[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. Should I refer to T as she? 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 makeup 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 N. 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 to 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 such 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.