The autobiography of a transgender
Living Smile Vidya
Translated by V Ramnarayan
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I love the window seat in trains. Stretching my legs, I enjoyed the landscape, the trees and plants, the houses, as they flashed past me outside the window. It was a pleasure much like the first lazy cup of coffee on a holiday.
'Where are you headed?'
The unexpected question woke me from my reverie. I looked up. It was a rozwala, a regular commuter on that train. One look at my ordinary clothes and he must have decided that I did not belong in the sleeper compartment, that I was perhaps a ticketless traveller. You wore the most basic clothes on your way to the operation we call nirvanam. The same applied to jewellery. That's why I had on the oldest sari I had, a white one with blue flowers on it. My tiny nose stud was all the gold I wore. I must hand it over to Sugandhi Ayah after the operation tomorrow.
The rozwala was asking if he could sit down beside me. I was pretty sure he thought I didn't have a ticket. Still, his manner had been polite, so I made room for him by shifting my legs. I went back to looking out of the window.My train reservation from Pune to Cuddapah had been done at the Lonavala station the very day after Nani agreed to send me for my nirvanam. That day, I didn't go to work-to do my dhandha of begging.
The whole thing was surprisingly different from the norm- usually no Nani planned a nirvanam a month in advance, down to the last detail. And no Tirunangai or transgender made advance train reservations to go for the operation."You have to be discreet in such matters, observe great secrecy." Sugandhi Ayah was in a plaintive mood, complaining non-stop. "Girls nowadays don't listen to their elders; they do exactly as they please." She was constantly comparing and contrasting transgenders of past and present, adding to the pathos by relating some personal experience from her own past.
Sugandhi was the matron for hundreds of doctors. Of massive physique, she wore her salt and pepper hair in a tight bun. The two-rupee-coin sized kumkum bindi on her broad forehead instilled awe in onlookers. Her mouth constantly chewed paan. Her bell-like voice matched her impressive physical appearance. Sugandhi Ayah looked formidable. Satya and I sometimes took the liberty of teasing her, calling her grandma, and she indulgently allowed us. . Today she was taking us and Nagarani, our next door neighbour to our nirvanam.Sarada Nani was an important person in the Pune locality where transgenders lived in substantial numbers. I was one of the chela daughters of one of her chela daughters Aruna Amma. Satya was older, my senior in the transgender group. She was of swarthy complexion, solidly built like Sugandhi Ayah. She had a voice to match, and long, thick hair. She was an excellent cook. She was so senior to me in the group, still her operation was only now about to take place. That my nirvanam was scheduled along with hers was a big step for me. My hair then was still short to tie up in a bun.
Satya did not show as much interest as I did in nirvanam. It wasn't clear who would accompany her and so I reserved only my train berth. All that was not so important, though-any old ticket would do for Sugandhi Ayah and Satya. They sat on a newspaper they spread near the compartment door and answered the TTE's queries. Nagarani huddled close to them and they managed to stay there till morning. I got up after a while and joined them. The old woman continued to tell oft-repeated tales of woe from her own life, her trials and tribulations. To all three of us, they assumed new dimensions that evening. As she went on with accounts of nirvanam and its after-effects, we listened in terror. I went to my berth when Ayah was overcome by sleep.
Just one more night. Tomorrow would dawn the fruition of my desires, the fulfilment of my dreams. The night was long. I tossed and turned. I woke up and looked around.
The whole train was asleep. Very few were awake-the engine driver, a few policemen on patrol duty, and I.Nirvanam! How long I had waited for it! What humiliation I had suffered! Obsessed with it, I had mortgaged my pride, my anger, my honour-even begged on the streets to achieve that end. How could I sleep now, with my dream about to be fulfilled tomorrow?Morning at last. I welcomed the new day eagerly, with not a trace of fatigue even though I had kept awake all night. I drank a cup of coffee. Sugandhi Ayah had warned me to take only fluids in preparation for the operation.
It was the most important day of my life. Autorickshaws mobbed us as the four of us emerged from the railway station. It was 26th April. "Naganna or Bapanna?' the hordes of drivers pounced on us with their incessant questioning. We managed to stave off the competing marauders, and negotiating the fare with one of them, got into his autorickshaw. "Ayah, how do they know we are going to one of those doctors?" I asked Sugandhi."Even the newborns here know our kind come to Cuddapah for the operation,' Nagarani said."Right down to the doctor's name? Tell me Ayah, which doctor are we going to?"There was no reply from Sugandhi Ayah."Why are you so glum, Ayah?""Shut up."I had no option. I kept watching the Telugu film posters.As we got off the autorickshaw, I was filled with happiness that we had arrived in Cuddapah and reached the nursing home."Hurry up." All of a sudden, Ayah rushed us in.
