TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION An Initiative for Peace and Gender Equality through Storytelling

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An image from Nahid / Cover image of her book,
"Tears in The Veil" 
A poet, an artist and a writer, Nahid Walizadda is using art advocacy in a powerful way to tell her story, and to share the true picture of the reality that challenges many women in her community. 
Here is her story in her own words.
I am Nahid Walizadda. When I was three, I was really keen on joining school and begin studying. I persisted in following my sisters to school. Academically precocious, I surprised all my teachers by keeping pace with the older students.  As a child, I liked going to school, even when I was sick. I had a thirst for knowledge and that exists even today. My father told everyone, “My daughter is a brave girl and she will become a leader in the future!”
I have three sisters and one brother. My mother is a housewife and my father is a doctor. He first worked in an American organization called ATC as a surgeon. He helped people who had lost their legs and hands in mines. After finishing with that organization, my father started working as a doctor in one of the provinces of Afghanistan, called Badakhshan. Later, we moved to Baghlan, where I was born.
I was born in 1993. I was just a month old when my family fled our home in Baghlan province. The country had been staggered by years of war then, and has sinced faced ongoing civil conflicts since. My parents, my two older sisters and I took on a 300-mile drive to seek refuge in the city of Peshawar, Pakistan. I studied in the Rabia Balkhi High school in Peshawar. My school was like a home to me. We had male and female teachers. In the mornings, classes were conducted for girls and in the evening for the boys. All the students and teachers were Afghan. After I graduated from school, I secured admission in the Bachelor of Business Administration course at Preston University Peshawar.
At the age of six, I was struck by a speeding car on my way to school. I fell into a coma for three days and was hospitalized for two months. I discovered a passion for art when I was recovering. While still recuperating at home, I began to draw sketches on the lined pages of my notebook. Back when I was in school, my sketches impressed my teachers as much as my test scores.
My interest for poetry started when one day, I saw, on my way to university, many women begging and children working, instead of getting an education. From the window of the van that I was in, I saw homes made of fabric and sticks and women washing clothes and children swimming in dirty water.
Though I love rainy weather, I do become sad when I think of what these women will do when it rains. Being a woman in Afghanistan and Pakistan is really hard and seeing that makes me sad. It hurts to watch on television or read in the news about stories about women being burnt or killed by their husbands. How many women remain illiterate because of Taliban! I wonder why we women are silent. Why must men claim to own us? That was when I started writing poems about women and I sent one poem and some of my drawings to Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP). The readers loved my poem. My poetry and drawings were also published online, via Google and in a magazine called OF NOTE.
I want to complete my education completely. It’s one of my dreams to pursue a Master’s Degree in Business Administration in the United States of America. My ultimate goal is to return to the land of my birth in order to address issues concerning women’s rights. My dream is to see all people happy, and to see the world as a peaceful and safe place. My ambition is to became a leader to address issues that challenge women and give them equal rights.


"The star and the crescent : Our joint destiny"

