Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story- A Revathi (This is not a Book Review)

The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life StoryThe Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is very important because of the voice it is making people listen to and also for the distinct style of writing that the author has employed. Just like how women's writing finds a language of its own, this book can be seen as an attempt to explore the transgender language. Portions from the book i would like to quote.

For exposing the kind of discrimination faced by hijras from the time they are in school and to understand how important it is to sensitize especially children about various minority identities. This is one among the many experiences the author encountered while in school.
'Since I wore the same uniform every day to school, frequent washing had worn down the seat of my shorts. My classmates used to stick a bit of rolled paper into the tear, clap their hands loudly and scream 'post box!' I would go all hot and angry and hurl obscenities at them, as I have heard women do. This would set them off even more, and they would chant, 'Girl-boy!' 'Ali!' 'Number 9!' My heart would sink at these words, but I also felt faintly gratified and even happy that these boys actually conceded that I was somehow a woman.'

'...I think I was punished not just for being distracted, but also because I spoke like a girl, holding my body coyly like one. I remember being caned for 'not being brave like a boy'. And since I did not play boys' games, I got punished by the PT teacher too. He would box my ears and yell, 'Are you a girl or what? Pull your trousers down, let me check'. He would make as if he was going to strip me and I would start crying. The other boys laughed at this.'

'At school, I felt fear looking at the big boys, those in Classes 11 and 12. And they were always on the lookout for me. They had marked me out from the others. Whenever I walked past them on school grounds, they would yell, 'Hey girl-boy' and hit me on the head with their balled-up fists. They would pinch me on my chest, and taunt me saying, 'When you played Chandramathi, what did you stuff your chest with?' On the days this happened, I did not want to sit next to the boys in my class, for I felt coy and shy. On the other hand, I felt drawn to the boys who did not tease me, and I imagined I was in love with them. This confused me-I was a boy and yet I felt I could love other boys. Was this right or wrong?'

The following is an incident of rape which happened to one of the authors' friends. It is a common thing that rowdies and police attack hijras and force sexual favours from them or rape them. This was one such incident and the young author had no clue as to what was done to her friend.

'I asked her what had happened, and she said that they had done danda on her. 'Danda? What is that?\ I asked. She told me that they had forced her to have sex through her mouth and her backside, 'near where you shit,' she explained. I was horrified and wondered if such things were indeed possible. She looked so wan and was in obvious pain. When I asked the others about this, they said that this is how we would have to have sex: 'If you are a girl-boy you have no choice. Don't you know this? Don't you want to have sex this way?'
When I said that I did not want to have sex that way, and and, above all, I desired to become a woman, marry and educated man and only then have sex, they laughed derisively. I was told that it was not all that easy to become a woman. Only if I went to Mumbai and Delhi and stayed for years with those who wore saris and had undergone 'operations', could I hope to become one.

Would also like to quote a story from the mythologies that i was not aware of till i read the book. Nani narrates to the author the story of how and why hijras are supposed to be gods.

''If you want stories about hijras, there are hundreds of tales I can tell you. But for now, I'll tell you just this one. You must have heard of Ramayanam, Mahabharatam and all that.
Well, when Rama went off on exile for fourteen years, his subjects, both men and women, came to see him off to the forest. They walked with him to the forest's edge and would have accompanied him further inside, when he told them, "All of you, men, women and children, go back to your houses. I'll complete my fourteen years of exile and return to rule over you." So, everyone left, men, women and children, but a group of people stayed back and there they remained at the forest rim for fourteen years until Rama came back. Astonished, he asked them, "Who are you? Why haven't you gone back to your homes in the city?" They replied, "Swamy! We belong neither to mankind, nor to womankind. You said then that men, women and children ought to return to the city. But you did not ask us to go. Bound by your wishes, we remained here." Rama was so astounded and moved by their sincerity that he granted them a boon. "Whatever you speak will be true. Your words will come true'
'So from that day onwards, people here have believed that a hijra's word will come true and think of us as godly beings. They hold that it is good to start the day by seeing a hijra. Those who run businesses think that the day will go well for them if they give us money and earn our blessings.'

