by Sunil Mohan and Sumathi Murthy, February 2014
(This essay has been written from the perspective of Sunil Mohan and is part of the archival project on Queer Self-Reflections
which has been researched and archived by Sunil Mohan and Sumathi Murthy)
In the beginning of the year 2012, at the juncture when I was thinking what will be my future after the ALF (Alternative Law Forum) research work, a friend suggested the OPEN SPACE Fellowship for Civil Society and Youth Outreach by CCDS (Center for Communication and Development Studies, PUNE). I applied for the fellowship. While working on the fellowship given by ALF, I was feeling the need for creating our own histories, our trans stories and our own experiences to be documented by ourselves. This I felt especially when I was writing and rewriting the chapter on Female to Male trans people; how we get invisiblized because we do not have a legitimate history or mythological source or back up, how our histories are written by people who may or may not empathize with us and if we are written about, how we are made exotic or a special species. It was a close friend who asked me once if she could document my life in a day from morning 6 to next morning 6. I felt weird as to why I was asked like this. I felt I was being made special for people to accept me but I am not different from anyone in this country. I too wake up at my own time, brush my teeth, go for shower (this is slightly doubtful though), do my work, watch TV, play cricket, talk to my girlfriend, talk to my friends, have lunch, dinner, snacks, etc.
This made me think through what I would document if I have to document lives of marginalized genders and sexualities, as I am one of them; an insider. This led to serious discussions with many friends who also suggested that how most of the stories documented expose the depressed facts, not the negotiations, not the humor that is used to come out of severe painful situations, not the assertions, not the triumphs, or even simple escaping from the situations in a clever manner. And so I put up my proposal to CCDS for the OPEN SPACE fellowship based on this thought. Thanks to all my friends who have helped me write this proposal in a manner that I wanted to express.
Added to this I also applied to Pad.ma fellowship for the purpose of archiving these oral history and video interviews. I knew Pad.ma has been a platform to reach wider audience where people can get a more real version of LGBT lives which are diverse. Stories of sexual and gender minority community from various different backgrounds of class and caste can reach public to understand their lives, ways of inclusion. It can also be used for art projects, advocacy, research and in many other ways.
The journey through these lives started in Bangalore with many of our own friends; these friends with whom I had shared our lives with, where we stood for each other in situations of despair, joy and achievements.
Journey through the interviews
One of the FtoMs we interviewed was deeply disappointed with his life and work, and so the entire interview was disturbing. Some of the stories shared were intense but also comic.
Arun shares one incident
“In my partner’s mother’s house they knew about our love relationship. Her mother was very strict. My partner lived with her husband independently. I had severe issues with my husband so I had gone back to my mother’s house. I was then working in Finance in Tamil Nadu. I would go and meet her every day. One day when I went to her house I was in the kitchen talking to her, suddenly her servant came and told that her mother was coming. I ran and hid myself in the toilet. I was very scared that our love relationship would be known to the entire street through her mother if she found out. Earlier I had asked my partner if her mother would come to her house. She had told me that she and her mother had fought with each other so her mother would not come. My partner’s mother was coming and I hid myself in the toilet. At that time my partner’s husband was very helpful as he did not know our love relationship. I messaged him to help us out. There was no reply from him. Even then I had told my partner that if her mother would come, she should send her soon. Her mother came and kept on speaking about everybody on earth.
If you are chatting for one hour you will definitely use the toilet. So she came to use the toilet. When she came to use the toilet I locked the toilet. She pushed it so hard that my heart almost stopped. Her mother was screaming that why this door is not opening. My partner incoherently said that because of rains the door is stuck. Her mother switched on the light and she could see my sari in the side ajar. Immediately she broke open the door and tore my saree, she dragged me to the gate and pushed me. I immediately put myself back and took the cycle and ran from the place. Those were extremely scary moments. Now if you see our cinemas, heros and heroines after their love is revealed to the people and family, they do a lot of stunts. Ours I mean gender and sexuality people are the real thrill and heroic actions. We are the real hero and heroine”.
Another FtoM who gave us the interview had much different experience and the way he looked at life was also different. It was more positive and hopeful. This FtoM in worst hopeless situations showed courage and developed his own coping mechanisms to handle the situation and remain what he wanted to be as. He did not want his video interview to be shared but we can share what he said in the text essay.
“Other friends in the school have made fun of us saying that I was husband and she was wife. Even in that ridicule I was happy that my friends somehow could understand what I always saw me as (my gender); that they are able to see my gender or even accept it”.
He also speaks of being sometimes accepted.
“While renovating the house we did not have much money so we could not have many workers for renovation. There were 5 carpenters and since we did not have money to afford other workers, I did the renovation work along with them building our house. I had to carry all the big stone used for building. I had to mix the cement at the right time for these five carpenters to build. They would call my father K and they would say K you have a son and not a daughter. All these works can be done only by men. You should be proud about this person. When they would give that acceptance for me as a ‘man’ it was big thing for me. Sometimes in my own family my brother would call me ‘cheta’ (brother) it would not hurt me so much”.
Savitha, a transwoman or hijra, says that every one of us are into this endless search of "where do I belong". What struck us was the run from the village to the city and losing hair for the sake of the honor. While many of us female born people carry our honor in our vaginas, male born people actually carry it all around, especially hair length.