by Lea Gabay 

The year is 1492 in Granada, Spain at the height of the Inquisition[1] and during the final stages of La Reconquista[2]. The Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile reign over their kingdom with an iron fist. Their plan is to purge the country of religious minorities, perceived as a threat to the predominantly Catholic population. Considered heretics, Jews are subjected to the worst forms of persecution, discrimination and are victims of massacres.  Muslims are also persecuted, harassed, and killed. 
This story begins on the eve of the announcement of the decree known as the Alhambra Decree which gives all Spanish Jews three months to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. 
    My name is Miriam. Papá once told me that I was named after Moses’s older sister from our Holy Book. He also said with a sly grin that it meant “rebellious” in Hebrew. I have always wondered why he had chosen that name for I am not one to ever question authority. I have lived all my life in Realejo[3], among people of my faith. Times have been very difficult for us. There are so many restrictions on our daily lives that we feel that we are suffocating every day; worse, we can’t even practice our religion openly for fear of being arrested, tortured, or even killed.
I never thought of myself as being a brave person, much less as being able to trust someone from another religion. All that changed on that one fateful day that determined the course of my destiny.
It was early morning and Mamá had asked me to run to the butcher shop to buy some meat. There was a palpable sense of fear that permeated Realejo. We were bracing ourselves for impending doom. I knew that I should not waste any time on the streets. It felt eerily quiet as I was walking towards the butcher shop. When I arrived, I saw that it had been vandalized: Pieces of meat were strewn all over the floor and there lying in the middle of the shop in his own pool of blood was the butcher. I let out a shriek, dropped my basket and ran out as fast I could.
No sooner had I turned a corner that I felt a sharp tug at my shirt collar, causing me to fall to the floor. I spun around in fright and looked up to see three menacing looking young men staring at me with hatred in their eyes.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? Looks like someone’s lost, “ announced one of the men with a smirk.  Another one chimed in: “He He. Yes, indeed. This has been a productive morning. We got the butcher and now, looks like we got ourselves another nice catch. What’s your name, my pretty?” Petrified, I mumbled my name. The third man lowered himself so that he was looking straight me. I could discern the hate in his eyes.
“Well, that’s an interesting name. MI-RI-AM,” he stressed each syllable with great disgust. “Doesn’t sound very Catholic, does it?”
The other two men grimaced.  “Sounds to me like we have in front of us a judÍa[4],” the second man added.
 “Yeah, look at her. A filthy Jewish scum,” the first man snarled.
Suddenly, he leaned over and slapped me right across the cheek. As I felt the spot where he had hit me, he bellowed: “You’re so disgusting. You people bring nothing but filth. You spread disease; you are a disgrace to Spain.” I wanted him to stop listening to such horrific words, but the men kept on.
 “You do nothing but bring bad luck to us good Catholics. You don’t believe in God. You just want to kill us and drink our children’s blood. You Christ killers. We should purge our country of your lot,” the first one barked.
 I pleaded for them to stop, asking them to have mercy. “Did you hear that? She wants us to have mercy! “ the second man scoffed.
He then paused for a moment, turned to his companions and gave them a knowing smile before declaring: “ I have an idea. Let’s show her how merciful we can be.”
The devilish grin that he flashed me left me with little about what they had in store for me.
At that moment, the first man grabbed me by the hair and pulled me down to the floor. He then violently spread my legs apart and yanked my skirt up. Frightened, I tried helplessly to release myself from his grip by pushing his arms away and twisting myself in all directions, but someone seized my arms and tied them behind my back so that I could not move.  Tears were streaming down my face as I continued to beg for mercy. The first man struck me on the head and told me to be quiet. As I watched the second man undo his pants, preparing himself to enter me, I closed my eyes and prayed for it to be over soon. My prayers were interrupted when I heard a voice in the distance, asking the men what they were doing.
The second man whirled around and demanded that he and his companions be left alone. But the voice refused, asking them why they were doing this to me. I craned my neck to see where the voice was coming from.  I could make out the features of a young man about my age with dark curly hair, brown eyes, and a kind face. Although he was trying to appear calm, his voice betrayed his fear.
The first man stared at him up and down and retorted: “From the looks of it you’re not Catholic either.” The other two nodded in agreement and the third man growled: “ He’s definitely not a Catholic. He’s a disgusting little moro[5].” Moro, what are you doing in these parts? Are you here for this judÍa?”.
 “You know what, boys? This is our lucky day. We have two Devil worshipers in front of us. Let’s also teach both of them a lesson,” the second man said.
 I was terrified. The young man had tried to save me and they were going to hurt him. “May God have mercy on us”, I thought.
All of sudden, I heard a shriek: The second man was holding his nose which was bleeding heavily. Next to him was a big rock. I realized that the young man had thrown it at him. Immediately, his two companions rushed to his aid. After that, everything happened so quickly: My arms were freed; the young man ran to me, grabbed my arm and yelled: “Run!”
 I scrambled to my feet and before I knew it we were darting through the streets, searching for a place to hide.
After what felt like forever, we turned a corner and went behind a large brown colored house. We waited for some moments for the coast to be clear. Then, the young man leaned against the wall and let out a huge sigh of relief: “Ufff that was close”.
 He looked over his shoulder and asked me if I was OK and whether the men had hurt me. Trying to steady myself while fighting the urge to break into tears, I shook my head and crouched down to the floor.
The young man began to speak: “I’m sorry that they did this to you. My name is Yusuf. And you?” “Miriam” I whispered. 
“Miriam…That’s a nice name.” He then hesitated before asking: “ So, why were they hurting you?”
At that moment, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks: “It’s bbbb…It’s because I’m JJJJewwwish,” I murmured.
 Looking at me sympathetically, Yusuf apologized for the situation and suggested that he take me home as soon as possible. I agreed and we set off.
As we were walking, he asked me some questions about myself and my family and told me about his own family; that he lived with his mother and two brothers in Albayzín[6]; that his father had passed away and that he worked in a bakery. Although I was still shaken by the events of that day, I was also aware that this was the very first time that I was speaking to a Muslim. Until that day I had never really talked to anyone outside of my faith. The restrictions imposed on us by the Catholic Monarchs had made it so. I wondered whether Muslims were like us. I mentioned this to Yusuf who grinned at me: “So, I’m the first Muslim you’ve met. Well, actually I learned that we have some things in common.”
Seeing the look of consternation on my face, he continued: “I used to have a Jewish friend whose name is Ephraim. One day he told me some things about his religion. He said that  he believes in one God and that he has a day of rest called Shabbat and that he doesn’t eat pork. Well, this may surprise you, but in Islam we also believe in one God; we call him Allah and we don’t eat pork. We also have a day of rest on Friday. It’s called Jumu’ah.”
 I was indeed surprised to hear that our religions shared similar traditions. I had always assumed that my religion was so unique and here I had just discovered that some of our practices were followed by another religion. This made me wonder whether Yusuf and his family were forced to hide their religion for fear of being persecuted. “Yes, my family and I are often preyed upon for not being Christian,” he replied, his face suddenly turning grim. He paused before explaining that he even came close to being killed one day by a mob that marched into Albayzín looking to attack any non-Christians they could find. 
“I really don’t know what will happen. The situation is looking very bleak for all of us who are non-Christians or don’t follow the ways of the Catholic Church,” he muttered. 
Suddenly, I had an urge to ask him:  “Yusuf, do you think that we will have to leave? I heard rumors that the King and Queen want to expel the Jews from Spain. Do you think they will do the same for Muslims?”
 Yusuf stared at me with a great sadness in his eyes and answered: “It’s quite possible; it’s only a matter of time…”
“But, why? What have we done?” I responded in tone of deep frustration. “ Why do they hate us? Why can’t they leave us alone? We aren’t doing anything wrong? We live normal lives. We aren’t hurting anyone.”
“I wish I knew, Miriam. I agree that we are human beings like everyone else. We are not animals. We should be allowed to live in peace with everyone,” said Yusuf.
By the time we had finished talking, we had reached my home. I turned to Yusuf and looked at him full of gratitude and respect. “Here is my house. Yusuf, I can’t thank you enough for your help. You saved me. If you hadn’t been there, I….” My voice trailed off as I felt myself on the verge of tears.
This made Yusuf slightly uncomfortable. He assured me that it was nothing and that his faith had taught him to help those in need. Nevertheless, I was very eager to repay him somehow for his kindness. I then had the idea of making a special meal for him to thank him. I suggested that he come by tomorrow and I would give it to him. Smiling, Yusuf accepted the offer and promised to return the next day. We then said good-bye and I went into the house.
Little did I know that the following day would be our last in Spain. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I proclaimed the next morning that the Jews of Spain had three months to either convert or leave the country. Officials flanked by armed guards immediately roamed the streets spreading the Monarch’s message. We were informed of this news through a neighbor. Papá and Mamá were devastated. Although we could stay a little longer in Spain, my father refused, fearing that we would suffer greatly. It was thus with a heavy heart that we began packing our things.
I had completely forgotten that Yusuf was coming on that day when I heard a commotion outside of our house. I opened the door just in time to see a guard hitting Yusuf on the side of his ear. Yusuf then fell to the floor holding onto his bleeding ear. I instantly rushed to him while the guard continued to insult him. “Do not touch him, judÍa!” he barked.
“Please, sir, don’t hurt him!” I pleaded. “He didn’t mean any harm.” It astonished me that I was able to say this to the guard. I kept going: “Please, we will go inside now.” 
 “You insolent girl. How dare you talk to me this way. I will kill both of you,”  the guard shouted.
I froze. “Oh no, he’s going to kill us. I have to think of something quickly,” I thought terror-stricken. “Wait, please, sir, spare us. I can give you whatever you want. We…we have jewelry.”
“Jewelry, huh?” The guard looked interested. “ Are you trying to entice me? You judÍos do that so well” He looked around for a moment and then stated menacingly: “Alright, give me the jewelry and  I’ll let you go. But on one condition, I never want to see any of you again I see you again, I promise that I will kill you.”
I bolted into the house to tell my parents. They had heard about Yusuf having saved my life and when they learned that his life was now in danger, they immediately rummaged through a chest to find some jewelry. Moments later, my parents and I came out of the house and handed some rings and necklaces to the guard who snatched them from us, warning us that if he saw us again, he would kill us. I knew that he meant it. We had no choice but to leave.
Once he left, Papá and Mamá and I helped Yusuf stand up. They thanked him again for having helped me. Yusuf was visibly shaken by the guard’s words. “What should I do? I can’t stay here. He will come and kill my family and me.”
I looked at Yusuf and then turned to Papá: Papá,  he needs to come with us. It’s the only way to help him.”
Papá seemed to hesitate. This was a big decision. He didn’t know Yusuf and was worried that he was taking a risk having him come with us.
 “Papá, please, he saved me. If he hadn’t been there, God only knows where I would be now.  He has a good heart and I know that we can trust him. He helped me and now it’s our turn to help him. Our religion tells us to help those in need,” I argued, emboldened.
After a few moments, Papá sighed: “Yes, I think, you’re right. Yusuf, you should come with us. You could hide, but I don’t know for how long. It looks like it won’t be long until Muslims too are the next victims”.
When Yusuf requested that his family join us, Papá assented and said to him that he needed to go home as soon as possible to inform his family and pack some things. He finally told Yusuf to meet us at the entrance of the city. “We don’t have much time. Please hurry!” urged Mamá.
As Yusuf was about to leave, I called out to him: “Yusuf, I will see you soon. “ I paused and then said: “B'ezrat Hashem[7]!”
Yusuf looked at me knowingly and replied: “Inch’allah[8]!” and ran off in the distance.