The nursing home was right on the street. Though not a main road, it was a busy street. The cinema theatre across the road displayed a poster of the film, Chandramukhi.The hospital was abuzz with activity. We were herded upstairs through what was evidently a rear portion. A nursing home attendant accompanied us, talking all the while in Telugu to Sugandhi Ayah. She must be a frequent visitor here, I said to myself. The attendant left us in a room. There were three steel cots in that room which had a bathroom next to it, with a solitary bucket. The cot was bare, with no mattress or sheet on it. Many female names were scrawled on the wall, some in ink, others in charcoal. The room seemed to be reserved exclusively for transgenders. Our predecessors in the room had scribbled their names on the wall, presumably because they feared they could die on the operation table. That was their way of ensuring the survival of at least their names after the hazardous operation we called nirvanam. "Write your name on the wall, if you like," Sugandhi Ayah said.I didn't feel like doing so. I was certain I would live. Hadn't I struggled all the while just for that?
I was hungry. Sugandhi alone had eaten since last night. The three of us had obeyed her instructions to fast."Go to the bathroom now if you must. Once in the operation theatre, your stomach should be completely empty." Sugandhi Ayah warned us. Nagarani looked scared. I watched Satya. She looked grim as usual. I was all aflutter. "When? When?" The tension was palpable. None of us minded the strange odour in the room. Tension gripped us.We waited for a while. A male attendant came to Sugandhi. He said something to her and went away. We were watching all the while. Ayah then took all three of us downstairs. They took blood from each of us for a blood test in one of the rooms there."We'll get the blood test report in half an hour," Sugandhi Ayah said. "They will do the operation once the report shows you are HIV negative. The operation won't take more than half an hour."Would there be no more tests? Wouldn't they test us for BP, blood sugar? Only AIDS? Nagarani asked, "Why, won't they operate if we have AIDS?""Do you see Janaki in the next room? She has AIDS, they say. They collected an extra 2000 rupees from her to do the operation."
Only after Sugandhi Ayah pointed her out did I see the woman lying there post-operation. I went in and saw her. She was from my own street. Though she had been in Pune for many years, she still retained the flavour of the village, her language had remained unchanged. She had lived in Mumbai and Pune for five years or so, but couldn't speak a whole sentence in Hindi. I didn't know her very well, but I had seen her being heckled while walking on the street. It was a rude shock to Satya and me to know she had AIDS. The three of us chattered nervously for a while, anticipating the moment with suspense."Who's going first?" Sugandhi Ayah asked. I couldn't bear it any longer."I'll go first Ayah!" I shouted, "Let me go."Ayah came to a decision. "Satya is your senior, let her go first, you go after her," she said. No one replied. It was frustrating to know we had to wait longer."Akka, let me go first Akka, please.""Ok, go. I don't mind. Ask the hag."Sugandhi Ayah was particular about seniority. There was no point in pleading with her.The blood test results were out by then. Ayah handed over the report to each of us, asking us to keep it carefully. Thank God, none of us had AIDS.Speaking in Telugu, a hospital attendant called Satya, asking Nagarani and me to wait. He asked us to change, wearing only skirts, and be ready.Ayah had already got us ready. They took Satya away.
"When will the operation be over? How long will it take?" I kept asking Ayah.I wasn't prepared for the speed of the operation. I expected an operation to take at least an hour, and a vital one like ours at least two hours. In barely twenty minutes, a man and a woman wheeled Satya out. It was all over. Neither attendant looked like a nurse or a hospital worker. You'd think they belonged to some completely unrelated profession.They lifted Satya from the wheelchair (stretcher?), and, spreading a couple of newspapers on a steel cot, dropped her unceremoniously on it. Their unsafe, unhygienic approach made me nervous. There was no time to worry. They whisked me away immediately after dumping Satya on the cot. "Keep repeating the name of the Mother during the operation," Ayah told me before I entered the operation theatre.
