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[BOOK REVIEW]: Works of A Revathi, transgender activist

A few times a year we would take a bus to Vellore from Chennai and another bus from there to Adukambarai, a tiny village on the outskirts of Vellore. This is where my eldest Aunt (Perimma) and cousins lived. A quaint house with hens in the courtyard and paddy fields and coconut groves a walk away. There was a large irrigation well into which one daring cousin would jump in to swim. Her brothers were less adventurous.

There was no television and we kept ourselves entertained with games and books. And of course, making fun of Thandavaraayan, who took it all in his stride. He would come and sit on the ‘thinnai’ at the doorway. Dressed in a tight half-sleeved ‘banian’ and chequered lungi, and a towel wrapped like a half-saree across his barrel chest. We sniggered at his effeminate ways. The way he walked and talked. But the residents of the village all seemed quite friendly towards him. During festivals, he would deck up in a saree.

I’d never know what he went through. How he lived. How much he hurt. But I now think about it, having read two books by A Revathi in recent weeks.

Another distinct memory is from when I was 14 or so. We were holidaying in Bombay. My sisters, the host family’s sons and I were going around the city on the local trains. One crowded evening, the boys asked us to take the ladies compartment, so we got in and found cramped spaces to rest our bums.

I sat staring at a few ladies with over the top make up and clothes, and they in turn started talking to me in Hindi. Since I didn’t quite understand what they were saying, I kept repeating, “What aunty?” and they grinned every time I said ‘aunty’.

Then I felt a sharp pinch on my waist. My sister hissed. “Shut up. Don’t talk to them. They are not aunties.”

Probably on that day, unwittingly, I did make their day by calling them aunty.

Then when I was 21-22 I started working for The Indian Express, covering the health beat. I wrote a lot on HIV/AIDS, and one of the people I often spoke to was Noorie. She was quite involved in awareness campaigns. We were comfortable enough with each other, that even when she was busy soliciting in Pondy Bazaar, she would call out to me and say ‘hi’. To the absolute embarrassment of my mother with whom I’d be shopping. She also gave me tips on ‘safe’ sex when she heard I was to get married soon. (Those tips would make an interesting post by itself.)

Now, in Bangalore, every time I pass the Koramangala junction on my motorbike, I would get a familiar wave, and a mocking ‘bullet rani’ thrown at me by the group of hijras, who beg for money. They are friendly, and I find them amusing, the way they make the men squirm and feel uncomfortable.

None of those experiences or interactions really humanised hijras/transpeople for me. Oh yes, I’d like to believe I am ‘open-minded’ enough to accept them as they are. Therein lies the problem. Why should it take ‘open-mindedness’ at all the accept what’s natural?

Reading A Revathi’s books  A Life in Trans Activism and The Truth About Me – A Hijra life story was a slap in the face of my ‘open-mindedness’. How many time have I called them ‘ali’ or ‘onbadhu’ when I was young. And even when I knew better, I rarely corrected people who mocked them with just pejoratives.

In a A Life in Trans Activism she speaks of the journeys she and others like her undertake, not to rebel, but because there’s no other way for them to lead their lives ‘normally’. In The Truth About Me Revathi unabashedly lays bare all her wounds – physical, emotional and mental. In that riveting and brutally honest narration, one cannot but shed a few tears, even as you cheer her on.

She has been a boy for a while, then a dancer, a sex worker, an unpaid ‘servant’ in the hierarchical hijra community, a mother, a daughter, a sister to many, and an activist speaking up for the rights of the minority. And in every one of those avatars, she shows a vulnerability that’s heartbreaking.

No, I don’t feel pity. I feel anger that it has to be so difficult and so dangerous for those who are boxed into gender/sexual identities that they are stifled by. I feel sad that this may not change for a long time to come.

Yes, India (and Nepal) recognise the third gender. Reading this book, I wonder if that’s fair. If one chooses to identify with a gender, shouldn’t it be one of the two. Why a third?

Disclaimer: This is probably not quite a book review, as it is a very brief review of an issue. Please do read the two books.


Her & His Story

There are some stories that don’t quite fit the nature of this blog. Here I rant, review and boast.