THE END




















[1]  A tribunal under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church which sought to punish heresy by severely persecuting, questioning, and torturing all those considered non-Christian. It started in the 12th century and spread to Central and Western Europe.
[2]  A period in Spanish History between the Islamic conquest of Spain in the 7th century to the fall of Granada, the last Islamic state, to the expansion of the Christian kingdoms in 1492.
[3] The Jewish Quarter in Granada
[4] In Spanish: Jew
[5]  In Spanish:  Moor. In Medieval Spain, the term referred to Muslims of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta of Berber and Arab descent. Today it is considered a pejorative term used to talk about someone from North Africa.
[6]  The Muslim Quarter in Granada
[7]  In Hebrew: God willing
[8] In Arabic: God willing
Karthik Shankar

Makeshift families are vital for transgender people in a society that constantly belittles them.  Stereotypes are perpetuated from all corners, including the film industries. Transgender women are alternately portrayed usually as murderous deviants or buffoons. A 2015 Tamil movie ‘I’ caught flak with transgender groups for portraying a transgender woman as a villainous shrew who constantly violates the personal space of the hero. 

When I ask Kalki, what the biggest misconceptions about her community are, she wryly asks me to list some of them. I trip over my own words, hoping not to offend her. I tell her a lot of people fear the eunuchs who come begging. She listens to me patiently. She then asks me to define a eunuch. I then immediately reel out my definitions of a eunuch, transgender and transvestite. I begin to realise that I sound more and more ignorant.

