SRUSHTI PAWAR, A cosmetologist from Dhamtari, has been training girls as beauticians for over three-and-a-half years. Her latest batch consisted of eight students of the third gender, part of the first-of- its-kind initiative by the Chhattisgarh government. Until now, she had only known of this community through Hijras, agroup distinct to south Asia which, hardened by years of ridicule and neglect, adopts unusually aggressive postures while begging on trains, at traffic junctions and at wedding-gates. Soon after they entered the classroom, the trainer and her female students found themselves confounded by the freshers’ filmi speech, quick temper and loud sartorial choices; the very idea of teaching them made her uncomfortable.
But as she got to know them better, she realised her new cadets had had it far worse. Some were shunned by their families, many had escaped lives as beggars and prostitutes, and none of them wanted to go back to it. “They had a lot riding on this course,” Srushti recalls. “I decided to give them my everything.” And thus, in this small town of central India, there begun a quiet revolution for transgender rights.
For a community estimated to be over 3 million, transgenders continue to be among the castaways of the country. They received voting rights in 1994, nearly half a century after independence. It took another 20 years for the Supreme Court to classify them as ‘third gender’ and grant the same benefits as the socially and educationally backward.
Ever since these reforms, transgenders started breaking new ground. Padmini Prakash from Tamil Nadu became a TV anchor in 2014; Madhu Kinnar from Chhattisgarh was appointed Raigarh city’s mayor in 2015; and Manabi Bandopadhyay from West Bengal headed a college in 2016. A few states, following the example of Tamil Nadu, have set up a dedicated transgender welfare board. But these are still aberrations. An average Indian transgender largely has two options: to live in a ghetto or closet. Against this backdrop, the Chhattisgarh government’s initiative is a reform long overdue.
Street advertisements, they say, can often indicate the temperament of a place. On my visit to Dhamtari, the town largely seems interested in cement (A1 quality), spoken English classes (with a money-back guarantee) and cures for the unspeakable guptarog (sexually transmitted diseases). A survey once conducted by the NGO Pratham has a cogent explanation for it: Dhamtari is high on aspiration but low on employment opportunities. In other words, an ideal place to launch such skilling workshops.
My visit coincides with the tail-end of the transgenders’ three- month programme. In the stuffy classroom where the training is conducted, various charts on its walls acquaint students with five types of eyebrows, six types of nails, nine steps of eye-make up, and the essentials of hair and skin care. After the introductions, I join a new batch of wide-eyed female students intently watching their two transgender seniors—a short Shree, her bob-cut swept to one side, and a petite Mehul, dressed in a pink shirt and black trouser—role-playing rather awkwardly.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.”
“Have a seat. What brings you here?”
The trainer, surveying the scene inconspicuously from the side-lines, raises her eyebrow: “Won’t you ask her for water?”
Mehul swiftly corrects herself. Over the next few minutes, she and her trainer begin a thorough inspection of their client Shree’s forehead. It is a long one, they tell the class, perfect for straight eyebrows (type-one on the wall chart). If the client asks you to style it differently, oblige, but not without suggesting what you think is the best course of action. Don’t forget to recommend a facial to go with it.
Shree doesn’t quite like playing the lab-rat. The artifice is too much to bear. She breaks the character and launches into some banter with her trainer. A few of her classmates, first amused and soon bored, turn to me. “So…” one of the girls asks after hearing that I come from Mumbai, “see a lot of film-stars around there?” But then, even in the best of classrooms, chaos is the only constant.
UNTIL LATE LAST year, neither Shree nor Mehul had ever been inside a police station. Constables often liked to stop at the cafés near Raipur railway station, known to be popular with the LGBT community. “But it’s best to keep a distance from them,” Shree liked to say. Mehul worked as cook and Shree as a mehendi artist, and there was little chance of them ever getting involved in any illicit activities. This one time, a constable had offered Shree his mobile number. “Just in case,” he’d said suggestively. But Shree had refused.
“Tu kuchh jyaada hi moofat hai yaar (You’re quite the brazen one),” said the cop, smarting from the rejection. “Tumne abhi dekha hi kya hai (You haven’t seen half of it),” Shree retorted.
As they were detained at the reception of the police station one evening late last year, a row of similarly clueless transgenders sitting with them, the source of their predicament slowly dawned. A transgender person had been in a scuffle with one of the policemen recently. The police were now rounding up their numbers, found loitering off streets (Shree), returning to their homes from day jobs (Mehul) and from known red-light areas.
A session with the students is enough to sense that their skills are on a par with the best in the business. But it remains uncertain how well they will be welcomed in the mainstream
Photojournalism from local media were the first to visit them. Shree averted her face in time, but Mehul wasn’t quite as lucky. The next day, her photograph featured prominently in the major dailies under ‘Police breaks up sex- racket run by transgenders’.