Later in the same interview Savitha talks of her relations to her family and how they treated her when her father died.
“A distance had developed between my family and me. At that time my father passed away. My father thought I was his son but I was not. According to my feelings I was a daughter. I had not got the information about his ill health. I went near his bed. He asked who is this and why have you changed your costume. He rebuked me. The woman who lived with my father had two children. They accused me that for the sake of father’s property, I had changed my costume. They never understood that I had not changed the costume but I had changed myself according to my heart, my mind and body. When I shared this with my mother in my village, they argued that what my father said was right and arranged for a barber to cut my hair. In the middle of the village, in front of everyone they forcibly cut my hair. I was extremely hurt at that moment. When they were cutting my hair in front of the whole village I was in extreme pain thinking what will happen to my future. I am a woman and have everything that a woman has but why still they never understood. I felt and decided that I should make them understand that we are also women. Who am I? I should not live like what they say I should live like the way I want. I escaped from my village that night. I kept running to reach some place in hiding and escaping from my villagers. I would have run some 30 – 40 kilometres. I crossed fields and towns and then came to some city and from there reached Mumbai”.
Hair length disturbs me terribly whether it is of male born or female born people. Kumari our dearest friend and close friend of Vit was murdered due to hair length. She spoke to me a day before her murder on 8th November 2010. She said she is unable to take the violence by her family and so she wanted to shift with me into my house. I was extremely happy that Kumari was coming into our house and our lives and so there will be an anchor for our lives, mine and Sumathi's. Suddenly in the night she called and said she would come on 8th morning, though I was arguing that she had to come the same night for if the family is violent anything could happen. And so it happened. She was killed. It could not even become a case of murder as it was portrayed as a suicide.This death affected many of us and our sense of understanding of honor and belonging. In all the interviews one thing stood out; partner relationship actually could fracture the development of the person, especially in the marginalized genders and sexualities community. That is because the entire support system of family that is lost is expected to be found in one partnership. The need for strong friend circle was also mentioned many times directly and indirectly. Losing of relationships and friendships, struggling to make life independent of relationships is a marked issue in most of the interviews. It is complicated that it all either begins with the same sex relationship or gender and community people are involved with focus in it(focus on relationship or gender and community people are the focus of one's life) and suddenly life poses questions of survival, employment, self-determination, political struggle, recognition in society and many more. Shift from the focus of comforting relationship to asserting self and the gender in the society is a strong struggle that everyone shared.
As one of the Hijras, Cha shared
“my partner who lived with me for 5-6 years left me, it disturbed me a lot. One day he had come from there and we were sitting in our house. After some time he said that he will go and fetch some food for both of us. I did not even imagine that he would go away and never come back. I waited for 2 hours and then went to the bus stand and checked. I had collected all the tickets he had used of the KPN travels. I called them and checked. They said that the bus just left and is near Madivala. I called the Madivala road office and told them that I wanted to talk to passenger by name so and so and they said that the bus had passed the station. That day I sat on the door step and was really preoccupied about him leaving me. Only I knew what I was thinking. Human being’s face shows everything. That day everyone in that street figured out that something had happened to me. Suddenly my neighbour woman who was intimated by her husband that I looked disturbed and that I must be in trouble. So she came and enquired me. I could not share with anyone. That was a very tragic day for me”.
Yet community people cope up with situations and achieve what they aim for. When it came to gender, only two interviewees stated very clearly that they would not subscribe to the definitions of society on gender. In fact one of the interviewees actually said that within his same sex relationship there was no option for him to decide his gender. Given a chance now he would not like to completely shift into one definition of gender. On the other hand one of the Hijras and one of the FtoMs actually have stated that they were not really hopeful of someday where society would accept multiple genders. They would more firmly believe in the present system which is clearly binary. One of the interviewees in fact said that it is difficult to explain to the general society outside about the transitioned positions. Even though it at times reflects a certain easy process of settling down into the binary system, their experiences of asserting and answering embarrassing questions and ridicule reflects that even that is not the answer; to settle down to the concept of binary. Within the marginalized genders and sexualities community also there are restrictions and ridicule directly and indirectly, which was shared by two interviewees. Each interviewee had not just their understanding of gender to be shared but also intense compromises that they are doing to get acceptance from the family. At the same time their negotiations to assert their gender in different manner was also shared. Torture to anything feminine is something that is taken as mandatory to patriarchal men. Male born people when are feminine who refuse to belong to either gender but be what they are face severe torture and abuse from men. One of the interviewee Yamini shared
“One day when the power went off, I was just standing there in my work place. A boy, since it was dark I did not know whom, came and bit my lips and I was bleeding. The blood fell on the weaving material. After the power came my supervisor came and blamed me and accused me of spoiling the boys in the factory. He said that boys in the unit are getting spoilt due to my feminine behaviour. So I had to quit my job”.