She corrects me on my etymology. “Eunuch is a derogatory word for a transgender. Transgender is an umbrella term which encompasses transgenders, transsexuals and transvestites. Those people who are begging are also usually transgenders.”

 In our culture the image of most transgenders as eunuchs is constantly invoked. It both reinforces the idea that they are missing an appendage and that any of us could get forcefully converted. Moreover, few of us stop to think about the violence that is perpetuated towards transgenders through language. In southern India, transgenders are derogatorily referred to as ombothu (nine). While no one is sure about its origins, there are some indications that it is because the number’s symbol can be flipped either way; a cleverly cruel insult for people who switch their biological sex or gender.   
In the north, the term most commonly used for this community is hijra (eunuch). This has a basis in our cultural history. In ancient India, castrated men used to stand guard for women of royal households; ensuring they would not force themselves on the princesses.

Things are obviously different in 21st century India. However, most Indians still look at identifying with a third gender as a choice made under duress rather than something that emerges naturally. 
The transgender community is still the source of numerous boogeyman tales. Little children are fed with tales of transgenders stealing boys and castrating them for nefarious purposes.  Kalki says that in her entire activism career, she has come across only one boy who was castrated. Thejaswin prods her a little about the case. His short film script concerns a young boy who is castrated and then sold into prostitution.  He tells her that the film aims to be hopeful, focusing not on the ordeal the boy has been through but his resolute nature. Kalki scoffs at this idea. “I’m sorry but the transcommunity will not support such an idea. One of the things that we are trying to do as activists is convince people that we don’t kidnap children and castrate people for sex work.”

Still prostitution is rampant in the community since economic opportunities are limited. Yet, prominent transgender activist A. Revathi explains in her biography that sex work for transgender women like her was not merely about eking a living but also about fulfilling sexual desires. Kalki has many friends who dabbled in sex work to earn money for their sex reassignment surgery and then returned to more respectable professions.

Thejaswin tries to engage her with his script’s castrated protagonist. She listens patiently and explains that in a scenario, the boy would still be a male, even if his development faculties may differ. “It’s like losing a leg. It’s tragic but life still goes on. He might be able to impersonate the other gender for a while but it’s an act of survival. It isn’t his identity.”

While Kalki describes herself as soft spoken, she has little patience for those who discriminate against transgenders. She rails against those who sympathetically declare transgenders, nature’s mistake. “Being a transgender person is natural. Looking at it as nature’s mistake is a mistake.” She has a special vitriol for the melodramatic poems that are commonly published in Tamil magazines by cisgender authors. The poems pity transgenders for being born the way they are.  “We don’t need sympathy” she snaps.  “We are happy with who we are.”

She uses poetry as her mode of retaliation. An upcoming lyricist in the Tamil film industry who worked in a few prominent films had a crush on her. Unfortunately, he kept asking her extremely personal questions about her body. She fishes out a notebook from one of her rooms. The poem titled Mun Kurippu sees a man constantly posing questions to a transwoman. Are your breasts real? Are your genitals real? Are you really a woman? The woman keeps answering yes to each one of them. The poem ends with the transwoman posing a question to the man. Are you really a man?
The poem was posted on Kalki’s Facebook account and created a minor storm. Even a few transgenders questioned Kalki, asking her what was wrong if someone had questions. After all, she could have sensitised him. However Kalki retorted, “Would he have the guts to ask such a question to a biological woman?”

This dehumanisation is something Kalki and her friends have to put up with on a daily basis. Once, a group of them entered a photo studio and were met with snickers by one of the attendants. One of Kalki’s friends unleashed a tirade of profanities against the young woman in front of the entire staff and customers. The attendant didn’t utter another word. 

She still maintains though that Tamil Nadu is a more accepting place for transgenders especially compared to states like Kerala. Kalki who has been to the latter state several times describes it as utterly transphobic and homophobic. She remembers one instance just a day after she had given an interview with Malayalam Manorama, the state’s largest circulating daily. At a train station, on her way to Kumaragaon, Kalki and her friends found themselves being stared at by almost three hundred men. Many of them also passed crude comments in front of them in Malayalam.  “It’s so horrible the way men treat transgenders there. It’s completely vulgar and this is a state that claims to have 100% literacy. It makes you question what education is.” She laughs impishly and declares only half-jokingly “I think people there are sexually oppressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if masturbation was illegal there!”

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Ironically, the same discrimination that alienates Kalki from mainstream society insulates her from societal norms. Kalki lives a free and independent life in Auroville. She is free to smoke, drink, date guys and dress as she pleases.

Kalki explains that transgenders enjoy greater independence compared to biological women because they navigate gender roles. “We are actually fighting to be put into a box, even at the cost of losing our individuality and freedom.” Some of these cultural expectations are placed on Kalki by her mother. “It is impossible for me. She expects me to act the same way like my sisters; do household work, wear traditional clothes and no makeup. She expects me to be a typical Tamil girl and I can’t do that.”

 “If I wanted to live, date or sleep around with a guy I can do it. I can also tell him to get lost. If a biological woman does that she is labelled a prostitute. A woman rarely sets foot into a Tasmac (one of the thousand government liquor stores across the state of Tamil Nadu) but transgender women drink and smoke. If we dress flamboyantly, we are just expressing ourselves. We are the only women in the country who enjoy our womanhood.”