It was no operation theatre, I realised as soon as I entered the tiny room. It was like going into a slaughterhouse. "Mata, mata, mata," I repeated to myself. In the room was a solitary cot. A masked doctor stood by its side. His eyes were those of an old man. Two more people, a man and a woman, filled the minuscule room. There was no way another person could enter.I wanted to talk to the doctor, but the environment silenced me. They removed my skirt and made me lie down on the cot, and helped me overcome my embarrassment. They made me curl into the embryonic posture, and gave me a spinal injection. It hurt. I lay down straight and was given glucose drips through a vein in my right arm. I was able to cooperate with the staff as Senbagam who had undergone the surgery a few months ago had given me a detailed account of the various steps. She had warned me that the spinal shot would anaesthetise me below the waist, so I was quite brave.Only when the surgeon made the first incision on my abdomen with his scalpel did I realise I hadn't quite lost sensation altogether. Another spinal injection followed my screams of pain.
The pain subsided but did not disappear. I couldn't move my hands and legs, but I felt the movements of the surgeon's knife and my pain quite clearly. I cursed and swore. "I can't bear the pain, let me go," I screamed at them constantly. I wanted to run away. I wanted to kill the doctor and his helper. Desperate with pain, I repeatedly called out to Mata following Ayah's advice, reaching a crescendo screaming, "maaaaa...aaataaa." As the operation reached its climax, the pain rose to unbearable heights-as if someone was digging deep into my innards with a long rod and removing my intestines.Yes, what I saw in that instant was death. They had removed that part of me over which I had shed silent tears of rejection from the time I could remember. I saw that my penis and my testicles had been excised.I was sutured and applied medication after that. I could feel all that very distinctly and bear the pain.
Ah! Nirvanam. The ultimate peace!My operation took all of twenty minutes. They put me on a stretcher, writhing in pain, and carried me down a ramp accompanied by violent jerks, causing new pains and aches. They dumped me on a newspaper-covered steel cot just as they had dropped Satya. In the bed next to me, I could hear Satya crying and moaning. Even though I was in great pain, I was able to bear it. Soon, to my surprise, Satya began to sob uncontrollably.
Was it really Satya crying, unable to bear her pain? She had been an elder sister to me in Pune at the place where we had sought refuge. She was a strong person. Thrashed by Nani after an occasional drunken bout, she used to lie down absolutely still and quiet. I couldn't believe that she was crying in pain now. Or that I was able to stand the pain better.Inside, I was at peace. It was a huge relief. I was now a woman. Mine was a woman's body. Its shape would be what my heart wanted, yearned for. This pain would obliterate all my earlier pains. I wanted to thank everyone, cry out loud to the doctor, his assistants, Sugandhi Ayah, express my gratitude to them to my heart's content. I couldn't move my lips or open my mouth.I thanked them silently. "Thank you for removing my maleness from my body, thank you for making my body a female body. My life is fulfilled. If I die now, I'll lose nothing. I can sleep in peace," I told myself.The intensity of the pain grew with the hours. My abdomen seemed to be afire. I couldn't move my arms and legs. The pain was unbearable, however hard I tried to bear it.
Amma, Amma, I have become a woman. I am not Saravanan any more. I am Vidya. A complete Vidya. A whole woman. Where are you, Amma? Can't you come to me by some miracle, at least for a moment? Please hold my hand, Amma. My heart seems to be breaking into smithereens. Radha, please Radha, I am no longer your brother, Radha. I am your sister now, your sister. Come to me, Radha. Chithi, Manju, Prabha, Appa... Look at me Appa, look at my dissected body. This is a mere body. Can you see that I can bear all this pain? I can take any amount of pain, Appa. Look at me Appa. Look at me as a woman. Accept me as a girl, Appa.Only I could hear my screams.
When I was born the first time, my parents named me Saravanan. I was their sixth child, born after years of prayers for a boy child. In fact, their first had been a boy, unfortunately still born. Four girls followed, two of them succumbing to unknown diseases. In the circumstances, I realised pretty early in life what joy my arrival must have brought my parents.
My family wasn't exactly well off. My father Ramaswami was known as Nattamai or chieftain in Puttur, next to Tiruchi. The title must have been somebody's idea of a joke, for my father was hardly any kind of chief, certainly not the kind immortalised by Tamil cinema. He was a municipal worker of the lowest rung, a sweeper. He married my mother Veeramma in 1973. They started life together in a small hut they built on an unoccupied piece of land on Attumanthai (flock of sheep) Street.
My mother was someone special. Her name meant a brave woman, and she was every bit that. Brave and hard working, sweet tempered. She was also a typical Indian wife, who submitted to her husband's tyrannical ways. She died in an accident when I was eleven.