Our journey was then towards Kerala but during that time Mariya/Anil Sadanandan was killed brutally on 9th of May 2012. Mariya was a good friend of us all and we were affected very seriously after this incident. This incident made us work towards collecting information from people, media and others about the entire incident. The most interesting interview till now and the most enjoyable shoot was with Revathi (Hijra and she is mummy for all of us). Revathi mummy is dear to activists and us community for many reasons. She is an activist who has struggled hard in her life beyond imagination, she is a person with lot of love and compassion for not just Hijra community but also a lot of us who are female born gender and sexual minorities, she is a person who has broken many rules of Hijra community which is violent and exploitative. I had the privilege of working with her in Sangama when she was the Director of Sangama. She rose from the post of office assistant to being director. She was the only community person from working class to struggle to get this position. Mummy right now is doing a research on female to male trans people’s life and struggles. Revathi mummy has written two books in Tamil which is translated to Kannada and English also. Her book is published by Penguin publishers. As expected earlier, her interview was very questioning us back. Though at the face of it, she might come across through her sharing to be disappointed and despaired with her life, we could find a lot of energy of coming back and winning it again. She with great effort had reclaimed her property in Namakkal (Tamil Nadu) but in the recent times her brother and father after the death of her mother are torturing her to give back the minimal property that she has gotten. She is fighting back for it. She is in a crucial stage where she does not expect much and ascribe to the living patterns of Hijra community and she is struggling to live independently as an activist who is not working in any NGOs or CBOs in big position and having an ambition to be a writer and an actor. The sharing on gender by Revathi is really challenging, as she says that how she struggled to become a woman and realised how women actually do not have a positive position in the society. She shared a funny anecdote offcamera while talking to another hijra –
“We used to have only one room. If one of us took a customer alone into the room we had to wait until someone else came inside? We had a cage like (thing?) where we had oil. We applied this oil and had sex, whatever the gender of the customer we used the oil and then had sex. After having sex with the oil there used to be a cloth to wipe our thighs that felt sticky. After using this cloth we used to throw it away. But she not only wiped herself but also wiped the panthi’s penis and threw the cloth outside after having sex. After which I took my customer into the room and had sex. The oil was all over my thigh so I took that cloth and wiped myself with it. And as I wiped myself I realized that there was urine (full bathroom) all over it. How much fun we made of her? (Laughs)”.
Revathi's full interview is available here
The journey within Bangalore to many friends and community people taught us one thing very seriously; community associated with NGOs, CBOs, and so on will never share in a language that is close to heart. It is always that semi-political language with few words like ‘empowerment, mobilization, capacity building and so on without context. For some it was a form of empowerment that they could use this language but for some it clearly made no sense. This learning guided our journey into community people who were and are more close to their lives and can reflect upon their lives in a more humane manner.
Journey to Tamil Nadu
Journey to Tamil Nadu first led us to Mangai a theatre activist and a scholar who was working on historical documentation of Tamil women, Tamil women writers many other issues including the refugee status through theatre. That led me to think majorly about borders, the sense of belonging and how the sense of belonging many times is decided by the state, family and society while individuals who get marginalized on the basis of gender and sexuality especially from the working class endlessly search for sense of belonging within family, community groups, friends who accept and do not accept. It is also the sense of belonging that decides the economic support system and the associated entitlements. Our interview shooting schedule was supposed to start on 12th with ParvathiParvathi. She went out of reach on the phone till that night. We had already scheduled Smiley Vidya on 14th so we could not suddenly change her’s to 12th moreover Smiley was busy with a rehearsal. Mangai suggested us to meet another transsexual who has not followed the Aravani system, which was Olga. Olga is working in the Pehechan project and also volunteers with an organisation working for the rights of disabled people. She invited us on 12th for dinner and we had a long discussion with her about how she does not approve of the Aravani traditions. She had the opportunity of convincing her parents and relatives as she felt Aravani tradition limits itself to begging and sex work for livelihood, which according to her is not option for life. Since it was easy for her to convince her parents there was no need for her to live with the Hijra community. In fact she was also the one who put us in contact with two Aravanis in Chennai who though were part of the Aravani community, they lived establishing Bharathanatyam School in a slum area and they are the teachers. This was very interesting as in this school that they have established, Aravanis are the teachers who are teaching dance to slum children. We spoke to them immediately and fixed up the date and time to record them. Olga decided to give interview to us in her house next day near Besant Nagar Beach at 6 PM. Besant Nagar is a space of affluent class in Chennai. Ever since we got the contact number for Aravani B the pastor from Chengal Pet, we tried several times to contact her and she was not at all reachable. Olga, Parvathi and Smiley in fact helped us to contact her finally in Chennai. She suddenly said that she would be in Chennai on the 14th so we could interview her.
Finally on 13th we could interview Parvathi. It was a good change for she did not use the NGOised Tamil or jargons in her interview. The interesting that she shared in her interview was that she travelled a journey of changing sex and eventually became an activist and worked in many crisis cases of other sexual minorities in Chennai, yet she could not change her parents’ attitude and get acceptance.
As Parvathi shares
“Sad times have been many- when I left my parents. When those at home told me that I was only going to have to live with Aravanis, it was difficult for me. If I was going to be this way they told me I had to leave home, and I was very depressed. For twenty years, I’d been a pampered child and now they were going to chase me off like I were an orphan. I couldn’t bear that at all. Till this minute, they haven’t accepted me. That has always been a very sad thing in my life. When the parents of other transgenders accept them and mine do not, I feel very sad”.