What Kalki says might be a broad generalisation but there’s an inkling of truth to what she says. Most women in India are still constrained by ugly noose of patriarchy. Kalki minces no words. “Women in Indian society are still treated as subhuman. Women may be an accepted sex but they pay a price for it. When they are young, they listen to their father. Then they get married, they have to listen to their husband. She has to sacrifice her life for her babies and keep the honour of the family intact. She doesn’t have the freedom to be herself. She doesn’t have the freedom to say no to her husband, even if he wants sex.”

Kalki also has to deal with another unsavoury part of being a woman in India; being stalked by men. “It’s always married men who are frustrated with their sex lives. Sometimes I am followed for miles. I usually stop and ask them what they want. Sometimes they want to take a picture of me. Sometimes they want to ask me out.”

Kalki says the experience sometimes make her feel it was better off being a man. She is a fan of night bike rides but can’t usually join her male friends who fear for her safety. Kalki emphasises however that any moment of bemoaning has to do with her freedom. “Just because I change my gender, I become a victim of all these cultural norms. Even among the transgender community, there are certain stereotypes about knowing how to cook, draping a sari or indulging in vices. I know what I want and I know that I am a woman. Luckily I was not biologically born a woman, otherwise I would have been married off to a man and my life would revolve around staying at home cooking food and watching television.”

Kalki and her friends have on occasion tried to give women a taste of the kind of social life that is usually denied to them. In 2012, she and a couple of friends ushered in the new year at a beach house in Chennai which was attended by over forty women from a nearby fishing slum. Kalki, already good friends with most of the woman, was frequently invited for their family events and was glad to return the favour. The soirée had copious amounts of food, beer and cigarettes.  Kuthu songs (a popular folk music genre in the Tamil music industry) blared from the radio behind closed doors. All the women let their hair down; dancing for several hours. Some of them tasted beer for the first time. As Kalki describes it, “They were living life for the first time. Although, we made sure they didn’t drink too much. We didn’t want them to go home drunk!”

That festive experience was a game-changer for Kalki, who for long had placed psychological barriers between her and biological women.  “I realised women are not different from us. It’s just that we transwomen have the freedom. It was a wakeup call for most of us because we wanted to be like these women; get married, have a husband and kids; but  on the other side, they wanted to be like us. That day we realised we just have to be ourselves.”

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Kalki has kept up her promise to her parents. Her heavy involvement with transgender rights has seen her become one of its most prominent spokesperson for the community in India. She is regularly invited for sensitisation programmes by schools, colleges and corporates. Schools are her favourite. School students stand around talking to her long after her seminar. They also treat her like a celebrity and she is inundated with autograph requests. Many of them add her on Facebook. “Children are amazing” she says with a glint in her eyes. “They are so open minded at that age and immediately accepting. They also come up with the most insightful questions. Positively influencing the mindset of a new generation is the noblest thing one can do.” Kalki is writing a guide book for teachers to support gender confused children. She also has plans of creating a comic book about the issue and distributing it among children.

Kalki has also presented the community’s problems to judicial academies, high courts, district courts, states legal rights authorities and even the Supreme Court. In 2010, she was an official guest of the United States government. Over three weeks, she visited federal offices in Washington DC, New York and Salt Lake City that were working on minority issues. She also visited Amnesty International, New York Commission for Human Rights and the United Nations. She says the level of commitment she saw towards gender rights inspired her to work even harder on her activism.
However, she is disillusioned by the fact that only NGOs involved in sexual health projects are able to raise funds in India. Legal rights and awareness are rarely seen as priorities by international donor agencies like USAID and World Bank. Kalki has strong words to say about this. “In one way all the money that comes in for these sexual health projects is just hedging prostitution. I’m not denigrating sex workers but they should give more funds towards creating awareness and viable economic opportunities. If we got any legal victories in India, it’s not because of the NGOs but because of the people on the street who raise their voices.”

Kalki played an instrumental role in the judicial process that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 judgement on transgenders, which legally declared them a third gender. This ruling may seem anathematic to transgenders in Western countries who fight to be included in a gender binary system but in India, transgenders have always considered themselves distinct.In ancient India they were referred to as Trithiya Prakirthi, which loosely translates to ‘third type’.

In 2010, the Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy, the Social Reformatory along with the Madras High Court invited Kalki and her friend Priya Babu to give a seminar on transgender issues. Dignitaries like Altamas Kabir, the then Supreme court Chief Justice and other prominent justices like IK Iqbal and P. Sathasivam were in attendance. Kalki and Priya’s presentation was a wake-up call to the judges who for the first time were confronted with the problems of the community.

A year later in Delhi, they presented yet again at a national seminar by the National Legal Services Authority and United Nations Development Programme. The programme was well represented by the judiciary across India. In 2012, NALSA (National Legal Services Authority of India) filed a public interest litigation against transgender discrimination. After much deliberation, the judges agreed. On April 15, it was legally ruled that provisions should be made by all government and private bodies for a third gender.

Kalki has a more tempered take on the verdict. She rues that the verdict barely addresses transgender men. “Also, this legalisation has arrived after almost 150 years of British era laws. This is just a step towards acknowledging us as human beings. There is a long way to go with regards to social reforms. Transgenders need to be accepted into families first.”

