Having discovered that he had contracted HIV infection was a body blow for Pradip. The period from March 2000 to 2002 proved the darkest phase of his life. He was extremely weak, lost several kilos of weight and looked pale and drawn. His complexion was getting darker due to the side effects of medicines. His health had deteriorated so much that he was shocked to see himself in the mirror. Worse, he could not walk without support and couldn’t feed himself. For Pradip, it was a living death.

Poor health apart, he had a nagging feeling of emptiness in the initial phase. It stemmed from the fact that he was cut off from friends and neighbours who were once all praise for his physical fitness. Now, nobody came to see him, not even once. He wondered why the society had turned its back on him. What was his fault after all? Did he deserve such a treatment? Was he an untouchable? He wanted to talk and he had so many questions running through his mind.

Six months passed and Pradip thought he was slipping into depression without realising that he had a strong support system. His family members would not let him suffer. Their unflinching love and care boosted his morale and he was beginning to see slight improvement in his health. He found hope that things could become alright again and he would be able to meet people freely.

He could hear his inner voice speak out, “Fight HIV and fight discrimination meted out to infected people.” It was like a clarion call and he resolved to go hammer and tongs against the perception that an infected person will eventually die because he or she won’t be able to do any hard work. Pradip was determined to break the negative stereotype of HIV victims that tagged them as “good for nothing”.

Pradip took it as a challenge to prove everyone wrong.

Towards the end of 2003, he seriously thought about resuming his exercises. By that time, his health was getting better with each passing day. He regained his weight thanks to his regular diet comprising fish, chicken and fruits and fresh vegetables. While his health was on the path of recovery, there were still dark patches all over his body because of a concoction of various drugs and prolonged illness.

In the summer of 2003, he made up his mind to hit the gym again. One morning, he went to the Eagle Guide Gym, the only fitness centre in his locality those days. He heard some people were laughing their lungs out. On closer look, he found that some boys were playing cards: a 10-pair game. There were two pairs of participants and each pair was required to match the number 10 cards. Those losing the game had to lift barbells.

Pradip too joined the game thinking he would win. But the result was completely opposite. As a rule, he had to lift a barbell. This unusual scenario put him in a fix; he could not decide whether he should lift weight since he was yet to recover fully. Then he decided to take the middle path by offering to lift only the iron bar without any weights.

He lifted the five kg bar 10 times; he did it very comfortably. It was not a big deal, but he was very thrilled at this new achievement. He could not believe himself: a man who could not stand on his feet till recently had just lifted five kg weights in a fraction of a second.

The rest of the boys could not understand why he was grinning at them. The very fact that he could lift the iron bar comfortably boosted his confidence. He felt he could work out and do weight training. Though a minor incident, it motivated him to dream big. He returned home a happy man.

The next day, Pradip went to consult his doctor whether he would be able to practise at the gym and do bodybuilding.

Dr Naren advised him not go for weight training. While he allowed Pradip to do regular exercise for his fitness, he was warned against participating in any bodybuilding competition, which required rigorous weight training. The doctor told him upfront that he should not put stress on his muscles since he was on ART and his CD 4 count was gradually increasing. Doing heavy exercises could worsen his condition, Pradip was warned.

Pradip was slightly disappointed. Even his mother did not want him to lift weight. Caught between the doctor’s advice and his own ambition, Pradip plunged into a deep thought. His conscience was clear – he would strictly follow the doctor’s prescription, go for regular check-ups, eat healthy and stay positive. But was he to be confined to only simple exercises or would he ever be able to pump iron?

Unable to resolve the dilemma, he stood in front of a large mirror and glanced at his bare body. He noticed subdued patches of muscles, which could be brought back into shape. His face lit up as if he found an answer. And in no time, he made up his mind to go ahead with weight exercises, albeit slowly, keeping the doctor in the dark.

So, on the third day after resuming workout, Pradip went to the gym and tried his hand at a lightweight dumbbell and a barbell. It was not a smooth lift though. He felt a little pain in his muscles, but kept pumping iron for a couple of minutes. A sense of fulfilment enveloped his soul. He continued practising at the gym for a week to check his stamina. To his surprise, he found that his health had improved considerably and he was completely fit for bodybuilding training. This was the first sign of his body adapting to a new exercise regime post recovery.

