Revathi: Trans-cending the Indian LGBT community
Tushar M. speaks to Revathi, south India’s most well known face of the transgendered community. Having faced discrimination and harassment throughout her life, her mission now remains to untangle her own community from ages of neglect and ridicule.
It is late in the morning when Prachi and I get to the inner reaches of Bangalore’s Cubbon Park. We have a date with a very special person, and we’re late.
On reaching our rendezvous point I see Akil, our interpreter, standing and chatting up Revathi. She, inconspicuous in her simple peach salwaar kameez, seems to be enjoying the conversation.
“I’m sorry we’re late. We got caught up in traffic”, I apologize to her as we get acquainted. I ask her where she’d like to sit while we interview her. She takes us to this nice shady part of the park where we sit under a tree and start talking.
“I like sitting outside, with nature around me. It’s rare that I get a chance to sit out without people noticing me and staring”, she says.
In her early forties, Revathi stands out as a very strong woman. Her face reflects the years of pain and ill-treatment she withstood, but nonetheless is lit up with a smile. Revathi is a transgendered woman, and one of the most prominent activists in southern India dealing with transgender issues. What makes her endeavor different is that she caters to the grassroots level – the non-English speaking transgender community in Karnataka and surrounding states.
As a young child, Annadurai (her childhood name) always loved to play around with women’s clothes. What was once a much encouraged activity in childhood became an oddity in her teenage years. She was in constant turmoil about how she felt; how she never really identified herself as a boy.
“On one school trip to Namakkal, I came across a bunch of men walking on the street wearing women’s clothes. Curiosity got hold of me; here there were people who I thought I could associate with. They were a bunch of kothis(cross-dressers) and I longed to talk to them. I overcame my initial shyness and went on and talked to them about my problem; how I felt different from the others”
And off ran Annadurai to Delhi, where the kothis had assured he’d have a better place to find himself, and gain acceptance in the hijra society.
“In the hijra society, there are only two respectable professions – begging or prostitution. I started begging at the traffic lights. It wasn’t something I’d call a job; I disliked it. But an empty stomach needs to be fed. Plus, I finally had the freedom to express myself as a woman.”
But the happiness wasn’t to last long. One truck driver from her village noticed her on the traffic light and forcefully brought her back home, where her whole family beat her up and kept her locked in a room. They dragged her to the temple and shaved her head, humiliating her in front of everyone, and put her to work as a lorry cleaner.
The ordeal continued further and she ran off to Mumbai, where six months later she had her sex change operation. She got into prostitution, expecting a life full of money and happiness. But she cringes at the thought.
“People from all age groups came to me. No one actually cared, after all it was only for the sex. Some of them were violent. But once you’re a prostitute, you learn never to complain; to hold the pain inside and go on as if you don’t feel anything. Often, times were so bad that I had to resort to charging as low as Rs 20; sometimes I had to sleep on the roadside. And then there were the rowdies, who used to harass me to have free sex, and if I refused, they used to take out knives. Rape was commonplace.”
The horrors of Mumbai made her long to go back home, and live her life on her terms in her hometown. But this time, she was not going to stand any maltreatment. She stood up for her beliefs and her identity when her family tried to beat her up, and even threatened to go to the police. But the ill treatment continued.
“I was not allowed to attend family functions. People came to the house and behaved as if I was an ill-person; as if I had a dreaded sickness. I wasn’t allowed out of the house, and if I was I had to wear men’s clothes, which I despised.”
With that thought, she fled to Bangalore, in search of a better life. Prostitution continued, so did the harassment, and this time by the police too.
“The police used me to arrest my customers. Then, on whim, they arrested me for prostitution. I was stripped bare; my private parts were prodded and made fun of. They made me clean prison floors, and do all sorts of menial work. I was taken to court, but never allowed to enter. They took all my money and threw me out. I could never complain, as I had to work at the same place every night.”
She rolls up a sleeve and shows me the nasty scar left from a fight years ago with rowdies. “No matter what I do,” she says, “the ghosts of the past will haunt me.”
It’s then that she gave up prostitution and joined Sangama, an NGO working for the upliftment of sexual minorities. She started off as an office assistant. The pay was not lucrative, she admits, but it was a respectable job and she felt happier at being able to help her community; to give back to it. Her family stopped talking to her; the gifts she was able to send back home from the earnings from her previous job had stopped. She realised her status back home, and kept on working with Sangama.
And it’s at Sangama that she realized that her life was happier than of some of those whose stories she heard during her tenure. She realized the negative portrayal of the hijra community in the media and decided to work towards changing their image.
“My story needed to be told, not once but millions of times. I wanted them to realize that we, after all, are humans, and not some twisted species.” But the major hurdle she encountered was her own community’s anger at her speaking out. They were angry at her going and talking to the media about their issues; unlike every other community they did not want media exposure.
“They cursed me whenever I went to talk to them. They were angry that I was serving in an office; according to them hijras should be giving badhai and not working in offices. They shouted at me for exposing the corruption within the community. But I still went on talking to them. After three years of my efforts, some more from the community joined Sangama.”
Being from a non-English speaking environment and working for the lower strata of the sexual minorities, she rightly knows what the community needs. “We want the politicians and police thinking about our needs too. When someone in the community needs help, the police doesn’t really care much. I demand that we too get proper redressal in court, 24 hour help lines, women policemen to handle our cases, and equality in all spheres. Why is it that I cannot find a house, and even when someone agrees to lease their house they charge double? Why is it that I’m overcharged by auto drivers? Why is it that I had to face so many hassles before getting a passport or a driver’s license? And why does police loiter around wherever I stand, as if I’m committing a crime by standing on the roadside? Don’t I have the same rights as everyone?”
In the past ten years of her working with Sangama, she went from being a simple Office Assistant to being the Director, and now an Advocacy Coordinator. She is enthusiastic about her job, but agrees that it’s very demanding. That’s why she took a year off in 2004 and wrote a book, and a technical writeup on the Hijra culture for the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust. Her autobiography, titled ‘The truth about me’, is currently being edited and will be published by Penguin later this year.
Even though her work takes up most of her time, she does take time off to entertain guests at home, throwing dinners and get togethers after rallies. She constantly helps out in rallies and meetings. Her dream of being a teacher was finally fulfilled when she started going to universities and colleges talking about the hijra community, it’s culture and it’s problems and, of course, her work. Revathi is very fond of acting too, ever since childhood. Very recently, a Tamil movie ‘Thenavattu’ featured her and was aired on television in 2009.
I ask her about her views on the amendment of Section 377, and her face brightens up. “I can see a lot of changes after the amendment. It’s like we finally have some rights, legally. I feel good that our collective efforts have lead to this historic judgment.”
I wind up with the interview and Prachi rushes to Revathi to show her the pictures she clicked. She smiles as she goes through her pictures, and is visibly delighted.
“Mail me all the photos for sure. I look nice”, she beams.
We walk back to the exit gates of Cubbon Park. It’s almost time for her to leave to catch a bus to Nagercoil, where she has a meeting. Next week, she’s off to Bangladesh for another conference. In her life, there’s a lot to do, and so less time.
“I like being with other people. Alone, I feel afraid of the society’s ridicule, even today. Sometimes I go back home to visit my family. And sometimes in the evenings, I like to wear my saree and go for a long drive on my Kinetic Honda scooter, with my hair open and the wind blowing, and men admiring me. It makes me feel like a woman. And it’s these times which I love the most.”