Life beyond dread

Published: July 04, 2020

MAKING A DIFFERENCE Two city individuals have made notable contributions to help people living with HIV

He is known as “AIDS Baalu”. Nobody is afraid of him, and he is embraced with much love and joy wherever he goes. He carries a secret weapon with him – laughter.

When V.Balasubramanian was a student of The American College in the mid-1990s, he used to get angry at the misconceptions surrounding AIDS. “I used to hear or read stories about families cracking under emotional distress and shame, the fear of death gripping those affected by HIV and, of course, the denial of dignity to them. It used to irritate and worry me,” says Baalu.

Baalu was an active member of the college theatre group, and one day as he was in the middle of a street play on illiteracy an idea came to him. “Seeing the response, it struck me that I can do something similar to generate awareness about HIV and AIDS.” Baalu networked with isolated groups working in the field to build a database of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA) in Madurai and keep track of their family history, members and treatment schedule. Over time, he realised a handful of pills and vials was not the cure as most such individuals might not live for more than 20 years, given their nutritional status and uneven compliance with anti-retroviral therapy.

While chasing them into the Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres, he started looking at medication applied in a disciplined way. That involved providing good nutrition to PLHA with help from good Samaritans and using laughter when talking to as many school and college students as possible about how the disease occurs and how it can be avoided.

In the last 15 years, Baalu made it a point to talk to students in at least 35 schools and colleges in a year. “I take popular cinema stories, dialogues and songs, tweak them with relevant words that will relate to HIV and AIDS. This finds faster and greater acceptability among the audience,” he says.

“Unless I talk to them humorously, students may not want to hear me at all and the message will be lost,” he says, adding that there is always a mind-body connection which needs to be properly tapped and channelised.

Over these years, Baalu has addressed thousands of students, made them meet survivors and their families. The meetings help youths know face-to-face how the disease can play havoc with their lives and they inject new life and enthusiasm into PLHA.

More than three decades after the discovery of AIDS, those living with the disease have hope. “Drugs alone do not cure or boost the quality and length of life,” says Baalu. “Happily, treatment options are growing. People are increasingly realising that longevity increases if there is a caring bond of trust, encouragement, faith and belief. There is a lot of reason to have hope now. And hope is vital to life.”

In his war against the killer virus through nutrition, sheer will, sometimes spirituality and always laughter therapy, Baalu was joined by R.Gopi, Assistant Professor of Economics at Madura College. Six years ago, Gopi heard Baalu at a meeting organised in his college. He recalls, “Discussing various aspects of positive living with emphasis on what precautions need to be taken to lead a normal life, he created an instant bond.”

The collaboration was advantageous. Gopi, as in charge of NSS, formed core groups of student volunteers to spread the message further and faster. “Sometimes it is not possible for us to travel everywhere, so we can pass on the responsibility to our trained volunteers,” he says. He also feels that the rising vulgarity among students can be checked through such an exercise.

Advocating an hour’s talk on sex education weekly in schools and colleges, Gopi believes that Madurai has seen a 0.75 per cent decline in HIV cases in the last two years due to this intensive awareness programme. “Also,” he says, “the 3000-odd PLHA in and around the city are living longer and healthier lives today. That is the power of communication and particularly Baalu’s talks.”

The most important part of this story is that neither Baalu nor Gopi is affected by the disease in any way. But both have chosen to volunteer for a cause. Gopi spends all his free time after college hours, and Baalu is dedicated 24X7 without charging for any service. He also helps PLHA in getting emergency medical help at any time of the day or night and even nurses them if needed.

“I don’t have a degree in social work,” he says. “But to be of service and some value to people who need support and guidance makes me happy. I think that is the most genuine social work an individual can do.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)

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Published July 04, 2020 by in news
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