Soon he prepared an exercise routine and became a regular at the gym for the next six months. However, he had no formal instructor and he was doing everything himself, though some gym mates helped him with the equipment. But the real problem was he had no clue about diet and supplements, which are a must for getting the desired shape of a body. A normal diet would not help if he was serious about bodybuilding. It would require professional guidance, which was almost unthinkable for him at that point of time.

In the early 2004, Pradip started reading some magazines to learn the techniques of bodybuilding.

He gathered as much information about food and supplements as he could. He practised hard through the year and his biceps and triceps developed quite well. It was his harvest of labour, perseverance and determination. He saw a parallel between his body and the flowers in his garden – without proper care, both would wither and lose their charm.

In 2005, the rest of the gym mates came to know that Pradip was practising vigorously. Then one day, a boy from his locality, Dinesh, came to him saying, “Tamo, your body is perfect’; why don’t you go for a competition?”

Dinesh, himself a martial arts practitioner, is junior to Pradip by three years. Dinesh’s words worked wonders; they revitalised his body and mind. These were the first words of motivation Pradip had come across ever since he was detected with HIV. His joy knew no bounds; he felt he could conquer the world.

He asked Dinesh, “Do you really think so?”

Dinesh replied, “Yes, of course! You can do that. There is no doubt about it.”

Pradip firmed up plans to take part in a state-level tournament.

The next day onwards, he started preparing for the competition. There was no looking back; he kept practising harder and harder. He became determined to chase the dream of winning a tournament. And on November 26, 2006, he bagged the silver medal in the senior 60 kg category of “Mr Manipur” contest. It was organised by the All Manipur Bodybuilding Association (AMBBA). When the organisers announced, “The second prize goes to Kh Pradipkumar Singh”, Pradip thought he was dreaming. He could not believe that despite being HIV infected, he had won a medal. It did not matter whether it was the first or the second prize, but the sheer joy of winning a title made him incredibly happy. He cried like a child and he could feel tears of joy touching his cheeks. He called up his mom from the venue and informed her about his achievement.

Back home, there was a celebration of sorts. Local cable operators had broadcast the event and the people across Manipur got a glimpse of an emerging bodybuilder. Pradip’s house was flooded with visitors and well-wishers, most of whom were from the Sagolband area. They congratulated him for his achievement and wished him luck. More than the neighbours, it was his gym mates who were taken aback by his feat. While the younger lot was happy as someone from Eagle Guide Gym had earned laurels, a section of the seniors was not forthcoming about expressing their joy for some reasons.

Nonetheless, Pradip took everything in positive spirit. In fact, he was not carried away by the spontaneous response from neighbours and decided to concentrate on his exercises. He made a slight addition to his routine. It was nothing but morning and evening walks. His nephew and nieces were his companions. His brother has three children and all of them are fond of Pradip. The bonding with the young members in his family reignited hope in him. Like those tender minds full of dreams, he too considered life as a source of unknown possibilities.

The silver medal marked his debut as a professional bodybuilder.

Then, he got into a rigorous practice session. Post-morning walk, he would have a light breakfast and spend some time with his flowers and plants. By 10 am, he would reach the gym. It was this time when the gym would be largely empty. Barring a few, most members used to drop in early morning or late afternoon. From freehand to weight training, his workout session stretched up to three-four hours a day.

Having won the first ever bodybuilding trophy, Pradip thought life would be much easier now. He took it for granted that there would be no further question about his status, though he himself maintained secrecy over the matter. However, his troubles were far from over. To his surprise, some gym members were passing adverse comments on his health and capability. They would not say anything on his face though. Pradip calls it backbiting.

There were times when he overheard undesirable gossips such as these: “What is he doing? He is useless. How long will he play? Sooner or later he will die.”

But Pradip was unfazed by such talk. On the contrary, he took such comments in his stride. The more he heard brainless, discriminatory talk, the more he became emboldened to face the challenges in life. He was doubly determined to prove them wrong.

Excerpted with permission from I am HIV Positive, So What? A World Champion’s Fight Against Drugs, Disease and Discrimination, Jayanta Kalita, Bloomsbury.