The pain and awareness of their oppression on the basis of their caste haunted my parents all their lives. Their intense yearning for a son must have sprung from their desperate hope that he would change the course of their abject lives.
Appa, my father, was at first in the business of milk supply. I remember that he had job opportunities in the police and Southern Railway. He was not too keen on such careers; he perhaps believed he must do his own business, however small. Making both ends was never easy. His relatives were determined he must find employment. They repeatedly counselled him, persuading him to join the Tiruchi Refugee Camp as a sweeper.
My father's life was one of frustration. Frustration that his lack of formal education beyond Class 8 had landed him in a lowly sweeper's job, for all that it was a government job. He constantly dreamt of his son growing up to be a district collector, surely the top job in India! His dreams, desires, ambitions all centred on his son of the future.
When these dreams were shattered, and his first child to survive turned out to be a daughter, Appa accepted her cheerfully.
Appa adored MG Ramachandran, the famous film star popularly known as MGR. Who wasn't an MGR fan those days? Appa named his first daughter Radha after the leading lady in an MGR movie. Manju, his second daughter too, was named after a co-star of MGR.
My father was hoping the next baby would be a boy to make up for the loss of his first born and the next two being girls, but that was not to be. The next two were girls, Vembu and Vellachi, and both succumbed to mystery ailments. This was a turning point in Appa's life which had plumbed the depths of despair.
For long years he had practised his own vague brand of atheism, but now he made an about turn and visited temple after temple. Landing finally at the Vayalur Murugan temple in Tiruchi, he vowed to name his next child after Murugan, the presiding deity there, if he was a boy. He would also shave his head in pious offering of his locks to the lord.
I was born on 25 March 1982. My parents named me Saravanan in fulfilment of my father's contract with Murugan. Saravanan is one of Murugan's many names.
My parents had been married in 1973 and I was born nearly ten years later. What challenges they encountered during the period! Their surroundings had undergone considerable change. Vacant land belonging to the government is known as poramboke land. Squatters often occupy such land and eventually occupy it permanently. The poramboke land on Attumanthai Street, where Appa and others had built their huts was now a full-fledged neighbourhood, Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, in memory of a revolutionary of that name. My father, the nattamai, was responsible for the name change.
The street had grown. So had our town. The whole city had been transformed in that decade. Only we were poor as ever. My father continued to be a municipal conservation worker, a sweeper. He was eternally running from pillar post to apply for an electricity connection for our street. At home, my mother and my sisters took care of me, spoiled me. By the time I was ready to go to school, my father had made preparations on a war footing.
I was a privileged member of the household. Of the three children, I was the one person who didn't have to do any work at home. That was the unwritten law. I enjoyed every kind of concession.
"The only work we want you to do is study," Appa said. "Remember, it's your job to study." He was quite the dictator when it came to my education, allowing no discussion.
"If any of you dares to give him work that interferes with his studies, I'll kill you," he warned us.
My two sisters, ten-year-old Radha and six-year-old Manju were so terrified of Appa's threat that they never let me do any household work. I was the male heir of the family and that was reason enough to exempt me from work of any kind! My doting mother carried me around until I was five years old. When he came back from work in the evening, Appa usually brought us sweets and snacks, and you could bet he slipped in something extra for me every time.
I don't remember my sisters ever being jealous of me. They showered me with love. From the time she was born, Radha had grown up amidst my parents' constant prayers for a male child. From a tender age, I remember her as a second mother to me. When Amma died, Radha took over altogether as my mother.
Radha was a goddess to all of us. She took charge of the house as soon as my parents went to work everyday. She could cook when she was barely ten. Sweeping and swabbing the house, washing the dishes and our clothes, storing water-she took care of it all. We should in all fairness have treasured her, treated her like royalty. We did not. I became the sole beneficiary of all the love and affection at home by virtue of my being a boy.
Amazingly, not once did I hear my sisters criticise this overt partiality. Neither Radha nor Manju did that. I think they came to believe in time that looking after me was the very purpose of their existence.
On my part, I studied well, to Appa's great joy. My academic excellence in contrast with my sisters' unschooled ways gave him immense pride. I was ranked first in my class in the first grade. When Appa came home and heard the news, he carried me on his shoulders and went round and round Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, broadcasting the news to the world. "My son got the first rank," he announced again and again.
I remember the day so clearly. Appa loved me but he had never carried me or fondled me before. His public demonstration of his love for me that day was the best reward I could have asked for. My stock in the neighbourhood shot up. I was the boy who was ranked first in his class.