On the 13th Night we went to Smiley Vidya’s house. Smiley Vidya is a multi-faceted person, she paints, writes poetry, reads a lot, she likes Bob Marley’s music. She lives in a house which is like Chawl in Mumbai. It is an area called Saidapet. By the time we went to her house she had cooked for us; very tasty food and she is extremely friendly. She finally helped us book B’s interview next morning at 9 AM. When we started planning the shoot in her house all of us together including her realised how difficult it would be to shoot in such a small place. Smiley expressed her desire to be shot in ‘Spaces’. ‘Spaces’ is a theatre space built by Chandralekha the dancer and Sadanand. Mangai and many other theatre directors not only rehearse there. It is just opposite Besant Nagar beach. For Smiley Spaces is like her breath and her life. We came to know that B came visiting her Aravani guru and so we could shoot there. The area is called Tsunami Quarters. While in taxi we saw that we were passing through Chennai’s most important rich area and slowly the taxi passed through the poorer small lanes and places where the city garbage dumps were also seen. And we finally arrived at Tsunami quarters. We met B and her Guru Meena. There were other Aravanis too in that small room. The first day Tsunami quarters did not make much difference to us. Meena, B’s Guru was a very interesting Aravani. She shared with us in the discussion that she struggled hard in her life in Mumbai, Bangalore and then settled in Chennai. The moment she saw me she kept saying that there is another person in Tsunami quarters like me. When I asked if I could meet the person, she said she would pass on my number. When she introduced us to her ‘Chelas’ (junior hijras under seniors), she kept saying that each one is studying in such and such a college. They were studying in the evening college in ‘Satla’ (in woman’s dress). We were very surprised that they could do this in Tamil Nadu and feeling if this could be possible all over India. They were studying with men and women without any discrimination or stigma or even harassment. She continued, Meena, that in her generation even if they wanted to study they could never had the social system that allowed them and so now after this much of social struggle, education is possible. Not just that even employment is possible in Tamil Nadu is what they claimed. So Meena (not on video) is insisting that all her Chelas should be educated for she clearly said that begging cannot be a lifelong option for survival. “Fine, when we were not recognised like how we are now our claims were to get educated and get employment and after having these facilities, if we continue to beg who will even give us anything and why should we?” B after explanation of our project and the objectives suddenly called someone said her Church authorities do not permit her to give us the interview. We said that we will not put her interview in blog, website and social media network if she desired but she refused. So we decided not shoot. We had a long discussion with her and her Guru Meena.
B, Meena and us – in conversation – not on camera.
B said she had problems in her childhood about asserting her gender with her family. Along with that she was very keen on studies. They are converted Christians and so religion not accepting was also an issue she faced. Of course she herself accepted that she did not have to put up with family violence as much as her Guru Meena did. Meena endured a lot of physical violence not just in her family but also at the hands of Hijras in Mumbai. The reasons were not clear. It could be because of the regional difference and it could also be due to the senior junior issues or being subjected to forced sex work. B was not ready to give up her education for the reason that she felt a compulsion to change her sex, as she felt she was not a male. She of course knew about the consequences of joining Hijra community. She negotiated with her Guru and continued her studies and passed the exams to become pastor in the church. The Church people after much negotiation agreed to her position. Even now some man is writing a document as to how a trans person should not be a pastor because being pastors they advise families, but a trans person cannot give birth to a child so they are not eligible to be pastors. But she said she now had a lot of support from the people and the Church authorities. So we asked her how would she help other trans people when they go to her and if she has met any female born sexual and gender minorities. For this question, after she answered her Guru Meena thrashed her out. B said that she till now in church has not met trans or homosexual people. She also made a statement that whether it is church or religious institutions, society or family, government administrations it is best to identify trans people. Homosexuality disturbs the social fabric and people’s practise of family. If it is trans then you become either ‘man’ and live with a woman or become ‘woman’ and live with a man within the family system. She also said that for trans, people give more sympathy and acceptance than for homosexuality. This also does not disturb or confuse government practices to create more categories in gender. Immediately Meena, her guru thrashed her out saying that this statement was a very wrong. She almost pounced on B and said that not everyone can afford surgery in male to female trans, the female to male trans surgery is not even done completely and not every homosexual feels trans. At this B kind of withdrew from the discussion.
The situation was a little awkward so we could not really ask for an interview with Meena nor could we come back to them. Of course Meenamma gave her number and said she would be in contact with us. Smiley’s smiles were not just smiles, it was also deep pain. Her interview shoot made us realise how an artist can actually express herself. Though her story was similar to other Hijras, her expression, and emotions were visible. Her narration of her mother’s death and the experience of begging was mind blowing. She was well aware of the livelihood options before getting initiated into the Aravani community, yet when for the first time she along with other Aravani chelas went for begging suddenly she realized how she actually has to put her hand forward and beg for money. She says she could not imagine herself of doing this. She went and stood there in front of the shop and realized that she has to beg for money. She felt a great deal of insult a sense of destroying her self-respect/ego, I really don’t know how to translate this it is “SWABHIMANAM”. She has written a book called “Naan Avanalla Aval” (I am not him, I am her) which is translated into English, Kannada Malayalam and even Marathi. She is a person who has done her BSC Computer Science, MA in applied Linguistics in Tamil in Tamil University in Tanjavoor. After her education she initiated into the community.
