The thruth is that before I heard the words hijras or aravani, I heard others: chakka, sixer, gaandu. I remember very clearly where. I was ten years old and the sound of a single clap had broken yet another round of afternoon cricket. We all stood gaping at the hands from which it had sprung. No one knew what to say. If anything. The silence ended as such silences often do. I don’t know who laughed first-perhaps it was me. That first nervous giggle let open the floodgates. We laughed, suddenly faced by the limits of our own experiences. That hijra became just another joke between us boys that we hid further and further behind as the years went by.
But I was lucky. Since them, Famila, Kajal, Vidya, Muskaan, Revathi, Asha babu and many others came into my life. They were and are activists, friends, comrades, counselors, and inspirations. I was close to some, acquainted on the phone and email with others, and knew some just by gossip and reputation, but they were all a part of my life. The fact that they were hijras became just information, rather than identity. Most of the time I was able to exercise that greatest of privilages: I forgot that they and I were meant to be ‘different’. Most readers of this book will not have had that chance. For them, the laughter has never broken. Hijras have not become friend, lovers, acquaintances, colleagues and neibhours. The fear, hestination and ignorance hidden inside the laughter have remained unvoiced, the questions unasked.
In India, hijras are hypervisible and invisible. Stories and myths abound: the singing and dancing ; the power to shame by exposing the ‘different’ body; the clap; the accusations of crime and theft; sex work; the stealing of children; stories of castration the ‘harassment’ for money at traffic lights, weddings, offices and new homes. Underneath these stories lies our own need to manage explain and distance ourselves from visible sexual differences and a gender identity that doesn’t fit within easy labels of “male” and “female”. In these stories, hijras have no voices names, families, or histories. They don’t love, they aren’t happy or sad, they have no political visions or individuals quickrs. They are invisible.
This volume refuses this silence. Narratives and ethnographies of hijras written and compiled by a hijra activist herself, these lifestories were first published in Tamil in 2005 where they entered into and furthered the emergent transgender rights movements in Tamil Nadu has grown from strength to strength scripting a new set of (where one can now enter “I” for Transgender, or “O” for Other), the establishment of a welfare board at the stage government level, pensions and everyday lives lived with dignity, security and work.
Perhaps because this is one of the first collections to be produced entirely by members of the hijra community themselves, these stories escape the trap of simply being testimonies to tales of violence, exclusion and eternal victimhood. They do not deny or hide this exclusion, but they refuse to be limited by or to it. These stories are just as much tales of rights and citizenship, and of moral and ethical responses and challenges tp prevailing social norms. They refuse the easy trope of ‘difference’, using it, instead, to ask difficult, unsettling political question of all of us. In doing so, they break with the tradition of most academic and popular writing on hijras, especially in English, where hijras have remained objects of discovery and description.
This is Yoda’s third offering on hijra lives within the Sexulaity series. In with Respect to Sex (Yoda press.2007), Gayatri Reddy argued that hijras were most commonly described using the trope of sexual and gender difference, but that hijras themselves did not understand their own sexuality or their community through this trope. Rather, she said, these communities have complex codes of izzat (which she translates as respect, rather than honour), determined by a range of factors that extend beyond the body and sexual or gender differences.
The stories in this collection are stories of this izzat. The Sexualities series at Yoda is proud to have released this pioneering collection in Hindu in 2010, and now in the English translation that you hold in your hands. With it, we shall perhaps move one step closer back to the beginning, to re-scripting that summer afternoon’s fearful laughter.
Fear. I was sacred to walk on the road for fear of people recognizing me. I was worried someone might taste me while I walk on the road. I was afraid the people moght arrest me. I avoided taking the bus, not sure whom I could sit next to. I was sacred to use the public toilet for fear that people might know my difference. I was scared that rotten tomatoes might hit me in the market. I was scared of falling in love for fear of being hit hard. Fear of anything and everything. Why am I so scared? This question haunts me.
Is it the fear of having changed into a hijra through castration? Or that I was born a male but wore female clothing? Is it due to the way I live-cast aside by my parents, unrecognized by society, penalized by the law and begging or prostituting for a living? What mistake did I commit? Did not my mother bear me for ten months, like my sibling? Why should I suffer this fate? Why should I live in perennial fear all my life? Can’t people understand how much I am suffering-like the curd churned by the ladle or the worm burnt in the heat?
Are they Gods at all who create us with male bodies but give us female feelings? Are my parents responsible for this? Am I simply shameless to put on this grab? Who am I? which gender do? Is it right or wrong to be thus? Where will I find answers to my questions?
In India, Ardhanareeswara, who is half male and half female, is worshipped. Why would such a country abuse hijra? How could those of you who have read the story Shikhandi in Mahabharat refuse to understand hijras? Are basic human rights meant only for males and females? Aren’t hijra human enough to enjoy those same rights? Aren’t we citizens of this country? Don’t we deserve to get voting rights, a passport, a driving license, a ration card, property rights how justified is it to say that since I was born a male, I can get access to these rights only if I remain a male? Don’t I have the right to reassign my gender identity? Why do you refuse to understand me and my emotions?
I did not purchase these emitions, nor did I borrow them. I was made thus by nature. Respect that. Recognize me as a woman and give me all the rights given to a woman.
A man and a woman love each other and get married. Why are the law and society denying me the right to marry a man? Why don’t they accept our relationship? We understand you in all possible roles as brother, sister, mother, father, friend, or teacher. We can understand all these relationships and their emotions. Why can’t you do the same? You are unable to consider us as human beings. I get the point now it is not fault. It’s the mistake of society.
