Leadership in the unlikeliest of places

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on July 14, 2019

NEW DELHI, 01/08/2017: Ashok Alexander, Founder Director, Antara Foundation, during an interaction with Business Line in New Delhi on August 1, 2017. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  The Hindu

Title: A Stranger Truth Author: Ashok Alexander Publisher: Juggernaut Price: ₹699

A new book finds it is highly developed amongst commercial sex workers, who survive with courage, charisma and wit

It’s hard to pin down the moment in the book A Stranger Truth when you stop being an outsider looking at the lives of sex workers and begin instead to feel the pain and gut-wrenching sadness of the lives they live. That’s the journey Ashok Alexander’s book takes you through by keeping it real and grounded, without descending into a state of hopelessness.

By introducing us to Parvati, Juhi, Kavita and Shahid, for instance, he gets us to understand the hostility they faced at home or the violence in society they encountered, sometimes even in cop stations.

But as these women, men, transgenders, and so on, negotiate their way out of tricky situations or resurrect themselves from violent incidents, their grit shines through.

Borrowing from Alexander’s own words as he describes an interaction between sex workers and Bill and Melinda Gates, the life-stories retold in the book too are “brutally honest and raw”. Alexander pulls off an immensely readable book by giving these real stories the gravitas they deserve and yet handling it sensitively, sometimes with a sense of humour and naughtiness even often provided by the sex workers themselves.

What emerges is the story of dispersed people coming together as a community, taking the fight back to goons who harass them and working with their support structures to represent themselves with dignity.

Alexander is an ex-McKinsey man who took a leap from a 17-year-long career with the global consulting firm to head the Gates Foundation in India and it local AIDS initiative to help stem the growth of HIV here. The year was 2002-03.

‘Rude awakening’

“That I knew virtually nothing about HIV or public health didn’t deter me. McKinsey people, it is sometimes said, combine amazing cockiness with a certain deep insecurity. ....I thought I would quickly have HIV all figured out, just as quickly as we figured out new client businesses. Of course a rude awakening was to follow, a sobering experience ...”, he says, candidly.

From the suited-booted and air-conditioned environs at the consultant firm to being told “don’t step on the people having sex” on his first “night out” with a non-government organisation in Vizag, the transformation begins. From there on Alexander travels across the country, through fields and back-alleys, through insurgency-prone regions to posh residential areas through meetings at Seattle to meetings with Indian bureaucrats to map the presence of the highly fragmented and invisible population of sex workers and other risk-prone groups in India and to chart a plan to keep the rising HIV numbers under control.

It was a time when the government was in denial on the HIV prevalence in India. Alexander had to tread carefully here to make a meaningful contribution and not risk being called “anti-national” (in today’s parlance) or be accused of fanning numbers that were a “CIA fabrication”, as alleged by then Health Minister Shatrughan Sinha.

Vajpayee’s assurance

And though there was that risk of sliding down the slippery slope of denial, reassurance came from no less than then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“I believe you have been going around spreading alarm, he chuckled,” recounts Alexander, of the gracious meeting at the PM’s office with Bill Gates and him. Vajpayee assured them of “every support” from his government for the programme.

Alexander’s book benefits from the intensive notes he kept while on the job, with the detailing providing us with highly visual images. For instance, the “ladies of the night” in “bright red, blue and green polyester-silk saris with gold borders,” who wore heavy make-up, gives us the picture.

Despite having covered the lives of sex workers, visiting their places and getting an insight into the loneliness of people living with HIV as a journalist, for me there are moments that hit deep in the stomach. The story of shy, 18-year-old Kamala, a mother of two from Medak, a small town located a couple of hours from Hyderabad, is one such.

Married at 15, abandoned by her husband, the young girl turned to soliciting. She narrates an incident that took place in a deserted area in the outskirts of the city, where she was violated by multiple men, even as her infants were just a short distance away. The incident haunts and disturbs and you are left hoping that she and her children are safe today.

“No woman wants to get into sex work,” says Alexander, adding that they do it as they have no choice and to give their kids a better future. “I am convinced that sex workers are as good as the best mothers in the world.”

Other heart-tugging life stories include one in Manipur where Alexander had to walk away from a young unwell child, despite wanting to help with his personal money — an incident that made him cry. But there is also the happy instance of a rescued child who went on to become a sportsperson.

Alexander delightfully captures the lighter moments with the sex workers as they tease him or his younger colleague who undertakes a truck ride across regions to understand soliciting on the highways as a key to curbing HIV and spreading the message of safe sex.

Serving the community

In the chapter “leadership secrets of the commercial sex worker”, Alexander intersperses a business scenario with the ground realities and enormous challenges in dealing with the amorphous community of commercial sex workers. As a student of leadership, he says, its attributes are found in the unlikeliest of places. Pointing to character traits in those who survive the sex trade, he says, it’s because of courage, charisma and a sense of humour.

“They exercise leadership in the highest sense of the word, and with a combination of attributes I have rarely seen in business leaders. I am frequently struck, and always inspired, by the leadership of the commercial sex worker,” he says.

The leaderships story comes a full circle, as sex workers are organised and confident to speak for themselves. In 2013, Alexander narrates an interaction between a bunch of students from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sex workers at an intervention site in Mysuru.

“What is leadership?” a student asked, and a member of the community answered almost immediately, “serving our community”. And Alexander’s reaction? “ Like a proud father, I stood aside and watched, smiling,” he says, bringing this journey to an end.

Published on July 14, 2019

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