Not many transwomen and Aravanis will share about their male born privilege as does Smiley -
“If you look at my father and relatives, we are Dalit and a struggling family. But if I’d been born a biological female, they’d have gotten me married off at 18 to some fellow who could have been a scoundrel or a drunkard. I’d have had two children then and spent my life bringing them up and not led a productive life. The only productive thing I could have done was give birth to children. Even though I’m transgender and have to struggle in my life, I can be independent, make my own choices and choose my lifestyle. In that way, I’m happy”.
After Smiley’s Interview near the beach all of us were though tired were also getting ready for the next interview. By this time our friend Srijith Somasundaram was also with us. Smiley and Sri are thick of friends. Sri is also a theatre director, actor and a queer rights activist in Chennai. He has been a friend to us through LesBiT also he worked as assistant to Mangai. Sri immediately mixes with all . He is also very active in organising Chennai Pride. Though tired we were all in full enthusiasm as the Aravanis of Chennai were really brining in front of us a changed world. Unlike the same stereotyical stories in Bangalore that most of the Hijras end up working in HIV prevention organisation or rights organisation where they ‘become’ activists, Chennai was opening in front of us how each Aravani strived to get educated get employment or do theatre as profession or work for other’s rights, write autobiographies, create histories etc. Also the speaking style would change in terms of NGO language unlike Bangalore where the person suddenly only ends up with jargons like organizing, collectivization, rights etc. Even to explain a personal experience Hijras in Bangalore depend on words taught by the NGOs, but in Chennai none of these happened as far as we met people. This made us realize that NGOs did play a major role in terms of asserting the rights and building in confidence but also destroyed the feelings that could be multiple than a prose narrative of NGO language. At this point Sri came to help us with much different options. Sri in his theatre team called Kattiyakkari (a narrator mostly women who connects the stories, which in bramhinical traditions are called Sutradhara being mostly male) has made space for many trans people and women majorly. Sitting near the beach he spoke to us about a lot of people and among them Daayamma, Mayamma and Soumya Great (that is her name as she calls herself). Daayamma a theatre person and a midwife like among Hijras, Mayamma, a Maraladi and Soumya a beautician along with Ponni and Anjali the dance teachers. Immediately I along with Sri fixed the schedule. Eventually Daayamma, Mayamma and Soumya were all scheduled in Tsunami quarters. That is when Sumathi and I started thinking about why Tsunami quarters was coming back to us like a small clue in a major mystery.
That same night 14th June we could do a small interview with Taejha, a gay boy and a dancer working in an NGO. He gave us an interview on gender interpretation in Bharathanatyam and Mohiniattam. He learnt Dance from his young age and is very experimental in his art forms. Sumathi was more excited than anyone of us as she is also into differently experimenting gender in music. He requested that he will not speak about his personal life but would bring out the gender expressions in dance. So he spoke about how Mohiniattam is a women’s grace dance and how he has brought in gender queer expressions. It was only in this interview of Theja that the gender queerness or mixed gender expressions or abstract gender expressions and feelings I could see after Charu kind of spoke about it. Apart from what I have felt in my life about gender in the sense that I travelled from wanting to be FtoM (not male) to being neither gender nor being both, I have felt that this the biggest challenge to be able to have many gender expressions than to adjust to the given two. So Theja’s interview became more and more interesting though it was too technical in the sense of dance and its gestures. We went with Sri and it took us all back to a slum near Tsunami quarters, not even ten minutes away. It looked like an extension of Tsunami quarters. A small lane where the taxi managed to fit in to park, and we reached the dance school.
Both Ponni and Anjali were ready. It is a big hall that could accommodate 30 students. 26 students come there to learn there. Another aravani, an auto driver who has helped many Aravanis to get facilities from Government schemes, from rich philanthropists to take loan to own and drive an auto, suggested that they too get an auto but they insisted to make a dance school. That is how this dance school was also established. Ponni and Anjanli’s interview was interesting in terms of how they explored dance as an employment. They expressed in their interview how they too were anxious about the stigma of being Aravani teacher of dance. The students from the slum instead gave maximum respect. For them it also that they otherwise due to their caste and class positions could not afford a classical dance style to be either their hobby or profession. Ponni and Anjali strictly adhered to the gender descriptions of dance in Bharathanatyam unlike Theja who questioned the gender gestures and expressions in traditional dances systems like Bharathanatyam and Mohiniattam.
Ponni says about her struggle to get educated
“I hadn’t realized that there was such a job where you could finish work early and then still go to college. During my 3 years doing BSc in Mathematics, I used to lift loads in the morning and then run to college. My friends made a lot of fun of me. At that time, finishing my degree was the most important thing in life. I completed it amidst great difficulties. Now when I go back on the same road, I can’t believe that I used to lift loads on this road and run to college. It is all so funny to me now. It is something that I can’t forget”. http://pad.ma/DFE/editor/00:08:58.467,00:09:38.882
Now our destination was Tsunami quarters.
