corner by the window. I do not know if Rodrigo is getting any sleep tonight, and I cannot fully comprehend how stressed all of my care givers must be feeling during these trying times. My T-Cell count is at 50. I have Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions on my left ankle and arm. I am also being treated for P-C-P (a rare kind of pneumonia that affects people living with AIDS). All of these conditions can be prevented with HIV combination therapy (also known as HART) introduced after the HIV diagnosis. I lie in isolation in the infectious diseases (ID) ward. I begin to feel the murmurs of all the gay men who were admitted there before me. Every night, as the needles hurt me, I imagine the faces of dying gay men and their friends and family who must have lived in the same room. As the morning newspaper truck stops to drop off The New York Times, Daily News, and HX Magazine by the corner of Greenwich and Seventh Avenue, the gay men from the 1980s and 1990s creeps back into the walls. I can see visions of their tight denims, tank tops, earrings, and Mohawks. The leather daddies and their boys who held each other in this same top floor are watching for me from the walls. This fantastic communion with the souls of gay men of all colours who had struggled in the same room prior to me is comforting my frail body. It is a queer lullaby of sorts.

In this essay, I revisit my early struggles with AIDS diagnosis during the summer of 2003. The recollections allow me to rethink how the New York cityscape and coming out about my HIV status to my parents in India shapes a racialised experience with HIV and AIDS, family relations, and transnational migration. Such a racialised experience is erased within Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Using queer scholarship about AIDS, melancholia, and memory as an entry point, I find parallels between Tony Kushner’s iconic play Angels in America and Onir’s film, My Brother Nikhil (2005). Kushner’s play is presently being restaged on Broadway to mark its 25th anniversary, whereas 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of Dominic D’Souza’s death, on whose life Onir’s film is loosely based. In their respective productions, both Kushner and Onir have been applauded for tackling topics that were considered taboo in their time: AIDS, homosexuality, and religion.

Debanuj DasGupta at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Manhattan

Debanuj DasGupta at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Manhattan

Writing and staging the play originally at the height of the early AIDS epidemic in the US, Kushner depicts detailed scenes of gay men and their friends struggling to deal with HIV and AIDS in St. Vincent’s hospital in the face of social and political negligence. Located at the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, the hospital is often recalled as the ‘ground zero’ of the early AIDS epidemic in the US.[1] Onir’s My Brother Nikhil, produced in 2005, was a critically-acclaimed cinematic representation of Dominic D’Souza’s struggle with HIV and AIDS, access to treatment, and lack of social acceptance in Goa.

D’Souza had filed one of the first lawsuits related to workplace discrimination based upon HIV status in India, and was known as India’s ‘patient zero’, as his petition named him such in order to protect his identity.[2] From a journey through the creative representations of the ‘ground zero’ of the AIDS epidemic in the US to the cinematic representation of India’s ‘patient zero’, this reflection stitches together a racialised critique of Kushner’s play and a caste critique of Onir’s movie. I will argue that a recollection of my experiences at St. Vincent’s and coming out to my parents about my HIV status allows me to carve out a lived critique of both works. Kushner’s play barely comes close to representing the lives of gay men of colour dealing with AIDS, whereas Onir’s My Brother Nikhil erases Dominic D’Souza’s Goan Christian heritage. And so, my memory serves the purpose of critically revisiting the past and interrogating the power inequalities that have framed the global AIDS epidemic.

I am at the Neil Simon Theater watching Tony Kushner’s iconic play depicting the early AIDS epidemic, Angels in America. The play is now being staged on Broadway for a short re-run. The stagecraft is nearly perfect and is accurately recreating the rooms from St. Vincent’s Hospital. Andrew Garfield is playing the character of Prior Walter, who is struggling to survive with AIDS. In this scene, his lover Louis (played by Joseph McArdle) is bidding him a hasty goodbye. Tears are rolling down my cheek. Belize (played by Mathew Stuart Jarret) is Prior’s dedicated friend, who brings his knowledge as an AIDS caregiver to help Prior during these trying times. Belize is a fierce man of colour. Belize’s thin and sassy stature is reminding me of my friend. Andre visits me often at the hospital during the afternoons. We laugh and gossip about the hot medical students who are attending on me during their rounds at the hospital. Andre is narrating to me his dreams about writing a play depicting the experiences of queer communities of colour dealing with AIDS. I remember his thin hands touching my forehead and his eyes, yearning for a future that is different from our present. Andre would leave in the early evening. I would slowly sit up on my bed, and then walk to the window of my room. I could see my favourite corner of West Village. I would sit there watching the incessant flow of Manhattan traffic, hoping that one day I would return to my favourite café in the West Village. Belize’s loud imitation of a drag queen on stage returns me to the play. The white sheets and green scrubs provide some closure to my days at St. Vincent’s.

