On 31st of March, International Transgender Day of Visibility, I picked up my bag, threw in some snacks and set out to get to know the trans women of India. This desire arose from an interaction at a traffic light, where someone had knocked on my window and blessed me in exchange for a ‘gift’. Whether I gave Rs. 10 or Rs. 100, her blessing did not change. “May you have all the happiness in the world,” she had said.
She was a hijra — a term which has traditionally been translated into English as ‘eunuch’ or ‘hermaphrodite’. Hijras are a distinct cultural group in India. For many, they are a symbol of union between the Hindu god Shiva and his wife Parvati — the ‘Ardhanari’, half man and half woman. It is also said that hijras have been granted with the power of blessing. In the famous epic “Ramayana”, Lord Rama granted hijras the boon to confer blessings on people during auspicious occasions like childbirth and weddings. This is the origin of ‘badhai’ (congratulatory actions) during which hijras sing, dance, and give blessings. Many get their income from performing at ceremonies, but many more get theirs from begging, or sex work.
That day, I was headed to a hijra colony in New Delhi. It was surrounded by small Devi temples, echoing with the sounds of playful children. I asked around for a woman named Sanjana, who had just won the Miss Transgender Award (a local prize), for exemplary confidence, meritorious social work, and looking after the needs of other transgender people in her locality.
I reached her house, and was greeted by many with warm hugs and blessings. Sanjana, carrying a purse and walking in swiftly, asked me who I was. I told her I was someone looking to learn more about the community and share it with the world.
As I began the interview, Sanjana, who was initially poker faced, felt a little thrown by me asking her personal questions But although I was a stranger she answered all my questions very boldly. She started off by telling me that she had found her family there, in the suburbs.
There she was, lying on a small bed next to me, the mother of 7 trans women, and the grandmother of 5 adopted granddaughters and grandsons. None of them were related by blood, but by choice and love.
She told me about her past. Born in a village near Bombay, she was always ambitious and wanted to explore the world and make a name for herself.
“When did you feel different for the first time?” I asked. Sanjana shrugged her shoulders, came near me and said, “So you know what happens when a girl grows up to be a woman, I too was a girl, not getting them, I was late. My parents kept waiting, 16 years old, then 17, finally at 18, they realised that I was different. I went out to discover the world, to be on my own.”
I asked her if she had left on her own will or was it societal pressure that made her. She looked up and very calmly told me that her family members were open to her uniqueness, however, it was the neighbours who forced her to be on her own. People started mocking her and she couldn’t bear to see her family in pain so she took off.
After that, she opened up completely, confiding in me as she would a friend. She went on to say that people sometimes looked at her and complimented her for her beauty but also gave harsh remarks on her being a transgender woman. She said that they couldn’t even use the word “trans” but addressed her by saying, “tum woh ho” or “you are that”. By then, I saw Sanjana had developed a despondent expression while talking.
She told me that she saw every baby as if it were her own, every man as her very own brother and every lady as her sister, and kept reiterating the fact that she was made to impart happiness and blessings to the world, and not just to clap her hands every time a baby is born, as many Hijras are expected to do at ceremonies.
I asked Sanjana, who holds a masters in Fashion Designing from Haridwar, if she would work as a designer again.
“Who will give me respect?” She asked in return. “Believe me, I have tried.” I asked her if she would work if I found her a job. But Sanjana was tired, tired of people mocking her for being different, wherever she went. She told me that it is the regressive mindset of people that prohibits them from befriending her. And that If she started working tomorrow, her co-workers would discriminate against her, or mistreat her.
Going by statistics, at least one in five transgender people surveyed experience employment discrimination. In six studies conducted between 1996 and 2006, 20 to 57 per cent of transgender respondents said they experienced employment discrimination, including being fired, denied a promotion or harassed.
“But why don’t you revolt?” I asked. She smiled sarcastically, “Do you think we haven’t? We too have families to support, these kids that you see in the other room, I need money to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without a job? Even after our not liking to beg, we are bereft of options, and our only source of income is by making use of our distinctiveness, so we do, we impart happiness on others’ joyous occasions.”
Before I left, she asked me, “What do you want to become?”
“Oh me! A writer!” I replied ecstatically.
And she blew on my head chanted some sacred hymns.
One renowned transgender rights activist whose voice has impacted the lives of many is Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the UN in 2008. “People should be more humane. They should respect us as human beings and consider our rights as transgenders,” she says. Born as the eldest in an orthodox family, she broke the convention by proving that people, be it of any gender or sexual preference can achieve whatever they want in life. Laxmi, who was often bullied and called “homo” in her school, started her own organisation ‘Astitva’ in 2007 for the welfare of sexual minorities, their support and development.
Another inspiring Trans Woman is Akkai Padmashali, a former sex worker who became a human rights activist. Tortured at home and in society, she speaks boldly about her experiences and motivates others to speak up. “I used to play with girls a lot. One day my father brought me home and poured hot water on my legs. He said that if I didn’t act as per society’s norms, this was my punishment,” recalls Akkai while in conversation on a talk show, Chai with Lakshmi. Akkai now fights for uplifting the status of transgender people who face the same brutalities as she once did.
Apart from activists like them, the government too has brought in some legislations to accord rights to trans individuals. On 15 April 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender people should be treated as a third category of gender and as a socially and economically “backward” class entitled to proportional access and representation in education and jobs. Shortly after, the Rajya Sabha passed the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 guaranteeing rights and entitlements, reservations in education and jobs, legal aid and more, as well as provisions to prohibit discrimination.
The government of India also allows trans adoptions, and the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala were the first to introduce a transgender welfare policy. However, there still persists backwardness in mentality and outlook, which we need to challenge if transgender individuals in India are to be treated as equals. And as Voltaire said, “All people are equal, it is not birth, it is virtue alone that makes the difference.”