Daayamma spoke about her life and also how she gave up sexual life after her partner to serve the community. Any person who with or without a ‘Guru’ to do the trans surgery needs a support to nurse through the surgery. And Daayamma not caring for ‘Guru’ or ‘Chela’ would nurse all the hijras like a midwife. She spoke about the role she played in the play ‘Molagapodi’ (a play of regaining and reclaiming lands from the rich landlords through a strong struggle of Dalith women), as the angry and feudal landlord. She for long time could not get angry as she is not a person like that at all. She is very calm and knows what she is. So one day in the rehearsal she broke down that she could not play the role. Finally after much persuasions of her fellow actors she did take it up as a challenge and finally in the interview she said “I love Gangamma’ (the role that she played) for it reclaimed for me the woman in me even though it was not a stereo typical woman.
She talked about her childhood in a very funny manner and said
“I was around 10 or 11 then. I would still go for sex work (Dhandha). I loved sex work. I would always go for it from my younger age. I would always be in sex work i would never sleep at night. After my brothers would sleep I would wake up in the morning at three and run for sex work. I would go all around the city I would not return without doing sex work. It would anyone a riksha driver, a street hawk or a goon I had no selection. I would take pain, I did not know all this then, HIV nothing .... I did not know what a condom is. I did not know anything in that age. Before everyone would wake up by 5 in the morning I would come back and sleep”. http://pad.ma/DFF/editor/00:03:00.694,00:03:00.694
Maralu is a type of possession of goddess who cures people of their ailments. A Maralaladi is a person who has the Maralu attack and predicts and cures. Mayamma a Maraladi lives as a Kothi who has not done the surgery. She wears a shirt, had long hair, wears a mundu (dothi) over a women’s petty coat. That describes gender. She said that there are many Maraladis in Tamil Nadu and also said that is one of the way of gaining acceptance of being transgendered (not transsexuals like Aravanis). They do not get the surgery done. They live as transgenders all their life and have regular life. Majorly they gain acceptance only through the Maralu possession. She said that there were some 17000 Maraladis in Tamil Nadu.
Maralu said about herself
“I consider myself a woman. They say that you are a woman only if you get the surgery done. But that is not what transgender is. You are a woman even if you don’t get the surgery. We have female characteristics by birth. We are not born men and then change into women – we are women right from when we are born. We have a woman’s mind inside of us. We don’t have a man’s mind or qualities. We just have male genitals instead of female. We want female genitals so much that we risk our lives to get them. When we do this, we have no care for how the society sees us”.
Somiya was also trained to become a beautician and a theatre activist while in the process of transition of sex. She changed her sex at the instance of some of the Aravanis insulting her that she was not a real Hijra. She gets discriminated for being a transperson to be able to do her profession – the beautician. Somiya shared
“When I started the beauty parlour in office, not many people came. Particularly kothis. So I made pamphlets about the parlour with my address on it and distributed to to people. They took the pamphlets and both men and women came to the parlour but once they realized that I would be attending to them, they would look me up and down and say that they’d come later and leave. Many people went away like this and I felt very bad about it. After I took part in plays, many people looked at me and asked me what else I did. I would tell them that I was a beautician and that I didn’t have a sufficient income. Hearing this, many people asked me whether I would come home if they called me. I agreed and asked who it was for. They would say it was for them. I went to a woman called Mangai’s house the first time. She told me that though she’s gotten these beauty services done before, but that my hands were the most skilled. She told me to learn more and improve my skills. She told me not to give up this job since I had a lot of talent here. I was very happy. She then introduced me to many of her friends. So I attended to a lot of people. Now also many people call me but I don’t have time, because I am acting in some plays”.
Tsunami Quarters – a script by itself
Tsunami quarters was built after the Tsunami that hit different parts of Tamil Nadu. The fishermen folk near the sea after they lost everything in the Tsunami were given small 10/10 room cum bathroom cum kitchen in area near Marina beach. Many working class people occupied the flats. Some went back to the sea shore than living in the quarters and so rented the houses to Aravanis of the working class. Now the rest of the people in Tsunami quarters and hijras/aravanis are in confluence with each other. They both come together for each other’s problems; it could be Guru Chela’s problems or domestic violence of the women in the Tsunami quarters. The Aravanis living in Tsunami quarters said that gaining acceptance from the working class is much better and easier than gaining acceptance in the remote villages or affluent classes. They help each other economically and socially. In the morning most of the fishermen folk go away and come back at around four and by six in the evening all the Aravanis go away for either ‘Dandha’ (sex work) or begging. So the quarters are filled either by old people and children and hijras or aravanis. The back lash of Tsunami, rehabilitation by the government, and the settlement of Hijras in Tsunami quarters, all these brought us back to the spaces we occupy as trans or homosexuals. Each time we went to Tsunami quarters we got immense love and food from Aravanis and they shared the food with their neighbours. It is a huge slum complex where people from lower castes and working class live and share not just love but their lives without state interference and stigma. It is beyond reality and is dreamlike acceptance for all the community people. You enter the space tell the Aravani’s name and the common people will direct you to their quarters without asking or enquiring anything and NO CURIOSITY.
Sumathi and I spent the 16th of June thinking how we could build an archive. May be we could see this as a pilot project to build archives and creatively build cultural issues?? of sexual and gender minorities. At the same time people like Ramki (a researcher and activist of queer rights) and Mangai stated that being able to document so much means coming near the shore of the sea but not getting into the sea. There is a larger history of female to male trans people, homosexuals both male and female to be explored.