I have been working in Sangama, an NGO working on the issue of sexual minorities, in Bengaluru for the past five years. It primarily aims to undo the wrong views and misconceptions prevalent in society regarding sexual minorities, and work towards making them equal human beings in society. Sangama has been waging a continuous struggle against the violence unleased on sexual minorities, the false cases field against them and the legal disparities. It is also fighting to repeal Section 377 of the IPC that considers all unnatural sexual practices illegal. Sangama tries to create public awareness through public meeting and film screenings. It regularly organizes workshops and seminars on the rights of sexual minorities, tries to spread awareness on HIV and AIDS, and fights for those who are offered my these diseases.
Through Sangama, I have been publicly sharing my experiences as a hijra with other voluntary organizations and policy makers. I have constantly highlighted the culture of hijras, their property rights and the disturbances they encounter as sex workers. I do these based on my own lived experiences. I fight for the welfare of hijras and their basic rights. I also work with other organizations for dalit rights, anti- dowry and anti-female infanticide movements in BengalURU. Intially I had to explain to the workers-men and women-within these organizations about hijras.
I have witnessed many hijras being harassed by their lovers or husbands. Therefore, I wanted to avoid love or marriage in my personal life. But I too had my desires. I too wanted a family life, like my mother, sister and other women. I wondered who would come foreword to marry me. My dream came true. The dream I had while when I was 16 years old was fulfilled when I was 32. I had a love-marriage.
But situations did not let my dream continue. It came to an end within a year of my marriage. I could not bear the disappointment. The separation affected me. It almost drove me to kill myself.
But I thought my community would scoff at me for having killed myself for a man. I told myself that I, was stressed out and could not focus on my work. I thought of giving up my job. My friends explained to me, ‘Are you mad? You are working for your community. So many changes have been taking place. You have also grown in the process. Try not to muddle your thoughts. See if you can do something more for your community.’ These words consoled me a little. If I kept thinking about him, I would die. I had to take my mind off him and concentrate on something else. This decision led me to express my pains in the language I can.
Most of my acquaintances in the hijra community were in Tamil Nadu. Therefore, the major part of the study was done in Tamil Nadu I met a few hijras in Bengaluru as well. I did not want to present it in the form of sharing among ourselves of the joys and sorrows we encounter in our lives.
Some asked me, ‘why do you want to study this? What is the use? How such would you earn from it? Who is paying you? Would we get any share? Ofcourse I got paid to do this work. And my reply to their questions would be, ‘Don’t we have to change the stigma people hold against the hijra community? Shouldn’t we make them understand our emotions? Shouldn’t we also let people know how much we are struggling? This book is to make society understand that it was no fault of ours but the mistake of society.’ Ince I explained this in detail, they accepted the importance of this work.
I could sense the joy and sorrow that showed on their faces when each one of them shared their life-experiences with me. Even when I recall today how they wept while narrating about love or marriage, my eyes fill with tears.
I had already attempted to write my autobiography and a few poems. That helped me in writing my autobiography and a few poems. That helped me in writing the lives of others. They remain as documents. Even my autobiography was not written in one sitting. I would read through what I had written. As I read, all the old sitting. I would read through what I had written. As I read, all the old memories would emerge, like in the movie Autograph. So I would rewrite. It was through writing and rewriting again and again that I could complete it. The experience of writing taught me a few things about what to ask, and how to ask my questions without hurting people.
I wanted to collect their views on how they feel about a hijra writing about a hijra writing about other hijras. I received the following hijras better.
A hijra alone can understand hijra better.
They might have experienced similar kinds of violence and hardships. That would make it easier to share openly.
Hijras can share things that can’t be shared with men or women.
We can unburden our mental load to a hijra better.
When a hijra studies the plight of the hijra community it would be a wholesome research. It would also lead to changes within the community and the society at large.
Hijra are no less than any other in achievement’ is proven by studies like this.
Besides these comments, personally this study helped reduce my stress and resurrected me.
Though I am not working with sangama right now? They supported me in completing this study. My thanks are due to them. I thank saraswati for guiding me in conducting interviews. I wish to offer my heartleft gratitude to Subha for having identified my talent in writing and having stood by me from the beginning to the end. She gave me timely advice, and inspired me to do this study. Thanks to Kannan for making me believe I can do this. I must thank the Sangama members and Board members. My thanks are due to my hijra friends for sharing their lives with me without any further expection. I am indebted to V. Geetha and G. Palani for shaping this work.
Aravanis or hijras have long been the invisible yet hyper-visible subjects of a societal gaze that reduces them to stereotype. Imagined as often as looked at or talked about, simultaneously revered and cursed, they have in the process, been refused individual histories, lives and identities, evenselves. Yet the community continues to challenge and subvert this view, persistently refusing to allow itself to be shamed or victimized. Some of the greatest recent victories in this ongoing battle for rights have been won in Tamil Nadu, where the government first began to recognize amny of the rights of the hijra community. The stories in this volume chronicle, in their own words part of this groundbreaking change. These landmark narratives-chronicles of pain and courage, of despair and triumph are amongst the first accounts of hijra lives to be produced entirely by the members of the community themselves.
A.Revathi is an activist spokesperson for the rights of the aravani community in India. She is the author of The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story (Penguin,2010) and humaari Kahaanitaan, Humaari Baatein: Hijron Ki Kahaaniyon ka Ek Sankalan (Yoda Press, 2010).
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