There is a small lull in the conversation and Thejaswin uses the opportunity to steer the conversation back to his film script. He explains how the movie indicts the mainstream community rather the transgender community. He talks about a notorious doctor in Bombay who castrated several boys for a kidnapping ring. She nods silently while taking a drink of water. “There’s a strong film to be made but it really depends on the presentation. I’m fine as long as it doesn’t perpetuate the same old transcommunity stereotypes.”

“How about changing the story to a boy dealing with gender issues in a conservative household?” I say. My helpful suggestion is immediately shot down by both Thejaswin and Kalki, who say it’ll change the whole script. I shut up immediately.

Kalki declares that the best way to bring transgender issues into the mainstream is to make a positive transgender character an integral part of a commercial movie. “Most movies rely on men dressing up like women for comedy. It’s horrible.” I bring up Dallas Buyer’s Club which won Jared Leto an Oscar. She hasn’t heard about it but she is pleased to hear that he won an award for playing a transgender woman.

Kalki is no stranger to films. She played the lead role in Narthaki. The 2011 Tamil movie is a bildungsroman about a young transgender being kicked out of his home, turning to prostitution in Mumbai and finally becoming a Bharatnatyam dancer in Thanjavur.  While Kalki admits the movie is technically lacklustre, she stands by its content. “The screenplay is very strong. The music by G.V Prakash is also lovely.” The movie received several accolades, including ‘Best Social Message’ award at the Norway Film Festival. Kalki admits while she’s thrilled about the movie’s success, she’s a little tired about people assuming that the film is autobiographical. “Almost none of it is based on my life” she smiles.

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We then move on to the topic of love. Kalki enunciates love in the flighty manner you would expect a Jane Austen heroine to. Kalki and Priya always spend several hours discussing the nature of love, which is complicated as it is even for cisgenders. “My first love was the most exciting thing in my life. When you have transitioned and someone is attracted to you, it’s an acknowledgement that you really are a woman. It’s so psychologically satisfying.”

However she believes many men break up with transgender women due to societal pressure, in the process giving up a relationship that makes them extremely fulfilled.  She bursts out an old Tamil saying that roughly translates to “A man may leave the woman, but he will never quit her.”
Kalki emphasises that a transwoman’s love for a man doesn’t come with tags. “A transgender relationship is very intense. The love is not about marriage or commitment. With a biological woman you marry her, you’re marrying the family. A transgender woman’s love is not shared with the family.”

Kalki has been luckier in her love life than many friends. One of her friends, a transman, fell in love with a girl. The pair wanted to run away together but his family forced him to marry a man. He was later raped and impregnated by his husband. With no choice he ran away to Bangalore and moved into prostitution to make ends meet. Kalki’s voice falls to a whisper when discussing him. “He contracted AIDS and died a few years later. It was horrible.”

All the transgender experiences of romances, heartbreak and unfulfilled desire inspired her to start an international project on the love stories of transgender women around the world. She’s also writing a film script for an action drama with romance that has a transgender lead. “All the things you read about transgenders in the media – books, films, it’s all the perspective of your world. It’s about what you think about us” she pointedly tells the two of us. “But what we think about and what we feel, that has not been documented much and that can be documented only by us.”

 She then tells us we’ll go for lunch. We’ve barely looked at the clock and it’s 3 p.m. already!

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We change locations and go to Secret Garden, a restaurant run a close friend of Kalki’s. We order a few different items but Kalki recommends the chicken curry with rice. The conversation continues in full swing over savoury morsels of rice and gravy.

Today Kalki leads a fulfilled life. She is finally secure in her gender identity. “It’s not a choice. It’s me. I’ve never regretted my transition.” She has also finally found acceptance among her extended family.  “I’m the darling of the family. Today, I am living an independent life because my parents supported me with education. Unfortunately many transgenders do not have that support. They are chased out of their homes. They are very vulnerable. They get raped, get infected with HIV or even killed. We need to change that.”

She recounts the painful tale of a one of her closest friends Somya. The spirited woman was akin to a sister for Kalki. However, even as a proud transgender woman, her problems got the better of her. In December 2010, she hung herself. Kalki was devastated. As a tribute to her she made a ten minute film. The eponymous short was based on footage Kalki had shot of her friend with a handicam. She admits the sound quality wasn’t great but the movie won a lot of hearts. It was screened at the Bangalore Film Festival and was shared over six hundred times on Facebook. “There’s no acting in it. It’s just footage of someone who was truly alive” she says. 

After hours of deconstructing her life, Kalki finally asks us questions. Interview subjects are not always curious about their interviewers but Kalki displays an endearing interest in our lives. She teases out of us our likes and ambitions with a warm smile, never betraying whether she thinks of us as bland or impressive.


We say our goodbyes. It’s time for the long haul back. As Kalki gets on to her scooter and zooms off in the distance, it conjures up images from popular television advertisements in my head. Modern India’s Elysian ideals of a liberated woman.  Oh what a journey it took to get there. 

