By Ranee Mohamed
Princey Mangalika had been a housewife for as long as she could remember. From reading about life in her school books, Mangalika took a greater stride thereafter to face the realities of life in the paternal home of her husband in Siyambalagoda, Polgasowita in Piliyandala.
A handsome husband working overseas and a substantial foreign remittance had made her serene and content with life.
“We wanted to build a home for ourselves and a future for our daughters. Though I loved my husband very dearly I had to let him go,” she said, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Thus from 1997, Bandula remained in the Maldives and in Germany. “He visited us as often as possible and those were the happiest moments in my life,” said Princey Mangalika.
Then in 2000 when Bandula arrived in Sri Lanka, he had been very ill. A rising body temperature, persistent cough and diarrhoea kept Princey Mangalika in a constant state of worry. “I took him to all the doctors in the vicinity and he was given medicine for influenza, diarrhoea and chest cough. He was even treated for a phlegmatic condition,” recalled Princey.
Soon Mangalika found that her husband was impatient with the children, pushing them away when they climbed on him. “All he did was lie in bed or spend time in the toilet. The diarrhoea was almost uncontrollable. I knew that he had contracted some stomach bug. Hence, I took him to the Kalubowila teaching hospital where he was examined and told he was suffering from Gastritis. “We were told not to give him any spicy food and to make him eat on time,” said Princey Mangalika.
“After taking this medication, he seemed to be well. Then he had a bath and the temperature rose again. The fever was uncontrollable. The diarrhoea had started again and he seemed so weak,” recalled Princey Mangalika.
“I could not bear to see him this way. He was the sole breadwinner and all the food we ate, the clothes we wore, everything was bought with his hard-earned money. I was grateful to my husband for all he had done and could not neglect him. So, I took him to the National Hospital,” said Princey Mangalika.
It was late June, 2001. Princey Mangalika joined the countless women who walked into the National Hospital clutching a hot water flask. But within her was a greater burning for she had to leave her daughters behind, neglect their school work and then dip into their savings for their day to day living. These were the worries on her mind.
The faithful wife, Princey Mangalika, carrying lunch, dinner, fruits and tea, made her way to the hospital in the afternoon and evening. “There were never any meetings with the doctors and I was looking forward to the day when I could take my husband home,” she said.
And now with Bandula looking well, Mangalika’s hopes rose. Again she would see his familiar form on their bed. He would set off to Germany again and the foreign remittances would lift away their burdens that were now becoming inhouse guests in their humble home.
On July 1, when Princey Mangalika was beside her husband, he told her that the doctor wanted to meet her the next morning. “That was the moment I was waiting for. My husband looked well and the doctor wanted to see me in the morning. It meant only one thing – that I was able to take him back home,” she had thought happily.
However, when Mangalika walked into the Colombo South Teaching Hospital on the morning of July 2, 2001, there had been a furore. Ignoring the matron and the nurses who seemed to be in some kind of tension, Mangalika had walked past to her husband’s bed only to find that the bed was empty.
“I was panic stricken. I had heard of people getting better and passing away,” said Mangalika, like the quickening flame of the candle before it goes out.
Princey Mangalika heaved a sigh of relief, the candle was still burning, her husband was alive. The matron almost reluctantly pointed to a room in the far corner of the ward. “She told me that my husband was in there. There was a board at the door which said Isolation Room. The door was closed and I sat on the chair outside. Suddenly the matron came and yelled at a worker, demanding to know who kept a chair there. She instructed the worker to wash the chair with Savlon. I knew that she had cared for my safety and did not want me to sit in the chairs in the hospital, so I got up and slowly made my way into the room. In the room was an old gentleman who was coughing. On another bed was my husband. He had turned towards the wall. When I sat on the bed he pushed me aside. He did not look at me; he did not speak to me,” said Princey Mangalika crying at the thought.
Just then about five doctors made their way to the room. They stopped outside and had a brief discussion. “Are you his wife?’ one of the doctors asked me very kindly.
Then they directed me to a room where behind closed doors a doctor asked me many personal questions. About childbirth, about our sex lives and about the usage of condoms. At that point in time, because the doors were closed, I thought the doctor was trying to get fresh with me,” said Mangalika.
“I sat there and waited for him to finish. He told me that my husband is well now, but that he has been tested positive for the HIV virus. He told me to take my husband home, feed him, clothe him and give him lots of love. And that is just what I did. He told me, however, that never on any occasion must I tell anyone about the virus except when my husband is in a hospital and that too only to a doctor. All that registered in my mind was the fact that my husband was well and that I could take him home,” said Mangalika who had heard of viruses that cause fever and believed HIV was just a medical term for fevers treated with paracetomol.