I like listening to stories, and just as often to retell them. And the most unexpected people have the most interesting tales. Hence, Her & His Story: The Uncelebrated.

These are long(ish) pieces, which I hesitantly call creative non-fiction. For now, I am going to keep the posts password-protected, till I am surer where I am going with this. So drop me a line if you want to read these stories.


[Book Reviews] Translated works: Doubly delightful

So, here’s how I am celebrating the diversity of India, and the 70th year of Independence. 

One of the best things about moving back to India is the easy access to English translation of books in regional languages.

So my review of these books is as much about the plots of the story as the depth of the translation.

(1)Pyre & (2) One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

pyre_2807812e Perumal Murugan quite clearly is in love with the couples he sketches. So you have no choice but to follow suit. These are couples that you may walk past in the railway station with barely a sideways glance; but later seek them out in a crowded compartment as in the general chaos they are the only ones in sync. But you know that that may not last. Be it Saroja and Kumaresan (Pyre) or Kali and Ponna (OPW), his couples come and stay together against many odds… Then there is that one seemingly unsurmountable problem, of not their own making, but of what society deems right.
UnknownThe childlessness of Kali and Ponna or the violent reaction of a village that cannot tolerate Saroja’s caste, by the end of Perumal’s storytelling one is left with a gloom that refuses to dissipate even days after the books go back to the shelf. Yet, in neither of these books does he attempt to give a conclusive end.

We could imagine that Kali finds it in himself to forgive a misled Ponna; or that Kumaresan arrives in time to save his beloved. But Murugan’s characters are too real and too raw. His understanding of the environment he writes about too deep. So you know the happily ever after is not what the author intends.

There are so few books that speak of the non-urban milieu. Apart from the occasional holidays in villages around Tamil Nadu, my limited knowledge of life outside of Chennai is thanks to Tamil movies. Except for Karuthamma of Bharathiraja, rest of those films were rural romances that appealed to an urban audience.

Perumal Murugan’s work provides a valuable input to fill those blanks. I don’t want to comment on the controversy surrounding the author. Pyre which shows a far uglier side of our society didn’t bother people. But there was zero tolerance for perceived insult to our religious beliefs. What does that say about us?

Translation: I will at some point read these books in the original, and will be able to give a more educated analysis of the translation. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s writing does not read as a translation. He has taken the story and retold without compromising on language or context. You never for a moment forget it’s a book set in rural Tamil Nadu, the nuances are so on point. And you never for a moment are reminded that this is just a translation.

Chemmeen by T.S.Pillai; translated by Anita Nair

Unknown-2I’ve seen bits and pieces of the much acclaimed Malayalam film (1965), but couldn’t for the life of me sit through 3 hours of Madhu’s face. What a horrible casting judgement. Because T. S. Pillai’s Pareekutty is more than Madhu’s constipated attempt at being in love.

The book was published in 1956, and speaks of the love between a young and poor Hindu girl from the fishing community and the son of a rich Muslim trader. Revolutionary no doubt. More so when you consider that the relationship doesn’t end with Karuthamma’s marriage to a man from the community, with whom she bears a child.

So with that in mind I went back and watched the film after reading the translation. That the movie was a hit and so well received is a reflection of the mindset of the audience then. I wonder if a story this ahead of its time would have been a success anywhere but in Kerala.

It’s more than just a doomed love story though. Pillai’s rendering of the fishing community is exceptional, that the translator has managed to bring forth in English. You are transported to the west coast of India, taking in every little detail, the rough seas and salty breeze; the smell of dried fish and the air of despair of a people stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Translation: Anita Nair mentions that she had the book read to her (probably several dozen times) to translate it. This is quite evident, because she is not translating Pillai’s work, but telling Pillai’s story, quite faithfully. She has kept the translation contemporary enough to attract young readers.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh; translated by Srinath Perur

Unknown-1This is going to be a quick one. A family’s rise from want to riches, and greed. Money does taint relationships. It gives it hues that poverty can’t afford. Shanbagh tells the story from the point of view of the son caught between his conscience and his inability to break free. A quick read, each of the characters are etched quite definitively, until you reach the end and you wonder if you read the book right. Maybe once I am done with the stacks of unread books I will re-read this.