A Still of Kalki from Narthaki
Karthik Shankar

In 2014, at the height of the sweltering heat that is a common fixture during May, a friend and I are furiously biking away from Chennai to Auroville. This is all in a quest to meet Kalki Subramaniam. Kalki, one of the most recognisable faces of the transgender movement in India has a Herculean list of achievements. Armed with two masters’ degrees in journalism and international relations, she established Sahodari Foundation, which aims to uplift the transgender community. She was an official guest of the United States government as a human rights activist in 2010 and has been instrumental in revamping laws related to transgenders in India. She also played the protagonist in a movie and as of this time is running for assembly in her home town of Pollachi (While she lost, she made a lot of headlines for expanding the visibility of transgenders during the state elections). She is also an avid writer. Her book of poems, Kuri Aruthean (I cut my phallus), was published in January last year.  In short she is a perfect interview subject for me and the ideal narrator for a short film Thejaswin is scripting.

After a gruelling two and a half hour bike ride, we enter a muddy path just a few miles away from the extravagant Matrimandir, the gaudy edifice that draws millions of visitors to Auroville annually. Vibrant coloured cement houses and thatched roof huts are a common sight here. We go around and hesitantly ask people where Sahodari Foundation is. Unfortunately for us, no one seems to know. After our fourth unsuccessful attempt, we switch strategies. We enquire where Kalki lives. This time a group of people gather around us, each bellowing at a different decibel, and point us towards a house near a turning.

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Kalki’s love affair with Auroville began a few years after her sex reassignment surgery. At the world famous Koovagam festival, which mixes religious pomp and carnival celebrations, she met a group of musicians. The multinational group of young men were interested in Kalki and offered her a job at a company called Sarang in Auroville. Tempted by the offer, she packed her bags. Auroville, a tiny experimental township of only 2500 was founded by Mira Alfassa in 1968 near Pondicherry. Alfassa, a Frenchwoman and collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, equal parts spiritual reformer and Yogic mystic, created the town to promote a renaissance of ‘Indian’ values. Largely populated by foreign nationals, it possesses the close-knit community ties of a small town and the cosmopolitan charm of a big city.
Kalki’s home in a village situated at the outskirts of Auroville is a hub of activism for transgender rights. She is quick to emphasise that her foundation is a community centre and not an NGO; for her the perceived difference lies in bureaucracy and approachability.  On most days, her house is filled with the bustling sounds of children. They adore Kalki, who spends her free time teaching them art and English.  For women, she conducts programmes that advocate leadership and entrepreneurial activities.

On this day, Kalki is in the company of two British women. One of them is a student from London, who runs an NGO called sexpression.uk and has spent two days with Kalki just to hear her views on sex and gender.  Kalki requests us to come back an hour later.  We acquiesce and drive around for a while, although there’s nothing much to see in the modest locality. When we return, she is comfortably dressed down in casual pants and a white Kurti while lounging on her sofa. It feels like such a casual setting for what I assume will be a loaded interview. 

Within minutes I am at ease. Kalki is warm and honest to a fault. She doesn’t shy away from the harder topics like her teenage years alienation from family, her suicide attempts or sexual desires. It’s refreshing to find someone so candid about their life experiences. Her clear accent has a slight American twang even though she hails from a small town; understandable for someone who has become an international spokesperson for the transgender community in India.

I shoot straight from the horse’s mouth. “How did your journey towards becoming a woman start?” She laughs nervously but delves right into her painful childhood experiences.

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Like most transgender people Kalki’s journey began in her early teens. Born into a typical middle class Brahmin family in the small town of Pollachi, she displayed feminine tendencies as a young boy. She loved putting on makeup and frequently stole her older sister’s lipstick and earrings. Kalki never thought about it as a problem but when she was ten she started realising something was amiss.  Body dysmorphia forced her to grapple with the fact that her biological sex was constraining her.
Never feeling comfortable in her own skin, Kalki would often steal into her sister’s wardrobe. She describes those times when she wore her sister’s innerwear and clothes as “liberating and scintillating”. Her phrasing is poetic. “Only in the moments of loneliness was I myself.”  

Her school years were “horrible and nightmarish”; marked by increasing alienation from everyone around her as well as several suicide attempts. During eighth grade, Kalki who was in an all-boys school, had to change into a vest and shorts for the Physical Education class. While societal expectations forced her into playing the part of a boy in school, she was mortified at the prospect of changing in front of the other boys. The second hour on Fridays became a nightmare for her. After waiting for all the boys to leave the class, she would hide under the bench. Unfortunately she was caught after sixteen successful attempts and reported to her parents by the headmaster. That day Kalki broke down. “I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling. I didn’t know the term transgender. I just felt abnormal” she says.

Her conservative extended family had already taken note of her feminine nature. During family gatherings, she always sat with her mother, aunts and sisters. Her relatives used to tease her saying she felt comfortable on the other side. All these moments were a constant humiliation for the gender confused teenager.

In a quest to find a community, Kalki turned to the internet and found that there were many people others like her. She met some of them to learn more, which fortified her resolve to become a woman. At the age of twelve, she started speaking about these experiences to her parents but was dismissed by them. However at fifteen, she gave an ultimatum to her mother. “I told her I’m going to change or I’m going to die.” Shattered by this admission, her parents took her to a doctor who administered her male hormones. She started going to therapy but in a small town there was little understanding even from psychiatrists.

Faced with an absence of supportive doctors who could give her counselling or hormone therapy, Kalki took things into her own hands.  She contacted Thai doctors online who prescribed a cocktail of medicines. She acquired them from transgenders who had already made a successful transition. From the age of sixteen Kalki endangered her health by self-administering hormone therapy. Fortunately, one regimen started working for her and she continued with it. However the drugs increased her depressive tendencies and she became increasingly suicidal.  In one attempt she swallowed pills in to take her life.