Another belief: 'The Koothandavar temple is in Koovagam in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu. A festival is held there every year on the day of the full moon in the month of Chitirai (mid-April to mid-May) and thousands of people congregate for the celebrations... ..The origins of the festival can be traced to the events of Mahabharat. To ensure that they win the great war, the Pandavas have to sacrifice a young man who is perfect in every way. Only three men were considered perfect: Arjuna, Krishna and Aravan, the son of Arjuna and a Naga princess. Since Arjuna and Krishna needed to play their part in the Kurukshetra war, Aravan agrees to be the sacrifice. As his last wibefore he steps on the sacrificial altar, he wants to marry a woman and enjoy, however fleetingly, conjugal bliss. Since no woman would come forward to marry Aravan, Krishna assumes the form of a woman, Mohini, and marries Aravan. After a day of conjugal happiness, Aravan enters the sacrificial space. After he is sacrificed, his wife Mohini (Krishna) laments his death and assumes the garb of a widow. Hijras from all over start assembling in Koovagam a week before the festival, and take up rooms in the lodges and hotels in and around Villupuram...' 

 Also like to quote the beginning of the speech that was given by Revathi at the same festival. She started the speech by reciting a poem she herself had written.

'In the garden of love was planted the seed of grace. Watered with goodness a plant sprouteda tender, caring flower-a flower that does not adorn sacred sites and prayer rooms.'

It was when i watched a play by the name 'Colour of Trans' that i got to know of some of the problems faced by hijras. I am quoting some narrated in the book. This was while the author was going back home after she was informed that her mother had fallen ill. She had to change into men's clothes because she was going home where her identity was not accepted.

'I tried to find a room in some lodge near the bus stand, but no one appeared to want to let me in. I returned to the bus stand and decided to go to the women's toilet there. But the man who stood there to receive money for the pay-and-use toilets dismissed me as a pottai and would not let me in. When I tried to get into the men's toilet section I was shooed away from there as well. What a mess, I thought. In Delhi, they let me use the women's toilet, but here things were clearly different. Then there was the issue of entering the toilet dressed as a woman and coming out as a man-this was sure to cause trouble. I was confused and not sure what I could do. I had to somehow get into male clothes; the question was how.
Finally I told the man who stood in front of the men's toilets, collecting the fare to enter them, that I was a man, and had dressed up as a woman for a show. Now that the show was over, I wanted to change back into my regular clothes. He took five rupees from me and let me in. Startled, the men who were peeing in there started yelling. I muttered, 'I'm a man too,' and ran into one of the bathrooms, and shut the door behind me. I ought to have changed on the train but the necessity of changing into male clothes hadn't occurred to me then. Besides, I had travelled by ladies coach-imagine what would have happened if I'd emerged as a man from the toilet!'

In buses,

'College students on the bus too stared at me. They did not dare tease me but one asked the other, 'Ay macchan! What's the time?'
To which, the other replied, 'Nine da!' All this in an undertone that neither I nor others in the bus could hear clearly.
'What about Bus Number 9?' quipped another. Through barely concealed taunts, and by making eyes at each other, they spoke about me.'
'...Whenever the bus driver used his brake and halted suddenly, the men sitting behind would deliberately lean over and fall over my back. Younger men, little more than boys would call out:'Macchan! Bus'll reach at nine o' clock! Or 'Mapillai! What's the time? And the reply invariably would be 'Nine da!' Such teasing upset me
Sometimes, unable to hold back my rage, I would yell back, 'Why call out "Number 9" in such a roundabout way? So, I am that Number 9! What do you care? Have I come to you for a sari? Or begged for food from you? Watch out! I'll get you with my slippers-hit you till they fall apart!'
'Oh my! What a voice! A man's voice, da!' they'd retort and laugh
Could not God have given me a woman's voice at least? When I was dressed like a man, they said I spoke like a woman, and now I've changed into a woman, they say my voice is like a man's! Ashamed and frustrated, I would not be able to respond.

Now to what a transgender person usually faces in their own families. I myself am somebody who believes that all abuse starts in families. For sexual minorities it is more so.

'...As soon as I stepped in, he [Revathi's middle brother] shut the door, grabbed a cricket bat, and began hitting me, all the while screaming, 'That'll teach you to go with those Number 9s. Let's see you wear a sari again, or dance, you mother-fucking pottai!' He beat me hard mindlessly, yelling that he wanted to kill me, I who had dared to run away. I tried to protect my face and head with my hands to keep the blows from falling. But nevertheless they came down hard, and I felt my hands swell. I was beaten on my legs, on my back, and finally my brother brought the bat down heavily on my head. My skull cracked and there was blood all over, flowing, warm.
'That's right. Beat him and break his bones. Only then will he stay at home and not run away,' I heard my mother say.'

Again, it was when i watched the same play that i realized how most of the transgender people are abused even in hospitals by doctors. Most of the sex change operations are done in unhygienic manner. It was when one of the actors stripped herself completely that i saw the wounds that her sexuality had inflicted upon her just because it was a minority. Some of Revathi's experiences post operation.

