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The Kalinga Kingdom

I am spending 24 hours in Vishakhapatnam (Vizag to its friends), the second largest city in (current) Andhra Pradesh. While it was ruled for a period by the Qutb Shahs and Nizams, 2500 years earlier, it was known as the Kalinga kingdom and was subsequently conquered by the legendary Buddhist king Ashoka. There was talk several years ago, when the Telangana separatists were really gaining momentum, that Vizag would be the capital of the new Andhra. Now the talk is that Vijayawada will have that honor. Interestingly, I realize that many don’t think the separation will take place. That it is just a political ploy before next year’s elections. Several state ministers resigned the other day in protest of the decision. I am more certain that this move was a political ploy.

Upon arrival at VIZ, a tiny airport compared to Shamshabad (HYD), I quickly make my way to the exit, only to be blocked by a deafening throng of people. I am not sure what the excitement is about, and am wary of getting too close. There is always the chance that rioting is imminent. In my case, there is also the chance that I will (again) be swept up into the crowd and become an unwitting participant in a communist rally (long story). The uniformed personnel at the exit suggest I use the entrance at the other end of the airport to leave. I exit this way and observe that the throng is moving. Someone is hoisted up on some shoulders and there is a jubilant nature to the proceedings. I learn that this is one of the ministers that resigned, and that I am witnessing his hero’s welcome to his erstwhile constituency. His political ploy seems to have paid off, at least in the short term.

Politics are the talk of the day, at many levels. Our cook took Wednesday off to go vote in her village. Our driver, from the same village, tells me that the candidates spent 30 lakh (3 million) rupees, 40 lakh rupees, and 60 lakh rupees respectively in their campaigns. The 60 lakh rupee candidate won. Sounds familiar.

As I make my way through Vizag, I note the relative paucity of vehicles on the roads and the complete absence of traffic jams. There has been some development here in terms of multinational companies, but certainly nothing on the order of Hyderabad/Secunderabad/Cyberabad. The population is somewhere between 2-3 million, and the density is also not what I have witnessed over the past 10 days. And it is hot.

As I mentioned earlier, AP can be roughly divided into three regions. The coastal region is where the busiest truck routes are, and where HIV prevalence is the highest. Many of the districts have up to a 2% prevalence. This is best studied in Guntur district, but is understood to be the case up the coast, including Vizag, Rajahmundry, and beyond. Sex work is practiced differently in different parts of the state. There is brothel-based work in some areas, home-based work in others, and occasionally streetwalking. Along the truck routes, sex workers will work on the main highways. They will ride up and down these roads with their clients, getting in vehicles in once town and getting off in another. This heterogeneity in the practice of sex work renders it impossible to have one national or statewide approach for preventing HIV transmission in this context. Fortunately, my favorite HIV/AIDS NGO in India, YRG CARE, based in Chennai, is working closely with organizations in Vizag and other parts of AP to tackle HIV, both in terms of treatment and prevention.

Another major difference between this city and our home base is culture and religion. As mentioned before, Hyderabad is 50% muslim. Much of the architecture is islamic, influenced by the Delhi sultanate, Qutb shahs, Nizams and Mughals. The notable historic architecture of Vishakhapatnam, much of which is still being excavated, is strongly Buddhist. One does not see much signage in Hindi, and none at all in Urdu. We are deep in the heart of Telugu lands. At some point, I would love to explore the hospitals and medical centers of this city. For now, I look forward to spending a few hours with my mother-in-law, her mother, and her sister.

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