My academic feats complicated life for my sisters. When Amma left for work at five o'clock in the morning, it was Radha's duty to wake me up to make me study. She had no escape from that responsibility. If I did not study, Radha or Manju would be spanked even more than I.
Up at that early hour, I studied for an hour. Manju went out at six o c'lock to buy tea and porai biscuits. Radha swept the house and started cooking by then, while Manju cleaned the vessels. I had to continue studying until 7.30, when Appa woke up. The girls then had to ensure I bathed, ate my breakfast, got ready and dashed off to school.
Appa gave Radha our daily allowance of one rupee every morning. My share was 40 paise while my sisters each got 30. They could not go to their classrooms without depositing me at mine. As soon as I came home, I had to do my homework. After that started Appa's lessons for me.
Appa made me do third grade exercises when I was still in the first grade. He made me do the multiplication tables-from one to 20-ten times everyday. "Do you know Abraham Lincoln studied under the street light and became president of America?" he repeated constantly. He made me believe that studying hard in the light of a hurricane lamp would one day make me the district collector.
I had a natural aptitude for studies, and I was an eager student. I was doing quite well at school, but as time progressed, I began to resent Appa's constant harassment, both mental and physical. I knew he was only doing what was good for me, but my loss of the simple joys and freedom other children of my age enjoyed was an irritant. Was a childhood without games worth living? Home was a virtual prison. Even the love of my mother and sisters could not make up for that.
My father never allowed me to play with boys and girls. I could not understand this blanket ban. I didn't know if it was because the kids in our neighbourhood were poor students. Our neighbours did not give education a great deal of importance. My father was very different in this aspect from all of them.
It was my sisters' responsibility to prevent me from giving Appa the slip and going out to play. Radha and Manju kept a constant vigil over my movements, fearful of what Appa might do if I did get away. Sometimes they scolded me and even slapped me playfully if I tried to step out of line. They were so fond of me that they never let me down by carrying tales to Appa, though.
When I came home form a school exam, Appa conducted the same test at home all over again. I was not allowed to go out to play even during vacations. Preparations for the next examination started right then and there.
This was all on top of the demands of my school teachers who made me answer all the question papers at home without omitting a single question even in multiple choice papers. I had to do five question papers in a single day. Invariably, just when I breathed a sigh of relief at completing them, Appa's home lessons started. If I slowed down my home work to avoid Appa's exercises, he thrashed me. My body would be bruised black and blue with belt marks all over. If Amma or my sisters tried to stop him, they got belted too.
"Weren't you expected to ensure he did his home work?' he screamed at them. I regularly wetted my shorts in fear and shock.
It was around this time that my mother died in a road accident. I was eleven. My grief was immeasurable, indescribable. I had been my mother's little boy, always at home, always protected by her. It was hard to come to terms with her absence all of a sudden.
Appa made matters worse by remarrying. Lata aka Thangammal, who was younger than Radha, was our new stepmother.
I was too young then to know if what Appa had done was right or wrong. Luckily, Chithi was a good person. She treated me with love. And my sisters were a great consolation, too. The wounds of losing Amma slowly healed. Gradually things changed for the better. Except for Appa's watching over me. As his dreams for me grew, his oppressive ways too kept increasing in intensity, even though I continued to do well at school. God knows what fears and anxieties troubled him, but he never allowed me a normal childhood.
I remember this incident. I came second in my class in the sixth grade exams. I was scared beyond description that evening. I didn't sleep a wink that night, afraid of the consequences of showing my report card to my father next morning. When I finally drifted into sleep, I dreamt of Appa belting me. I wetted my bed that night.
As the day dawned, I had no choice but to show Appa my report card, trembling with fear. I received the cruellest punishment of my life that morning.
Remember how Appa carried me around Bhupesh Gupta Nagar the day I was ranked first the first time? Today, unable to bear what he saw as the first crumbling of his dreams, he lifted me much the same way again. Only, this time he dropped me forcefully from a height. He then kicked me in my stomach. I was terror stricken.
He picked me up and thrashed me wildly. My chithi and sisters who tried to protect me got thrashed too. Our pain and tears and screams made no impression on him.
Second rank! Something he had never imagined I would get. It made no sense to me. How could I explain to my father that not much divided the first and second ranks?
He would never understand. He did not. He smashed me around until he got his fury out of his system.
I was a complete mess, beaten black and blue. With no strength left in me, I sought refuge in my sister's lap.
Why didn't I have a loving father like other children? The question comes back to haunt me even today, every time I see loving men.