'On the third day after operation, they remove the tube and we are expected to pee normally. We did not even have a nightgown those days and had to go to the bathroom in our saris. Holding our saris high and away from the operated area and walking with our legs far apart, we had a time of it. If the pee did not flow freely, we had to be careful and not force it out, for the pain would be unbearable and there would be bleeding. When I think of that time, I shudder even today. As for shitting, that was an ordeal and if i had to take a deep breath to force things out, my nerves felt as if they would snap. I was also scared that the stitches would come off.
On the seventh day, they removed my chela's stitches. It was my sixth day but I insisted on having them removed. We were down to 500 rupees and had decided that we would leave for Mumbai as soon as possible.

On their way back,

'...At the station, as soon as we got off, we noticed that the auto-rickshaw drivers were pointing at us and sniggering. Some other people too were laughing. We did not have the energy to argue or fight back. We were in great discomfort, could not walk properly and, besides, were weak from not having eaten proper, nutritious food. But we understood that they knew we had come to have the operation and were laughing about that...
...We had taken care to place cotton wads on our wounds and pad them up with a loincloth of sorts. Two inner skirts offered double-layered protection, but we had an uncomfortable journey as we were at the back of the bus. We sat with our feet planted firmly on the floor of the bus and held onto the iron rod of the seat in front of us to protect ourselves from being thrown up with every bump on the road. But if we let go and relaxed even for a moment, because it was a strain to hold the position, the wound would begin to throb again. We kept praying to our Mata, muttering her name in our hearts all the way to Chennai.
...I reached the ladies' bathroom. The woman police officer stationed outside looked at me scornfully and said, 'I can see that you've had an operation. Why can't you be like other men? Why can't you be normal? Find a woman, get married, and be a good householder, who works for a living?' I didn't think she would understand me or my troubles. She made it seem easy, this business of being a normal man. I did not have the energy then to explain matters to her and so, without replying, staggered into the nearest bathroom and shut the door.'

I find the following portion important because it explains at an emotional level why issues regarding a community should be fought with the the help of members from the same community.

'...Only a pottai knows another's feelings, pain, loss and anguish. Even when they didn't know us, didn't these pottais come to our assistance? Pottais stand by each other, and believe me, a pottai looking for consolation is sure to find it, and often only in another pottai. We are, in a sense, like a flock of crows. We stick together.'

Quoting another instance of rape, this time which the author herself faced. To most of the people around me, this might not 'count' as rape primarily because it was done to a sex worker and also because the woman did not 'fight' it in a way they would like it.
P.S. Don't know why the author had to mention the complexion of the person who raped her.

'...Once a large, dark rowdy tried to force me into having sex with him. I ran into the hut, but he followed me. My gurubais ran away and my guru could not do anything under the circumstances. She could not come in or ask for help.
I felt trapped and not knowing what to do, I had to accede to his demands. I held onto his legs and pleaded when he wanted to do things that i did not like doing. (He wanted me to have anal sex with him.) He spat abuse at me and forced me into the act. When I screamed in pain and yelled for my guru, he shut my mouth with one of his hands, whipped out a knife with the other and threatened to take it into my throat. I was hurting all over, and yet had to give in and do as he told me. The skin down there felt abraded and I was bleeding. Unmindful, he left, but only after he had snatched my purse away from me. Men like him will understand the terror and pain they caused only if they become hijras and are hurt by rowdy men such as themselves.
After he left, my guru came in to see me. She asked me if I had ever had sex in this fashion before. When I said no, she said that if I were to do this sort of thing, I must apply oil in that area. I cried out that I did not want to have anal sex, that I did it only because that man held a knife to me and forced me. I understood then what had happened to my friend that evening up there in the hill near my village. She must have suffered as I suffer now.'

A portion in the book which instantly reminded me of the malayalee 'chettans' back home, who feigh 'brotherhood' or 'fatherhood' and ultimately do things that the people from whom they are supposedly 'protecting' you do. It is a common practice among men in Kerala to claim you by calling you 'chechi' (elder sister) amma (mother) or sahodari (sister). See what Revathi had to face. This is after she complained to a shop owner about others throwing tomatoes at her when she went grocery shopping. He appeared to be well-meaning in the beginning.