Translation: I have a fair grasp of how stories are told in Tamil and Malayalam. The original is Kannada, and I’ve neither seen films nor read other translations. As a first, it does a fairly good job. However, I didn’t quite feel the cultural nuances that I did with the other books reviewed in this lot. Not sure if that’s the author’s or the translator’s shortcoming (or intention).

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar; translated by Jerry Pinto

UnknownFirst the disclaimer. I have a huge literary crush on Jerry Pinto.

Now to gush about the book. What the, what the, what the… We are introduced to the protagonist by two people who fall in love with him. Tanay and his sister Anuja. And in their describing of this man who consumes them, they reveal themselves. That they are both left heartbroken is just an aside.

Aai and Baba (Mrs and Mr Joshi), the boring Aseem, Tanay and Anuja form the family that are affected in many different ways by the paying guest who in his most intimate interactions is still consumed only by the himself.

The protagonist is never named. ‘He’ could only mean him. As Tanay says, He and Tanay had one thing in common, they were both in love with ‘him’ (paraphrased), and the same is true of the relationship between Anuja and Him.

If Ghachar Ghochar missed the cultural nuances, Cobalt Blue has it in spades. How delightfully identifiable are the Joshis. For me personally, Tanay’s story was far more intimate. Anuja’s not so. The author quite clearly has a better knack of sketching male characters than female ones. I would like to believe that this is not a lack in translation as Pinto’s Em was so beautifully sketched, she still sits firm in my heart.

Cobalt Blue also manages to touch upon the politics of LGBT movement, even if sparingly. When Tanay seeks to find acceptance in our religion for a campaign against the more popular West-centric campaigns. It’s to the author’s credit that he opens windows of discussions just enough to get people thinking, and not too much that it might scare readers away.

Translation: What do I say? Spectacular. Pinto can take melancholy and humour and package it with romance, and dare you to find a genre for his writing. I haven’t read anything else by the author or seen his films (which I sure will now), but Pinto’s work I am familiar with. This is unlike his original work, which shows great discipline. He so easily could have made it his story (which to a degree Nair does). Like Vasudevan’s translation, this too respects the culture and context, and doesn’t force a linguistic translation at the cost of narrative.







The long kiss goodbye Qatar… Part I

Last night, in an ill-timed attempt at domesticity, I burnt a hole in O’s choir uniform. It’s 9pm Thursday night. She is flying to Germany with her group on Monday, and I had a flight to catch early this morning.

Disaster. But not quite.

Thank goodness this is Doha. I hailed a taxi and ran out of the house. It was 9.15pm. The Uber guy sensed my frenzy and offered to wait at my many stops. So I hopped from one fabric store to another – Mansoura, Muntazah and finally the souq. And found the fabric I need, and a tailor who was open past 10pm.

This would be practically impossible in most places around the world. I know that these conveniences come at a cost. Overworked salesmen at the souq and tailor shop; but a happy customer means a few riyals more in their savings. This is Qatar. It’s not a flat, homogenous society. It is an intricate weave. Yet, people live in silos with little or no recognition of what lies beyond their immediate living and work space.

I have friends who live and work in West Bay area. But for the Airport, they don’t have any idea of life on the other side of the bay. Over the last couple of months I’ve been tracing memories of my 17 years in Doha (and instagramming it), taking advantage of the great weather, and walking around the city. You see, that’s how I discovered its many nooks and crannies when I first came here in 1999, taking long midnight walks with my new husband.

My very first home has now been swallowed up by Msheireb Downtown.

My second home, once a sparkling new 2-storeyed apartment is rundown. It is still precious, both because it was the first home I ‘set-up’ (and almost burnt down learning to cook), and because of the landlord. A kindly old Qatari man who was so inordinately fond of my husband and me, the second year of contract he reduced our rent from QR1500 to QR1300. Yes, once upon a time rents were that low.

I would spend muggy evenings on the terrace looking into my neighbour’s courtyard. About a dozen ‘single‘ men sharing an open-air communal kitchen and the rooms circling it. There was a rhythm. The pathans would cook later, after prayers; the others from the Indian sub-continent would cook earlier and make something more elaborate. The smell of frying onions and seasonings would hold me in good stead as I ate my own awful culinary experiments. Did they know they had an audience? A kindred homesick spirit, only with a little more privilege? That I noticed their meal got simpler towards the end of the month?