Her worried parents meanwhile, were on a desperate quest to remedy Kalki’s ‘problem’. After her twelfth board exams, she spent a month at a mental health centre in Vellore. Kalki enjoyed this solitudinous routine which was only broken by daily questions by doctors about her mental health. Understandably, they were unable to find a cure. 

After she was let out, Kalki miraculously came to an agreement with her parents. “My parents were frightened because all the people they saw on the streets who had changed their gender identity were begging and being a public nuisance. I promised them that I would always bring dignity to the family rather than shame.” From that day, her parents let Kalki be herself. 

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Family support wasn’t enough however. Kalki faced constant harassment in college. After she finished her master’s degree in journalism and mass communication, she joined an MNC called 365 Media. The plum job gave her financial independence for the first time. Kalki decided it was the right time to transition. “I sent an email to the CEO that I was going to undergo surgery to change my gender. I even made it clear that I would use the ladies’ toilet when I was back” she laughs. The CEO agreed and Kalki was granted a 45 day leave of absence for her sex reassignment surgery.

When she came back, she was promoted to the head of team research. However the five men in her team were not ready to take orders from a transgender woman. Moreover, all the men in the office had a problem with her using the ladies’ toilet, even though the women themselves didn’t share these qualms. She laughs girlishly while describing the entire experience. “In retrospect, it was very funny but it ticked me off at the time. I couldn’t work in the company for a long time because people were constantly watching my every move.”

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The transgender community in India exists on the fringes of society. The most recent government
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi at a Pride March
- Wikimedia Commons
calculations put their numbers at an absurdly low 490,000 but that’s because very few choose to identify as such. A majority don’t enjoy supportive home environments and are kicked out of their homes. A lack of education and job prospects force most to beg on the streets. Many turn to sex work as a means of making money too. Harassment from police is relentless and many are charged under Section 377, an antiquated colonial-era law that criminalises unnatural sex. There have been some notable steps in recent years to improve conditions. In April 2014, the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, declared that transgenders should be recognised as a third gender. It was a rousing victory for a community that is often rendered invisible in the political arena.

There are several unique cultural traditions that accompany such a community in India. One of the most distinct aspects of the transgender community is their form of clapping. Unlike an applause where two palms vertically match each other with fingers closed, transgenders in India strike their palms perpendicularly against each with their fingers spread. It produces a more unique and sonorous clap. For transgender women who always go around in groups, clapping is both an announcement of their presence and a security alarm. If someone teases them or attacks them violently, the clapping brings transgenders from all around to help them and scare off attackers or molesters. It’s literally an act of survival. 

Thejaswin asks Kalki about a video he saw recently with prominent transgender activist Lakshmi Triparthi where she railed against this form of clapping. Kalki’s reaction is one of incredulity. “Lakshmi was against clapping? She actually claps when she’s with the group. I wonder why she was saying stuff like that.” For Kalki, the clapping is an integral part of the transgender community’s cultural quirks. She learned how to clap from her transgender community at the age of thirteen.
The transgender community in India also has a unique system of guru-chelas that matches up a young transgender to a mentor. While the term literally translates to teacher-student, the relationship is more akin to a mother-daughter relationship. The community is made up only of matriarchal relationships. While most transgender familial ties consist of mothers and daughters, several others such as aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters exist. Kalki also mentions that gurus’ husbands or boyfriends are referred to as papa. “Papas can change but mothers don’t!”

Each guru can have multiple chelas. In turn each chela can have chelas under them as well. Gurus can be the same age as their chelas, although they are usually senior with regards to their experiences as a transgender. Kalki says that a chela chooses a guru based on qualities they want to emulate. Once a guru agrees to take on a chela, they approach a nayak (district transgender leaders) at community meetings. The nayak presides over a function where both mother and daughter are bonded with vows. Adding to the wedding like nature of the ceremony, the nayaks are presented with gifts like money and saris.  The amount varies based on the financial status of the transgenders. It is anywhere between Rs 500 to 50,000.

At the age of twelve, Kalki was initiated to these customs when she got her first guru, a Muslim woman called Apsara. While religious and caste tensions might still exist in a small town like Pollachi, it scarcely matters in the transgender community. Years later, she requested Lakshmi Triparthi to be her guru as well. Lakshmi has forty five chelas and Kalki is her first one from South India.

Transgender communities are highly bound by their home grown customs, although the nature of rules varies from state to state. In states like Rajasthan more stringent norms are applied. Transgender women don’t even meet men and completely immerse themselves in religion. They are invited for religious ceremonies and obtain their income from weekly village donations.

Tamil Nadu is one of the more progressive states in India as far as transgender rights are concerned. It was the first to institute a Transgender Welfare Board. In November last year the state got the country’s first transgender woman police officer.


Tamil Nadu is also notable because annually thousands of transgender women descend upon the sleepy town of Koovagam for a fortnightly mix of raucous celebration and religious festivities. After days of merriment, transgender women go to the Koothandavar temple to enact a tale from The Mahabharata. Aravan, the son of Arjuna desires to marry a woman and consummate his marriage before he dies in battle. In the original tale, Krishna takes on a female form to marry him. A lifetime of marriage highs and lows is compressed into a single day as thousands of transgender women become Aravan’s bride, only to be left wailing widows a day later. 


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