'...'Look, we've seen people like you for years. We speak to you with civility, always address you as amma... Are you new around here?
'Yes, I am.'
'Your people come here regularly. They're not here today.'
'No, they are not.'
'These men tease you with those tomatoes because you're new. They are scared of the regulars. They say whatever slides off their tongues. The lads speak nonsense, and these people retaliate... Leave that aside, there's a god that'll account for all such talk. What vegetables do you want today?
'One kilo onions, quarter kilo tomatoes, and how much does a drumstick cost?'
'Two rupees for one, amma.'
'Two rupees for one! In my village you get a bundle of six or seven for one rupee. The place is awash with drumsticks and you charge so much for it!'
'Amma, this is Bangalore. I bought them for one rupee and seventy-five paise. I make a profit of only a quarter of a rupee.
'All right, give me five of those.'
Even as I was bundling up the drumsticks, he asked me, 'Amma, did you have an operation, and those'-he pointed to my breasts-'are they real?'
'How does it matter to you?' I glared at him. And so I discovered he was like the rest of them. He seemed different, spoke nicely, and yet he asked such a question.'

About police brutality, some glimpses. Please remember that these are just some of the many instances of violence meted out against sexual minorities and sex workers. I shudder when i imagine all of this happening to any human being on a daily basis.

'I screamed that I did not want to go into the cell. I fell at the policeman's feet. He kicked me with his boots. He then asked me to take my clothes off-right there, while the prisoner was watching. I pleaded with him and wept, but he forcibly stripped me. When I was standing naked, he stuck his lathi where I'd had my operation and demanded that I stand with my legs apart, like a woman would. He repeatedly struck at that part with his lathi and said, 'So, can it go in there? Or is it a field one can't enter? How do you have sex then?'
I felt heart-broken and could not speak. The policeman then shouted at the prisoner. 'Dai! Have you seen enough? Want to see more?'
...Picking up a sheet of paper, the policeman scribbled something on it, and asked me, 'Where did those breasts come from? They grew on their own?'
'No, not on their own. I took hormone tablets to grow them.'
'Open your mouth wide.'
I obliged him.
'Bend down. I've got to inspect your back.'
I bent and showed him my back. He then asked me to hold my buttocks apart so that he could see my anal passage. When I did, he thrust his lathi in there and asked, 'So you get it there?'
I straightened up, yelling with the pain of it...
...On the way to court, they told me that I must not speak of how I was beaten or humiliated. Instead, I was to accept responsibility for my crime, pay the requisite fine and leave. I agreed to do what they asked of me. Once we reached the court, they said that they'd rather I paid them two hundred rupees. In which case I could go straight home, and they would pay the fine on my behalf. I gave them the money I had hidden inside my petticoat and left, glad to exit the scene forever. I went straight to the hamam.'
Later when one of the elder hijras is murdered the police goes to question the hijra community themselves. There was no basis for this suspicion and no rowdies were questioned. Revathi, who had by then become an activist went along with the police. See what happened there. 'The police suspected the aravanis themselves of this crime. When they went to question aravanis, I went along to make sure that they were not beaten or tortured. The police argued that if they could not beat people, the latter were unlikely to speak the truth!...'
When hijras get some respite from sex work, they are mostly asked to dance in festivities. And what they have to face over there is something like this.

'The village elders would do this: they'd come, look at us and choose whoever they wanted to come and dance that year. My guru showed me off the year I was there. 'Look how lovely she is! She must dance in your village. You must pay all you can to get her to come. She is not like the others.'
'Oh, so you've got an Urvashi or a Ramba here? What about breasts? Does she have to stuff her chest with cotton or...'
'No, no, all real. If you wish, you can inspect her.' My guru then asked me to show them my breasts. Rates were discussed afterwards.
It is like shopping at the vegetable market. You pinch, squeeze and satisfy yourself of the vegetable's quality before you buy. We were inspected likewise. One's self-respect had to be hawked thus to feed one's stomach. Imagine, they actually grab your breast to make sure it is real!'

'...You imagine that you can make a living by dancing, but here, too, you have to sell your body. It would then seem to me that the other life was better, that it was easier to sell yourself, put up with police and rowdy trouble. You pull yourself together and do what had to be done. For better or for worse, I had to do what I had to, calling on God to help me bear my burden. Working thus, suffering thus, unable to talk about what I endured, and feeling as if I was no one's child, I'd send to my father the money I earned.'
There is another episode from the book i would like to quote which is from when Revathi goes to get a driver's license for herself. Her sexuality is a problem for the officials simply because they don't understand it. Their own ignorance does not prompt humility but on the contrary owing to their ignorance they think they can humiliate people. See here