We then journeyed to the Land of Lesbians – Kerala. When Sumathi my friend and I used to work in a Lesbian, bisexual women and female to male trans project in Bangalore for an NGO we would joke saying Kerala is the Lesbian state of India as majority of the crisis intervention that both of us had attended during a span of 10 years were from Kerala and were Malayalees. Kerala, a land that has always irritated me with its mindless conservative social structure and illogical morals, but I have also found humour that can stem out of deep intolerance. Smoking a cigarette in the Sahitya Academy (also a hangout for film makers, queers, theatre people, and activists) can lead to strangers coming to us and advising about Kerala culture. I also had a chance to meet my so called family where some stranger man, supposed to be friend of my father, a daily wage worker with him, advices that I should call my mother who abandoned me when I was 6 months old. My aunt advices me that when I come to Kerala I should dress up according to the ancient traditions of Kerala cultured women. I responded back saying “should I have come topless to Kerala in that case”.
Amidst all these our shoot began. The people who finally agreed to give interviews were not the ones we had expected to give interviews, especially male born trans people. Faizal a male born trans person had come to Bangalore on some emergency work by the time we went there. Mariya’s issue has stood stand still in Kerala. The investigations are going on and the sad part of this was also that suddenly one faction from Kozhikode decided to hold Kerala pride on 7th July and it fizzled out.
And there were some painful arguments within the queer community like who are the authentic queers, who can organise queer pride and some of the senior queer activist friends feeling exhausted of non-cooperation for any kind of action.
Surya a female to male trans person from Kottayam and also from Coimbatore came to Thrissur in crisis. He is a working class person who is not educated and when he came he was treated like any other lesbian. Ignorance on the part of the LBT group in Kerala that Surya had to expose himself as a woman and slowly changed to be a female to male transperson . He spoke all about his struggle for survival in Thrissur as people in Thrissur first saw him as woman and were intolerant to his transition which has resulted in no employment opportunities and also housing is a big issue. Surya was also a person who was not exposed to LBT community like many of our friends from Kerala.
“The star actors that I like are Vijay, Kunchako Bopan; when I see the moustache of Kunchako Bopan I aspire to have one like that. I like Vijay’s body I want a body like that. When I think about all this I hate my body. I don’t like my body I am not comfortable with it. I don’t like myself completely. I want a body like Vijay that slim and I want a little more height not much, I don’t aspire too much! A little more height; like Kunchako I want moustache and beard. I love cinematic dance and I want to learn that. I want to learn to play violin. I want to learn to sing I love singing”.
(not on video)
The most intense interview was from Sasi a female to male transperson from Thiruvananthapuram. He migrated after a sessions court case in Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai, Bangalore and now back to Kerala. His life has been an extremely horrible experience for various reasons, severe poverty, less education, working class daily wage background of not just him but his family too. His partner is a schizophrenic and is violent at time when medicines are stopped, and most of the times he cannot support her medicines and then he cannot even work outside because he has to take care of her?. We all have met Sasi as the most humorous person but this time it was more of him reassuring himself of possible good life and not attempting suicide in the interview. As a close friend Sasi is always a person who will laugh off even the most traumatic tragic moment. This time we saw Sasi breaking down and in the interview at every instance of breaking down he would constantly reiterate, “But I want to live, whatever be the bad life I get, I don’t want to commit suicide”. It was a painful experience for me to have held myself not expressing anything during the interview. That reassurance and that tone of optimistic trust on life actually taught us about how when a person sees most of the person’s dreams come breaking down in front and yet is strong to face life in worst possible manner.
Sasi the person who can make us laugh at the instance of uttering a word also made us cry deep inside about how the working class can never access anything easily including health and especially if gender is a question. We expected a very humorous interview and were surprised by a most intense, sad, pricking and painful interview.
The next interview was extremely hilarious. We were informed by a friend of us about this teacher from Ernakulam. She arrived and both Sumathi and I were confused if our friend did not understand our need of interviewing LBT people. This teacher looked like a typical house wife. She came in a polyester saree with a big bindi and Maang mein sindhur types. She then talked to us in a weird manner. She said “I could not ask my husband to give me money to come here and both my girlfriends are far away”. This put us in further confusion. We were figuring out what she/he is. This was also our first interview with whom we did not have any interactions before. When we started the shoot she/he said she/he would like to change her/his costume. ‘Costume’ – we were curious about her change in costume; she/he wore a kurta on top of the petticoat and came and sat. Her/his gestures changed as she/he sat for the interview. She/he turned in to Madhu now gender queer and before a female to male trans person. He is 57 now lives with two girlfriends and a husband. He has a voice that is very male and so he confuses people and takes joy out of it. He has done his master degree and was married twice to a man due to the family pressure and has two children. He feels he is male and realised it in his childhood.
What followed in the interview was very hilarious like he in one instance says
“I was happy that my first husband had girlfriend, I felt blessed that this would be my chance to get away from this relationship and that the girlfriend of my husband is a blessing in disguise”. He had an interesting understanding of gender “but I feel most happy when I wear men’s clothes. I feel we should not confuse gender and sex. I feel like whatever the body is , people should be able to live in whatever gender the choose. Instead of asking what the sex is, what the gender is, is a better question. And whatever that person says is the gender should be accepted. It is not upto the society to decide what is that person’s gender. Sex is not to be thrust upon that person”.