The scene allows me to return to my own time at St. Vincent’s. The hospital is long gone and has been replaced by a luxury condo. Dubbed as a “gay fantasia on national themes,” Kushner’s play provides a queer twist to Walter Benjamin’s concept of revolutionary time, also known as Jetztseit (Savran, 1995). In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin uses the concept of Jetztseit as a kind of time that has been detached from the continuum of history. This time is at a standstill, poised, filled with energy, and ready to take a leap into the future (Benjamin, 2009; Savran, 1995; Omer-Sherman, 2007). Kushner’s protagonists are all white, except the character of Belize, a Black-Jamaican nurse and intimate friend of Prior Walter. The script reveals very little about Belize’s life. At one point in the play, Belize narrates that he lives uptown and has a partner. Unlike the detailed geography of Prior and his lover Louis, we never learn about the specifics of Belize’s neighbourhood. His arguments about racism in the US with Louis are meant to challenge Louis’s ambivalence toward AIDS and contemporary American politics. However, in the absence of much narration of Belize’s life, his character remains a tactical appendage to a white rehearsal of queer politics at a time of AIDS and death. The protagonist of the play is arguably Prior Walter, who is the chosen messenger. Angels crash through his ceiling in the hospital, and fantastic journeys to heaven and beyond propel him to announce in the final scene that we are all children of god, all of us are prophets, and “the great work begins” (Kushner, 1995). However, very little is written about how Prior Walter’s health relies upon the care provided by Belize; for example, he steals AZT medications from the room of a dead political figure for Prior. Prior’s (new) skin and flesh emerge out of Belize’s labouring Black body. This represents, on a broader level, that the cataclysmic onward march of (queer) history is made possible through labouring bodies of colour: not only queer communities of colour but also migrant labourers who work as janitors and health care aides at St. Vincent’s hospital. Kushner’s Angels in America might affectively grip the theatre-going audiences, but in doing so it erases the memory of Black queer community-based HIV organisations and publications such as Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS.

I am on stage with Onir, Sanjay Suri (he acted as the protagonist in the film) and Mallika Dutt from Breakthrough. Mallika is organizing a screening of My Brother Nikhil at the Asia Society in Manhattan. I am looking around for the audience’s reaction. The screening is mostly attended by Indian diasporic professional families. The Desi aunty next to me is shedding tears as the protagonist Nikhil’s sister (played by Juhi Chawla) narrates how her brother was wronged by society. I begin to cry when Nikhil’s father finally comes to visit him on his deathbed. I am rolling around on my bed that night, wondering how to reveal my HIV status to my parents. The cinematic representation of an Indian family dealing with HIV comes close to my life. Do I reveal my diagnosis over the phone? Or, do I reveal it during my mother’s visit from India?

“Bobby, you have dealt with so much pain…” says my mother. She has read the journal I kept during my time at St. Vincent’s. I look away from her with tears rolling down my cheeks.

The cinematic representation of Dominic D’Souza’s story has been much acclaimed as the first mainstream Bollywood movie to depict themes such as same-sex relations and HIV. Onir’s script is structured through the lens of Nikhil’s (Dominic’s) family recollecting his struggles with HIV, being fired from his work, his detention, and displacement. The narrative style is personal, and draws viewers into the heart of an Indian family. However, while Dominic D’Souza was of Goan Christian origin, in the movie Nikhil is raised in a family with Hindu heritage. The erasure of Dominic’s religious and ethnic identities predicates how Hindu Indians identify with Nikhil and his family (Meghani, 2017). As a privileged caste, middle-class, English educated immigrant from India, Nikhil’s character spoke to me.

My Brother Nikhil was released in 2005, shortly after my diagnosis and treatment at St. Vincent’s. While Kushner’s script and the Broadway stage represent how I struggled with early treatment in New York City surrounded by a posse of queer caregivers, Onir’s My Brother Nikhil comes to mimic the process of revealing my diagnosis to my parents. Both the movie and the play co-mingle with my memories and frame the affective horizons of my transnational queer identity. If Kushner’s play erases my coloured migrant body, Onir’s omission of D’Souza’s religion allows me to centre a privileged caste narrative of living with HIV. In naming the erasures and gaps in these two seminal representations of AIDS and homosexuality, I welcome all readers to my past, my privileges, my oppressions, and my joys. If (my) memory must serve a purpose, it must name the multiple inequalities that frame the AIDS epidemic and those of us living with HIV and AIDS across the globe.

References:

Benjamin, W. 2009. On the Concept of History. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

Meghani, A.S. 2017. “HIV Stigma, and Caste ‘Untouchability’: Metaphors of Abjection in My Brother…Nikhil, The Boyfriend, and “Gandu Bagicha.”Journal of Medical Humanities. First Published Online: 17 March 2017. Appears at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-017-9437-5

Accessed on 05/04/2018.

Omer-Sherman, R. 2007. “The Fate of the Other in Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’” MELUS. Vol, 32. No,2.

Savran, D. 1995. “Ambivalence, utopia, and a queer sort of materialism: how ‘Angels in America’ reconstructs the nation.” Theatre Journal. Vol, 47. No, 2.

[1] See Andrew Boynton’s recollections about the St. Vincent’s in the New Yorker. Appears at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/remembering-st-vincents Accessed on 12/04/18

[2] See article in the Hindu for more on the memorialization of Dominic D’Souza. Appears at: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/the-shining-legacy-of-dominic-dsouza/article18449535.ece Accessed on 12/04/2018

Article written by:

Dr. Debanuj DasGupta is Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut. Debanuj’s research and teaching focuses on racialized regulation of space, immigration detention, queer migrations and the global governance of migration, sexuality, and HIV. Prior to his doctoral degree, Debanuj worked for over sixteen years within several international development agencies, HIV/AIDS, LGBT rights and immigrant rights organizations in India and the US. In 1994, Debanuj founded the first HIV prevention program for men who have sex with men, gay men, and transgender women in Kolkata. Since relocating to the United States, Debanuj has organized LGBT immigrants & asylum seekers in the New York tristate area. He serves as Board Co-Chair for the historic Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY.

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