History doesn’t recover enough, says Malavika, adjusting her saree, just before agreeing to be interviewed. In a room feverish with the static of speakers and the din of zealous conversation from her people, Malavika tells me that she is not sceptical, but “main statistic nahi banna chahti please” (I don’t want to be a statistic, please). Before taking my leave for the day, she requests that I don’t ask her for her history – “our trauma”, she says, “has loose knots”. She presses her hands in mine and promises to meet the next day.
Her words remain with me for the rest of the evening, like the undertow of a wave.
Malavika, the President of the community organisation (CO) Idayam Thirunangaigal Munettra Sangam (ITMS), Namakkal, is a thirunangai or a transgender. When she meets us for our interview on the following day, she is not alone. Her guru arrives alongside, like an armour. Today – Malavika’s twisted chignon has become a beautiful braid; she has changed her nose-pin, her saree is a gorgeous shade of pink – but her necklace of rudraksh still rests on her clavicles, like yesterday. She tells me that though wanting to be photographed is like a sin, she has seen the camera and couldn’t resist the temptation.
The community embraced her when she was twenty – she felt out of place, and further away from herself when she was not in the community. Her family disowned her for being different, she sighs – “a fate many of my people have to bear” but she found a family here, bigger and stronger than blood. At first, the structure within the community felt vastly different from what Malavika was used to. Traditional families are based on gender constructs, where socio-biology dictates your role in the structure. Malavika says she was surprised, pleasantly, that life experience and struggles dictated the position in this “oddball-family”.
The social structure in the hijra community embodies within itself an alternative (and fictive) kinship, but also boasts of an organisational structure that administers justice, makes regulations and guidelines for the members, arbitrates disputes and guides its members’ lives. The hijra community is composed of “ghars” (houses) that is headed by a hijra elder who is known as the nayak. Each house is seen as a “lineage” and the nayak of the house is akin to a common ancestor, who makes the rules for the house. Below the nayak, is the position of the guru (teacher/master) and the relationship between a guru and her chela (disciple) is one of the most significant and forms the basis of participation and belongingness within the community. New members are initiated into the hijra community when a guru brings her in as a chela, under her aegis and sponsorship, and bestows on her a new female name and invests her own money in an initiation fee. The chela promises her loyalty to the guru, who in turn vows to take care of the chela – the chela also promises to give a percentage of her income (from begging/sex work) to the guru as a kind of redemption. The chela-naati, individuals who enter the community as teenagers, is a position below the chela and for the chela-naati, the guru assumes the role of a naani (grandmother).
Malavika came in as a naati (supposed-grandchild) to her naani – one who guided, supported her and changed her world. She underwent dai-nirvaan, after months of vacillation and forty days after the procedure, she became one with her community. Sixteen years later, now, she has naatis of her own – “mere bachhe”, she calls them; these are teenagers and people in their twenties who have been turned away from their houses and have sought shelter in the community. Now she assumes the role of their guardian and guide — “It’s not easy, these children are feisty; they want sex with handsome men, but are scared of getting rid of their penises. I get them ready for this difficult journey. It’s not easy being transgender, and it’s not easy being the naani of confused, transgender children.”
Giving me my preferred segue, I ask Malavika how different had she thought her world would be when she entered the community; is it exactly how she had imagined? “I was like these children, I mentor – I was excited, I was happy, I lost myself in the dancing and singing and the celebration. Everything was about having fun, having sex with beautiful, gentlemen, it was liberating. Now I realise that life has hit me in ways I wouldn’t expect, and not everything is fun and games. I have to think about saving for later now and that bothers me.”
Two years ago, Malavika gave up everything she ever loved – non-vegetarian food, sex, make-up. Her world now revolves around the CO, her naatis and her journey towards god. Her days start and end with rituals and pujas. She does not use a bed and sleeps on a chaadar on the ground – “god is also in the cold, cold ground”, she whispers as we take notes. She prays before she leaves for begging every morning; when I look surprised, she tells me – “You would think the President of a CO would not have to beg to make ends meet, but there are forces that make us do things that shame us… I also have a diploma in electronics and communication that I have never used”. Because she has been an integral part of the CO, I ask Malavika what the CO means to her. Her response is prompt – “it is my world. Between begging and the CO, I would choose the pride of the CO than the humiliation of begging.”
Her eyes light up when I ask her what Avahan has given her – “programme ne pehchaan di hai, madam”. Transgenders were outsiders for a long time; the programme has given them an identity that no-one can ever take away. Transgenders are people, transgenders are loved, transgenders are beautiful. She smiles as she says these words. Avahan, in its first two phases, gave Malavika and others like her, the gift of identity and it expounded on the significance of being protected from HIV/AIDS. Avahan also made her believe that her kind does not deserve violence – not from family members or the police or the men who become their partners.
“Some men like us, they adore us. We are mythical creatures for them – not perfect like goddesses but they think we are strong and beautiful. And we also get attracted to them. But it almost never ends well. These men drain us emotionally; sometimes they take our hard-earned money and leave. That’s why our gurus help us decide whether we are strong enough to have partners. My guru decided for me. And despite that, I chose the wrong man. I used fairness creams for him, I put on beautiful sarees, got this (gestures to her breasts), I listened to all these problems. Yet he fought with me. And then, one day I had the courage to leave him. And believe me, my guru supported me a lot. But this ties me to her even more, so my obligation to repay her is more compelling.”
I ask her what more could the programme have done for her community. Her answer is riveting – “But the programme should give us opportunities, jobs, some ways to earn money; otherwise what will I do with this identity? I go to beg even today, and others I know have to depend on sex work. To make ends meet, we have to take up such humiliating options. People – outsiders, our partners, people on the streets – take advantage of us because we beg and do sex-work. Many have found other successes – a transgender newsreader is there, do you know about her? But most of us don’t have that opportunity, sadly. The programme did not give us employment opportunities.”
We end with her experience as a transgender: She utters the word sudhandhiram, which I, later, discover, means independence in Tamil – “I am a free bird. I am beautiful like a woman but lucky like a man. I have no responsibility, no one to look after, no one who depends on me. I am free bird…but being a free bird also has its adverse effects – no one has control over me.” Thereafter, she poses for photographs showing off her carefully pleated saree, she tells me that her god would probably be furious for such vanity. quote;I occupy two worlds, madam… thirunangai means mister and miss. We are at once in two places, and not by choice. Our gods will hopefully forgive me for this.”
When she bids us goodbye, she slips out of Malavika’s skin and becomes President of ITMS again – “please come to CO*, madam. Come, talk to us. When the floodwaters of enthusiasm abate, there will be other stories. I promise”.
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