“Hamari saanson mein aaj tak woh henna ki khushboo mehek rahi hai.” (The smell of that henna still embedded in every breath I take.)
Sitting in her cosy home, Ashish Shigwan reminisces about childhood. She recalls crushing leaves from the nearby henna tree and applying henna on her hands. It’s a vivid memory brought to life by powerful storytelling. It leaves you feeling heady. The scent of the natural dye lingers on as she talks.
With a certain fondness, she dives into the past, flashing light on the ways she passed her time as a kid – playing with dolls and kitchen utensils, plucking blades of grass and flowers and running after butterflies, as her male classmates indulged in cricket, nurturing their machismo and calling her names because she didn’t join them. At home, no one suspected anything amiss. Belonging to a Hindu family, she had had her ears pierced – a fairly common practice among men. Even if she wore an earring, it wasn’t something ‘to worry about’.
Born in 1987, Ashish aka Lavanya (she prefers ‘Ashish’ as it manages to create a more lasting impression on people when they see her wearing a saree, makeup and using a conventionally masculine name) identifies herself as transgender today. She says that words like ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ held no meaning for her growing up, but she had begun to realise she was different. That realisation, she now knows, was significant, even if it could not be defined or labelled back then.
Around class 9, social gatherings became a strict no-no for her. Her voice hadn’t cracked unlike other boys her age, and when she used the parameters of their pubertal changes as a way of measuring her own, things didn’t add up. Their broad shoulders, manly gait and a certain spike in confidence that comes to some during that peak in adolescence became a constant reason for playing the blame game. She took turns, shifting the compass from herself to her parents, to the Almighty. Why couldn’t Almighty have made her like the others, she wondered, always with resentment.
Society has a funny way of noticing the absence of people, even though it might never acknowledge their presence. Questions began to trickle in about why she was staying indoors all the time. The house became her safe haven, even if it felt like a prison sometimes. Her body certainly felt like a prison, one she seemed desperate to break out of. She wore her sister’s frocks, her mother’s sarees, bangles, makeup and tried on their footwear. One day, her mother walked in on Ashish wearing a saree. She was shocked and unable to say a word.
That night, however, there was a showdown at home. It was the beginning of a series of arguments where her mother would indict her father – first, for not being able to take charge of the situation as the man of the house, and then later, for not being able to ‘fix’ their son. Ashish’s father instructed her to behave like a boy, almost as if it were something Ashish had been putting off for a long time. All her toys were thrown away and the make up she had stowed away in her cupboard was discarded.
A fresh diktat was passed and all her actions came to be monitored, like doctors trying to study the symptoms of a new patient. “How I talked, where I went, who my friends were, they kept a tab on everything. I felt like a criminal. All this time, outsiders made fun of me, now my own family was persecuting me. When people start pointing fingers at us, we think we are wrong and think we are a burden on everyone,” explains Ashish.
Word spread quickly and people started arriving at conclusions – Ashish had become feminine because she hung out too much with girls and played with girls’ toys, or maybe she had been raised with too many women in the household. Who knew, and more importantly, who cared enough to speak to Ashish herself? Ashish says that the phobia around alternate gender identities or sexual orientations is born when people see someone different from them and feel threatened.
The fear on that end plays off the fear experienced by the individual and it’s a vicious cycle. “It took me an 8-year revolt, losing friends and family to accept myself. People had always associated transgenders with fun and sexual pleasure. Dealing with them wouldn’t be easy but the bigger challenge was telling the world who I was and that if they couldn’t accept me, it was all right. I decided to live life on my own terms,” says Ashish.
It was 2002 when Ashish moved out. Her mother had given up after a failed attempt at counselling, and her father, still expecting a miracle to convert Ashish back to a man, showed his support by arranging for her accommodation. He came around eventually, but her mother never did.
After class 12, she started doing part-time work to support her independence. A computer agency that she worked for, let her go without paying her. Her next job as a ward ‘boy’ at a hospital meant night shifts and early-morning college, but she adjusted. When people called her names like gud, maamu, chhakka, it fractured her spirit but she held on for dear life. Stones were pelted at her and mid-air they transformed to rocks of self-doubt; she felt like she had to trudge uphill with this weight alone.