'I don't know if the money given was not enough, but after looking through my papers, the inspector said, 'We've never had such a case before. I can't grant licence to this person,' and flung papers at me. I was angered by his action. 'Sir! Why throw the papers at me? I haven't done anything wrong. I respect the law, and so I want to get a licence before I started driving my scooter. Why fling these papers and show so little respect? Doesn't your law allow you to give licences to people like me? I haven't cheated anyone, I have produced the papers you asked for and yet you say you won't give me my licence?' 'Look here, we've never had a person like you come here and ask for a licence. I don't have the powers to grant you one. I'll discuss this with my superiors. After that, we'll see.' 'Your superiors? Who is above you who can do this? What have you found wrong with me that you won't give me licence? You say you've not encountered this sort of "case" before. Well, I was born a man and I became a woman. I have taken an insurance policy in my name, that is, Revathi. My name has been changed in the ration card. What more do you need to issue a licence? You think I'm going to commit acts of terror or violence once I have a driving licence? I've come here to get one, because like everyone else I want to live by the law. If you don't give me a licence, I'll drive without one. And if someone stops me and asks for my licence, I'll say that you refused to give me one. I'll even go to the papers and appear on television, I'll tell people that the government only issues licences to men or women, not to people like me.'' More of this behaviour ensued and Revathi fought it all. After having fought her way through ever rank of bureaucracy and insensitive people, she writes, 'To get a licence under the name of Revathi, I had to go through all of this. It was exhausting, and worse, what ought to have cost me a hundred fifty rupees set me back by two thousand rupees. However, I had my licence, and I was happy to have it.' 

Quoting another confrontation that the author had in a public place. She protested against the eve-teasing and taunting by people in the bus stand in Namakkal. She said,

 ''So you want to know whether I am male or female? Should I tell you or should I show you that I am not a woman, but a man? Have you got nothing else to do, but speculate who is a man, and who's a woman? Seems like this is what you do for a living!'... ...I felt that if I let them get away this time, they would talk about me whenever they saw me. I stood in the middle of the road and yelled out: 'Dai! So you want to lay bets on who's fat, who's thin, who's a man, who's a woman? What do you fellows get out of talking like this? Listen! I am a pottai! I was a man who changed into a woman. If you had one like me in your family, would you place bets on a person like me?' ...Many in the crowd supported me. I was moved that there were at least a few who did not look upon people like me with disgust, that they felt sympathy for us. I realized that I was merely going through all that a woman does, all the time. At least I had taken to the middle of the road and yelled back at my tormentors. Which woman would dare do so? There is this power in me, this urge to fight wrong. I don't know if it is because I was born and man and became a woman. I am not sure I'd have thus stood on a road and shouted had I been born a woman.' 

 After Revathi joined the NGO called Sangama her life changed further. Here you can see how she was empowered by being self sufficient and financially independent.

'My salary from Sangama just about covered my rent and living expenses, and I had stopped sending money to my father. And because of the changes wrought in me by my experiences as an activist, I had become more assertive. Unlike before, I had started to challenge my father occasionally when we disagreed on something. This angered him and he began to tell people that I did not send him money anymore, and that each time I visted, I picked up a fight with him. According to the will he had drafted, I was to inherit a portion of his house. But he began to threaten to rewrite the will.' 

 After getting married to her co-worker, Revathi was really happy for some time before their marriage started failing. I would like to quote a portion from their life which i resonate with a lot. A lot of activists have exhibited the same tendencies right in front of me. I dare say that Malayalees are in the forefront of this double facedness. As long as women speak against men other than themselves, they are in full support of their activism. Once the women point their fingers at the same men, they find it unbearable. See here

 'It was the year of the World Social Forum convened in Mumbai, and I was called to present my testimony. Around three thousand people were present in the special seminar hall set aside for this purpose and they all heard me speak. I spoke of what I endured in my parents' home, at the hands of the police and the rowdies, about how the law was not in our favour and about the pain that I was currently experiencing in my marriage. 
The next morning he (her husband) said to me, 'You've killed me by talking the way you did. Why did you speak like that?' 'I spoke of how the world treated me. You constantly encourage people to speak of what they've gone through. But when it comes to speaking about you, you claim that I've killed you. Do you realize that you've murdered me, not once, but several times? I have spoken to the papers, on television, in public forums, about my problems, my family, the police, about the abuse my community routinely encounters. Does that mean that I have no love for my parents, or that I don't respect the police? This is my testimony, that's all.' 'From now we have nothing to do with each other.' Saying this, he got up' 

 From discovering her sexuality to fighting the world who is against it, Revathi stands tall as an activist and a fighter. It also reminds us how important it is to have fighters who are representatives of the community itself and not patronizing outsiders who would not be able to take the cause forward simply because the issue, in reality does not concern them. A must read.

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