Monday, May 2, 2016

The Woman in Gender’s No Man’s Land - Part I

Published on May 2, 2016
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. 

Read Part 2 here

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