Eventually, she befriended a group of transgender people and met Amma aka Nandini, a transgender hailing from Lucknow. The group convened at Amma’s house every evening. She played the dhol and everyone sang, danced and made merry. Ashish learned that Amma was bringing money into the house and that’s why she hadn’t been ostracised. Ashish thought to herself, “To gain acceptance, we have to become society’s need.”
Ashish invested her time accompanying Amma to the functions where she danced and made money. She saw the love and adulation Amma got wherever she went. However, it soon became clear to her that culture and religion were forces powerful enough to make people fear and revere those they otherwise shirked and neglected. All the respect Amma received was a result of a fear of God. It was borne out of necessity rather than want.
Tracing her steps back to the first time she wore a saree publicly, Ashish recounts, “During the Yallama festival, we had to travel to town for an event. I was nervous but feigned confidence. Once I got on the train, the anxiety made way for happiness. It was a liberating experience. This was the real me. I had been a slave of the society all this time, and after 18 years, it felt like I had finally won the war against myself.” Her conviction increased tremendously after this episode. She began getting out more frequently during the day, draped in sarees and oozing a devil-may-care attitude, conquering the apprehensions of running into family members.
Ashish gleefully shares details of how she and her friends carried out mini social experiments, buying tickets to enter public spaces, and seeing how the authorities reacted to their presence, trying to enter temples just to see what happened. Sometimes, cops passed lewd comments at them; but Ashish had decided to not break the law – she always urged her friends to buy train tickets by saying, “If you can spend ₹200 on a lipstick, why can’t you spend ₹10 rupees on a train ticket?”
This inherent itch to do the right thing is a quality that Ashish is unwilling to part with. Ashish studied law and is an advocate today. She does legal counselling in cases of domestic violence and protection of child rights on a pro bono basis. She also runs an organisation called Prayas – Ek Koshish, where a small and dedicated team works with child labourers, their parents, women who are HIV positive and people belonging to sexual minorities. This year, one of the groups on the Youth Fellowship Program has come to PUKAR through Prayas.
Ashish’s association with PUKAR dates back to 2012. She was on the Youth Fellowship Program 3 years in a row, working with women and men on trans issues while addressing misconceptions about her identity amongst the group members. Even after completing her stint as a fellow, Ashish has continued to be a regular feature every year, taking time out to guide fellows in their research.
There’s a warm glow on her face when she talks about PUKAR. “The Youth Fellowship created opportunities for us to connect with people, it gave us a platform to build awareness about our identity and we made friends at PUKAR,” she says.
When the topic of transphobia, homophobia and biphobia is broached, she says that acceptance cannot come from sympathy. It has to come from a feeling of being equal. Even though we see a buzz about trans people on television, social media and in movements around the world today, she says complete acceptance will take time, but change is a process of nature and maybe 100 years later, the efforts will bear fruit.
Talking about her work, Ashish says, “Parents are worried. When we try to mobilise children, all their myths come out to play. They wonder if we will convert them. We have to build confidence and trust and assure them that their children are safe with us. People might support or reject us, but we shouldn’t judge anyone till we know their level of awareness and access to information regarding gender identities.” By now, it is clear that Ashish has imbibed and successfully implemented the values of democracy, participation, critical thinking and passion from her experience as a fellow.
She thinks trying different strategies might be the answer – advertisements, rallies, videos, films, comprehensive sexuality education in colleges. She believes if the youth can be captured with the right messages, the future might be brighter than it has been for some of her companions.
Even though times are better for transgender people now, Ashish talks about lost love, broken relationships, families torn apart, lives ended, and closeted identities, as a result of the stigma riding on the backs of people who belong to sexual minorities or have unconventional gender expressions. She says that if the law protected them, maybe more stories could have had happy endings.
Talking about happiness, colours have always been a positive influence in Ashish’s life, from the colour of henna on her palms as a child to the attraction to colourful clothes and people. By challenging the politics of fear, she has chosen the colour of expression over the blackness of rigidity and conformity. Colour symbolises change in her life, it represents her identity as a source of empowerment rather than shame. And as long as it does, Ashish will not stop soaring.
“Jahan kahin tha heena ko khilna, heena wahin pe mehek rahi hai.” (Every spot that was destined for the henna to flower, henna has made that spot fragrant.)