A unique Indian wedding website for HIV positive people
As Nisha looked at the syringe filling up with her blood, little did she know that the needle inserted in her vein was also drawing out her hope and dignity.
A pregnant Nisha was at a hospital in Parbhani, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, for a routine blood test. But her world came crashing down when she learnt she was HIV positive.
The test results of her husband confirmed her suspicion that she had contracted the virus from him. Yet, it was she who was blamed for their condition and thrown out of the house. Her worst fears came true when her son was born HIV positive.
After her husband divorced her, she says she lost her will to live.
"I wanted to kill my son and myself," she says. "I wanted to remarry but didn't know how to find an HIV positive partner."
A few years into her ordeal, she came to know about PositiveSaathi.com, a free matrimonial website for HIV positive people. Saathi is the Hindi word for friend or partner.
Today, Nisha, 42, leads a normal life, having found an HIV positive husband from Kolhapur to support her and her 11-year-old son. "The site came as a ray of hope in my darkest hour," she says.
That sentiment is shared by the more than 5,000 HIV positive people registered with the website. And they all have Anil Valiv to thank for bringing them back from the brink.
Mr Valiv, 43, who founded PositiveSaathi.com in 2006, is a government officer with a passion for social work.
Despite his demanding job in the transport department, he makes time to help those rendered lonely by the dreaded infection to find support and companionship.
During an earlier stint in Latur town, Mr Valiv started HIV tests for truck drivers, among those most at risk from HIV-Aids.
He says a doctor once told him about an HIV positive man who was desperate to get married.
"He told the doctor that if he didn't find an HIV positive match soon, he would marry a healthy woman without revealing his HIV status. The doctor was in a dilemma. That made me realise how difficult it was for such people to find a spouse."
Mr Valiv had also seen a close friend, who had contracted the virus in the early 1990s, waste away in pain, suffering and isolation.
"He was shunned by his own family. I cannot forget the longing in his eyes for a family and children. Such is the stigma attached to the infection that when he died in 2006, his father refused to light his pyre at his sparsely attended funeral."
HIV positive people are ostracised and treated inhumanely, he says, but they need help and support. "If their emotional and physical needs are unmet, they can end up spreading the infection."
Nearly two-thirds of those registered with his website are from rural areas. That is remarkable considering internet access in Indian villages is poor. Around 250 of those registered are Indians living abroad.
To bring HIV positive people together, Mr Valiv has also organised nearly a dozen "matrimonial meetings" for them.
Ramesh Dhongde, a 43-year-old rickshaw driver in Pune, is among the hundreds who have attended these meetings in search of hope and love.
When Mr Dhongde learnt 11 years ago that he had contracted the virus from his now dead wife, he thought it was the end of the road for him. He was most worried about the future of his only daughter.
Then, at a meeting organised by Mr Valiv two years ago, he met his current wife, a 33-year-old divorcee who works in a women's co-operative. "Returning to a normal married life has restored my confidence to fight the disease," he says.
To spread the word about these meetings, Mr Valiv prints posters with his own money and puts them up in public places.
"At the first meeting held in a hospital in Solapur, I anticipated about 300 people and arranged for their breakfast and lunch. Barely 40 came and all the food had to be distributed among the hospital's poor patients."
But the participation improved once he began collaborating with some non-governmental organisations.
When he saw that men far outnumbered women at such meetings, he offered to pay the latter's travel costs. He has already spent tens of thousands of rupees from his own pocket, but is happy that the participation of women has doubled.
He says since most participants walk in riddled with guilt and despair, it takes some effort to get them to open up.
Another problem is that despite being HIV positive, most of them insist on a match from their own caste.
"The caste consideration is strong also because many of them do not reveal their HIV status to their families, who keep putting pressure on them to get married," he says.
Women with children are not readily preferred, more so if they have daughters.
"My role is that of a facilitator," Mr Valiv says. "People connect through the website or during a matrimonial meeting, and then interact directly."
This makes it difficult for him to say the exact number of marriages he has helped arrange.
But based on the thank you messages and updates on the website, he believes that number to be between 200 and 400, some involving Indians living in Singapore, United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere.
His biggest success perhaps was in 2010 when 22 people got married in one day at a meeting in Pune.
One of them was Lata, a health worker.
She was devastated when she lost her first husband to HIV in 2002. She too was diagnosed as HIV positive when she was only 26. Although her son Ravi, then a little over a year old, was HIV negative, she felt broken.
Lata brought Ravi to the meeting and there they met Vijay. A year older than her, Vijay had lost his wife to HIV and had himself been living with the virus for over 12 years.
They now have a two-year-old son Rishi, who too is HIV negative. "Our sons have made our lives worth living," says an emotional Lata.
Mr Valiv says nearly two dozen couples that he helped get married have had healthy children.
As the popularity of his website has increased, friends, well-wishers and organisations devoted to similar causes have offered help.
Mr Valiv is also using the website to bring together donors and NGOs interested in supporting HIV positive orphans.
"HIV," he says, "should not come in the way of one's right to dream."
(Names of HIV positive individuals have been changed on request.)