Before going home we were asked to sign a book. When my husband asked a member of the nursing staff for a pen, she reluctantly gave a pen. When he returned it, she refused to take it. When we left it on the book, she held it with a piece of tissue and dropped it in the dustbin.
All eyes were on us as we walked out of the hospital. We were taken to another section. It was called the STD section where my husband was taken into a room and kept for about an hour. I sat on the stone bench there and waited for over an hour. I was worried because it was time to pick our children from school. A member of the staff asked me who was in the room. I told her it was my husband. “He has AIDS she told me,” and I nodded. I did not know what she was talking about,” said Princey Mangalika. “When the doctors came out, one of them told me very kindly that I too ought to come for a blood test. July 9 was the date given to me. I was relieved. It was time to go home,” recalled Princey.
“On the way we stopped at Rahumaniya Hotel and bought one orange juice and a plain tea. I could not afford to buy two juices, but my husband insisted that I drink half. But he asked me to drink it first before his lips touched the glass,” said Princey.
And when they reached their small village in Polgasowita, all the villagers had gathered. The concern was heart-warming. “They all wanted to know what was wrong with Bandula. They could not bear the thought of him being ill. ‘Tell us what we can do for him. Can we get you food, can we get you the medication?’ they all asked me,” said Princey. It was a village where everyone joined hands to help each other. “Be it a funeral, a wedding, an alms giving or an illness, they all rallied around to help. There was no hired labour or hired help in our village. Thus, when they saw that Bandula was ill, they pooled in money and bought him a Damro mattress and brought us food and malted milk. They brought us papaya, dry fish curry and rice and other home cooked foods, ” said Princey Mangalika.
Touched by the eagerness of every passerby to help them, Princey could not help crying.
The next day, Princey got her daughters ready for school. Bandula had wanted to eat two stringhoppers and she sent her father-in-law to the nearby boutique to buy the stringhoppers while she rushed to drop her children in school.
Somewhere near the school, a very close friend of theirs from the village who ran a shop on the byway had called out to her. He had inquired as to what her husband’s illness was. Princey being careful had told him that it was a chest ailment. “What nonsense,” he had exclaimed, “ a worker in the hospital told me that it was AIDS,” he said.
Unconcerned, Princey had rushed home to make the milky curry for her husband only to find her father- in- law shouting out loud in the house. ‘The boutique refused to sell me stringhoppers. The whole village knows that you have gone overseas and come back with AIDS,’ Princey heard her father-in-law yelling.
The concern in the eyes of the villagers had been replaced with fury. “They did not even walk on the side of the road our house was situated. When I looked out I saw our two little daughters making their way home. There were tears in their eyes as they asked me what happened.
“The parents came to school and took their children away. The teachers began to whisper about us. We were asked to go home,” her children had cried.
‘No shop sold us things, no one spoke to us. I was trapped in the house for three days and was unable to cook. The stones were getting larger and the threats were becoming louder. They asked us to leave the village or be burnt down with the house,” said Princey. “I felt my head swirling. I was dizzy with unhappiness and worry. I did not want to be killed and knew that we were all at risk,” she said.
So the next day, at the break of dawn, Princey crept out of her house with the two children. There was darkness all over as they made their way to the bus halt.
“I gave my children to my mother in Ragama and came back home only to discover that my husband had run away from the house. I looked for him for two days. Then I heard that he had consumed poison and was lying at the Colombo South General Hospital. I ran there and in a frenzied state I shouted to the doctor that he has AIDS and to care for him. Then the whole ward began to come towards us and look at us,” said Princey.
Speaking of a great caring and support from the hospital staff at Ward 3, Princey said that she was touched when the doctor told her that it does not matter whether her husband had AIDS, that what mattered was to save his life.
“My husband died but his body was not allowed to be brought to the village. He was buried in the Nedimala area in a wooded cage-like box – in a grave that was nine feet deep,” said Princey in tears.
Princey Mangalika’s HIV test proved positive. But her life is different. Today she is on everyday medication and heads an organisation that helps other HIV positive people. Positive Women’s Network is a project of Kedalla and Princey says that she has received great support from people such as Mahes Perera and J. A. Williams. She speaks with gratitude about the Alliance Development Trust.
“I am on the lookout for land that will help to house other HIV positive people like me. Today I give them guidance, support, medication and even accommodation. My house was burnt down and I had only my mother and my sisters as my sources of strength. I do not want other HIV positive people to feel alone. I do not want any of them to undergo what I have gone through,” said Princey. “My advice to women is that they have to look after themselves; they have to be more aware of what is happening around them,” said Princey.
I was at a session with about 60 sex workers. The session involved advice about HIV; the sixty female sex workers said that are intimate with over four or five men a day. I had lived all my life with one man and I was HIV positive. They were not,” said Princey, wiping away the tears as she turned her face to look back; only to turn and smile again.