The fifth interview was slightly uninteresting as this close friend of ours had been completely sold into the NGO language and limited her understanding only within that perspective. She works for Pehechan project of an NGO. We think of her as 'she' , but generally she is a male born Kothi, and talked about how Kerala society was extremely intolerant to a person like her who came out in the TV. She had to migrate to Bangalore for a long time. That was also the time that she as a Kothi was extremely helpful in looking after me in Bangalore when I met with an accident. Sumathi and she nursed me through this accident. She spoke in the interview in very NGOised manner. She has also spoken about Mariya’s murder. There were many questions that I asked and she was stuck within her NGO perspective. So we asked her to sing and then we could see the magic of her original politics. On the whole the interview shoot was though not as exciting as Tamil Nadu, we also met people like Muralidhar Tharayil who gave us more inputs to this work.
In the month of October 2012, we went and completed the shoot in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh).Through our friend we contacted the Haveli Hijras to get interviews from them. They did not agree for an interview even after many negotiations. We interviewed 3 lesbian identified women and one gay identified man. Kamala, works for a multi national corporation and she has spoken about her life and her relationship. She has shared some of the intense part about herself in terms of her silence and her lying for fear. She is basically from Bangalore and now lives with her partner in Hyderabad.
“I came to know about myself not in my childhood. I realised when I was 21 years. Coming to know at a young age was not my experience but if I don’t keep the age in mind and think about my childhood I feel I am now mentally very matured. All that fear anxiety that I had developed from my childhood I feel that was not needed at all. If I had not feared about all these before I could have come out of my problems. Now that I have come out of those problems and when I think about it positively, I feel I can share about myself with many people; that this is what happened in my life and I struggled like this. Post that struggle now I feel very happy and I feel peace with myself. Though I felt the struggle was quite negative, when I think back, I feel whatever happened, it happened for good”.
Her partner Sumsi also gave us interview. Her story was more about how she was always trying to be the best daughter as her parents expected and felt she could never live her life. Later she took decisions and she also shared that because of her education and her class she was able to take decision. Both of them spoke about their migration to Hyderabad as how they could choose to do this due to their education.
“But now when I think back of all that I did for her I don’t think it was worth it because even after all that I did, I was the perfect daughter at the end of it. before I told them the truth about myself I could achieve that status of the perfect daughter. After that I had to tell them the truth about myself. And after telling them the truth within one day everything crashed. Everything went for a toss. And then I realised that I don’t have to achieve anything for anyone. And I feel I am in peace of mind after I told them the truth and that’s the best thing. That was one of it”. http://pad.ma/DFJ/editor/00:02:02.760,00:03:23.124
Kalia another lesbian shared an incident –
“You know the first time, when I was doing my degree; there was someone who I had a relation with for one year. Suddenly she started going around with a boy. And that was so sorrowful. If there is a break up there are friends at least to talk or you can talk to parents. After one year’s relationship she told me that she does not like me and she likes a boy, that too in the middle of the road. I did not know what to tell her. She left me in such a place where I could not speak to anyone nor could I come under a vehicle in the middle of the road. My house was 8 kilo meters away from college. I started walking back. I reached home at 3 in the morning and I was not in my senses. My mind was not working. My mom was asking where I was coming from I just did not answer and went into the room and fell on the bed”.
Hari the gay man has moved back to his parents and he gave us an interesting interview. His mother used to be a college professor and father a well know businessman. Both are well educated and from wealthy class and yet they could not come to terms with Hari’s sexuality and subjected him to severe violence of electric shock to correct him. Hari shares
“One day I could not bear this so I also spoke to her in a vulgar manner. I had never spoken to her like this. She could not understand what I was saying so they took me to mental hospital. In that asylum money monger psychiatrists did experiments on me for 8-9 months. It was most horrible experience in my life. I was subjected to electro convulsive therapy, anti-psychotic drugs almost 12 drugs in the morning and 12 drugs in the evening. I was lean before after this I gained lot of weight. Children in their childhood and adolescent age are quite rebellious. With such heavy drugs any kind of rebellious child will be sedated. Such fraudulent psychiatrists while selling their work to parents would show other kids saying ‘see how rebellious they were and see how we have sobered them’. They show the difference and give huge hopes. That incident was very horrible”.
Hyderabad was not an experience like Tamilnadu and Kerala nor is it like Bangalore. It is submerged with major NGO politics and even community are divided based on NGOs. There is also a law like that of IPC section 377 which is part of Hyderabad Police Act that restricts the mobility of transgenders. The community that we met had no clues about this.
The theatre plans never worked as many theatre directors promised and withdrew. But the conviction and trust in archiving the lives and oral histories of sexual and gender minorities continues to be my main work and aim. I really want to reach documenting lives of sexual and gender minorities of at least 200 or so. I also firmly believe Pad.ma is a support and a platform to share these with the outside world. Also Pad.ma is something which does not expect anything but continues to give space to such archival work. As and on we get chance and support we will archive these lives and give the footage and transcriptions to Pad.ma. Hope through this some theatre people will be inspired to take up these stories and histories to create an artistic production that can be shared with people