Walking around the city is how I discovered the many lives that it helps build and vice-versa; the lives that remain invisible and in the shadows of the city’s glitzy facade. The neighbourhood grocers and cobblers, the ‘orange taxi’ drivers (some of whom spoke a little too much) and the friendly old Qatari proprietors who sat outside their shops with a sheesha, down Abdulla bin Thani road.

Which makes me wonder, how many of us who live here really see it? Do we mindlessly take for granted or whinge about life here? So I ask you, Qataris and expats…

When you drive past the Corniche or walk through the Pearl boulevards do you pause to think who makes this happen?

And those who grew up here, nationals and rest, how much do you really know of this country? Its history and its topography? How often do you get down from your cars and enjoy a pedestrian view of your home? Do you ever take a dhow ride just to admire the bay?

When you have to give your Qatar id card at every stop, from office towers to residential compounds, do you feel like you are in an Orwellian play? What are they really keeping track of?

When you say Qatar is boring, do you ever wonder it could be just you, not the place?

Have you ever been to the Inland sea and been unmoved by its beauty and by how we trash it?

Do you shed any tears when the few trees around are brought down to be replaced by some concrete monstrosity?

Those of you who chose to move to Qatar, with privilege, is it really such a bad thing that it isn’t  ‘just like back home’?

And how many of you nationals really bother to understand the sub-cultures that the foreigners bring to your land?

Can we learn to criticise without malice? Can we receive criticism as interest and not an attack?

And Qatar, maybe it’s time to press pause on your rebuilding? It’s way too much too soon. Take a deep breath…

Pssst! I will continue the photo tour on instagram

PS: I wrote this post on my phone at the airport, to which I attribute the embarrassing number of misplaced punctuations and typos. I finally read the post, on a phone again, and have attempted to fix it.

The One in Which I Am Moving, But Not Moving Back.

You are moving back? Are you going back home?

I am not. But that isn’t completely true.

I don’t know how to give an honest answer to these questions.

The place I am moving to is not one I am familiar with any more. It is not home either.

Every time I go ‘back’, it’s a little bit more unfamiliar, a little bit more indecipherable. I seem to fit in a little bit less less with every landing. A little bit more acclimatised with every take-off.

Yet, there’s no conflict in my mind or heart about moving to India after 17 years of living in Qatar. It seems the right thing to do, to expose my daughters, especially the teen, to another way of living. Pleasures and challenges that would be very different from what Qatar offered us.

Doesn’t that make India home? Then why doesn’t it seem so?

I am frequently asked if Qatar is home after 17 years.

Not in the least (this is one reason why). It’s a place I am comfortable in and find myself defending fiercely against ill-informed assumptions. It is not home either. And I don’t think Qatar wants to be the home for it hundreds of thousands of foreign residents. At best it wants to be a  comfortable transit house. At worst…

So then, home?

It is where my children are. And where I have access to MY people. Sometimes it is a messaging app. Home is in that rip-roaring laugh of a friend. A hug so tight it squeezes out all the melancholic thoughts. It’s watching my 7-year-old caress my 76-year-old mum’s wrinkled neck. Home is often in three simple words over an international call: “Are you alright?” Home is in all those moments, in all those memories. It is not a physical space.

Just because I don’t feel at home in any one place, doesn’t mean I feel estranged.

I started writing this post at an airport terminal… The closest to feeling a sense of belonging, I’ve now realised, is in spaces such as this. Departure terminals. Be it at airports or rail stations or bus stops.

When you know you’ve left, but have not arrived yet. In that suspended physical space of myriad possibilities I feel truly at home.

PS: Check out my instagram account @vanishforever for some #LongKissGoodBye posts on Qatar. This is not my good bye post, that will come in due time.


1. Where are you moving to?


2. When are you moving?

End April, early May

3. Why are you moving now?

Because O is going into high school, and if not now, then when?

4. That means you are going away for good?

(This question always throws me off a bit) I will still be in and out of Qatar for a few months longer, as the man continues here for a bit and I still have ongoing projects/work here.

5. Will I miss Qatar?

As much as Qatar would miss me.