[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.


A GIFT FOR MY BROTHER: A short story. Too short.

I know what I should gift my brother on our 30th birthday, but I don’t know if I will pull it off. Half wit or not, and whichever end of the spectrum he might fall into, a man can’t live by his hands alone.

I hate the environment I grew up in. The very first memory I can recollect is smuggling my knickers and a vest into my nursery school bag, with a wish to escape the stifling cheeriness of my home. Apart from pretending Vedant and I were equals—which we were not, the family then was dealing with another obsession.

A fat, dimpled and forever gurgling nuisance who lulled my parents, grandparents and brother into believing our family couldn’t get more perfect. Even the cries induced by my sneaky pinches faded away within seconds of Vedant cooing into her ears.

The perennially upbeat attitude of my odd family drove me crazy. Stray dogs were fed, the evil cat always had a ready saucer of milk, relatives wandered in demanding food and bode, friends dropped in to spend hours discussing politics and academia.

So, from the instant I could make a choice, I chose friends with a more realistic view of the world. We stoned strays, flattened tyres, plagiarised school projects (a supreme sin in my parents’ eyes), and at 12, started jerking-off during recess . We smoked pot and travelled ticketless. And as far as possible I included Vedant in my growing-up.

Why should my brother suffer the unbearable impracticality of my family?

Tyres, strays, and pot didn’t appeal to Vedant. Public transport was a no-no. But jerking-off he embraced wholeheartedly.

It sickens me that 18 years later, that’s all the opportunity he gets, still. My blighted family! They have stretched their middleclass incomes to pamper him: got him an iPad to read books, a large screen PC to run his transcription jig, and even fly him business class. But sex, which would have come for much less, they have rudely blocked from their sight.

In case you wonder, my twin falls somewhere in the autistic spectrum. I really don’t care for the details. He is what used to be called simply as mentally retarded some years ago. The lexicon has been cleaned up since, but little practical development has been made in understanding his (or his like) needs. That’s far more insulting than the various labels we pick and reject.

Vedant is lucky. He has a slightly droopy mouth, eyes that don’t stay focussed for too long, and a rather deep, infectious laugh. With that combination, when he blatantly ogles women, especially those with big boobs (our fetish), it does not come across as creepy as when I do.

I sit planning our 30th birthday, as my menopausal girlfriend—between hot flashes and mood swings—is planning life without contraceptives and fear of pregnancy. There is a bipolar reason why I chose to hook up with an older woman. The chances of her getting pregnant or wanting to are low—which thrills me; and if she does, the chances of a child with a disability is high, which depresses me to suicidal depths.

Back to THE gift. I don’t trust Delhi women. I have to look outside of our hometown. Bombay girls are too commercial, and scouting Calcutta for a gift for a 30-year-old virgin doesn’t seem practical.

If I go south my mother’s jingoist feelings might be hurt (Malayalam film history notwithstanding). I have for long had the suspicion that my mother blames my father’s dubious Parsi gene pool for the soup one of her twins landed in. My father truly believes that it is about being different not abnormal.

Vidi, the sister, has been secondhand pot smoking (thank you, you are welcome!) for too long to know the difference.

I don’t have a particular feeling towards or about my brother.

I am my brother.

I know what Vedant needs.

On the big 3-0 my brother and parents will be visiting the still fat, dimpled and forever gurgling sister of mine in the US of A. She is now out of diapers and doing her doctorate in—save me from my family—autism and theatre. They have all made a living and a virtue out of my brother’s disability.

At 25, she has already graduated into a sex goddess thanks to a horny Punju (uh, Haryanvi, she never fails to correct me) boyfriend. Maybe she could find a suitable GIFT in Louisiana.

For all their equality play, my professorial parents played ostrich. When I turned 15, they gave me a couple of books on sex and puberty… two years too late. That was also the first time they got something for me alone. It made me feel both strangely special and indignant for Vedant. When we were 15, in their head at least, my parents neutered my brother.

Some years ago I tried raising the subject of Vedant, autism and sex, and how all three will have to co-exist harmoniously.

My grandmother, otherwise quite open-minded (she even greets my girlfriend on her birthday), had a bout of pretend palpitations. I know she was thinking, unfavourably, of the rather convincing play by Radhika and Prathap Pothen in Meendum Oru Kaadal Kathai.

But what I had in mind for Vedant was more Kamal Hassan in Chippikul Muthu, except it should be Vidya Balan not Vijaya Shanthi. As a professional film critic, I find both my reference and my solace in films. I also find my realism in it. Which is why, what I really want (for him as well) is Mickey Rourke meets Kim Bassinger moments.

My brother is a composite of interesting sparks—photographic memory, ability to identify the make of a car from its key, superb medical transcription ability, no regard for social mores, and what’s on his mind will be expressed no matter what the occasion or location. At 29, he will still throw a tantrum if his Sprite is too cold, and fling the bowl of sambhar across the table if his dosai is not crisp enough. He will scratch his balls to relieve an itch, no matter whose company he is in.

But masturbation he pretends he neither indulges in nor knows of.  The porn on his computer is skilfully hidden. Secrets only I know.

I see longing when he smiles at the many ‘happy’ couples—students, alumni—who wander in and out of my parents’ home, arm-in-arm with barely hidden lust. I see him hurry to his room after watching the young bai on all fours, mopping the drawing-room floor.

I also understand the violent tantrums that neither my grandmother’s music nor my father’s soothing voice can control.

I can feel the physical pain of his celibacy.

Which is why I have decided that I will gift him a hooker.