Both Shree and Mehul live with their large families with many siblings. Shree’s wasn’t too worried. After she had ‘confessed’ her gender-orientation a few years ago, her father had broken down, refused to speak to her for a week, but eventually come around. “Doesn’t matter how you are,” he had said. “You are still one of us.” Mehul, however, was petrified. Her family’s refusal to come to terms with her sexuality had once driven her to attempt suicide. These days, their relationship was transactional: she turns in half her wages every month and, in return, gets to live with them. But like many of her transgender friends, Mehul liked to stay out late. The needle of suspicion would thus not be in her favour.
The two were released from the police station the next day. Unlike Shree’s, Mehul’s parents wept and wept at their once-son’s alleged doings. It couldn’t quite go on like this, Mehul realised. “They made me feel like they’ve picked me up from a garbage can and raised me.”
In January, a transgender friend from the same neighbourhood told the two friends of the beauticians’ training course tailored for them. Despite one of her elder brother’s reservations (“He’s already pierced his ears. Now he’ll pierce his nose too and come back home in a sari.”), Shree signed up. Mehul knew her parents would never let the wage-earner get away so easy, so she told them she had found a job as a cook in Punjab and travelled to Dhamtari, 80 km away.
The training started with some trepidation about the strict hostel rules. But soon, they bonded with their trainers, sweet- talked them into securing exemptions on the curfew hours and now aspire to be pioneers in the field. “I’ve even thought of a name for my own salon,” Shree says, “‘Trans-Beauty Salon’.”
The trainers affectionately speak of their new recruits in two distinct sets: students and aatankvaadis (terrorists). “As a gender, they can’t be suppressed,” explains Jaswinder Kaur, a trainer. “Kammo, you must do this” begets “I don’t want to.” Instead, a “Kammo, could you please you do this?” gets the job done.
In a culture that takes deference to authority for granted, a polite tone seemed like a revelation.
It was crucial to now build a bridge between the students and a society still fixated on rigid gender-identities. Some of the students talk in a crude manner, peppered as it is with expletives. When putting on make-up, they would often go overboard with the lipstick and the base-foundation. Others had an exaggerated manner of walking. To remedy the same, the trainers placed them in front of a mirror and asked them to observe their body and language. One had to conform for the sake of clients. Act classy, not crass. Look good, don’t stand out.
As the students train in body language, they are given a 101 in tapping into one’s vanity. There are lectures and practical exercises on manicures, pedicures, facials, threading, waxing, body massage, haircut and styling, sari-wearing and bridal make-up. Every day, the students alternate between a beautician and a prop.
In the four days I spend in Dhamtari listening to them talk passionately on the need to pamper oneself, I find myself turning increasingly self-conscious. One of them had earlier described my look as “simple, sober”. What sounded harmless then now seems a bit too indulgent. A closer inspection by Ganga confirms my worst fears.
To start off, she tells me, my arms are sunburnt. Blackheads thrive on the tip of my nose and whiteheads on its sides. It practically cries out for a facial. And if all those cuticles aren’t bad enough, my nails are also irregularly shaped.
“They are?” I ask, horrified. A nonchalant Ganga shows me her perfectly manicured nails.
I quietly request a mani-pedi to be thrown in. The trainees have already turned consummate professionals.
WHEN IT WAS running in cinemas, Dostana, the Karan Johar- produced farce on a homosexual relationship, thoroughly confused Ganga. ‘Gay’ was a new addition to her vocabulary. It would be another four years before ‘trans’ would be too.
It shouldn’t have taken that long. In the beauty parlour where he freelanced in his mid-teens, a colleague called Soumya tried counselling him. But Ganga rejected Soumya’s assessment. Just because he was interested in rangoli, embroidery, painting and make-up, it didn’t make him a female.
As for herself, Soumya was certain that she was a female trapped in a man’s body. Often, she would try out her sister’s clothes, put on kajal and lipstick, and purr in front of a mirror. At 14, when she started growing her hair long, her livid father dragged her to the barber’s and snipped it off. At 16, when she started taking hormone pills to begin a gender transition, her father dragged her to the doctor and demanded pills to reverse the process. Within days, she was down with serious infections and decided to escape her family and join Raipur’s Hijra community.
Ganga had never quite liked Hijras. “It isn’t the way they dress,” he would tell his friends who he had confided in about his gender- orientation. “I just don’t know why they have to be so hyper and aggressive.” But, as Soumya would soon realise, these mannerisms were part of the initiation. The Hijra who adopts you is your ‘guru’ and you her ‘chela’. They teach you how to clap, walk, talk and dress up loud. For half your daily earnings, they give you a place to stay, bail you out if arrested by the police, and give you a licence to enter their profession. Soumya started begging on local and long-distance trains around Raipur, and, like many of her peers, exposing herself when provoked.
“For three years, I would wake up, cook food, go to the train [to beg], return home, cook food and sleep. Often, I’d feel guilty... but I had little choice,” she says. Soon, she underwent a sex reassignment surgery. Meanwhile, her once-friend Ganga was still hiding her natural instincts from her family. At night, Ganga would go over to his friends’, lest his father cut off his hair.
When Soumya and Ganga were informed of the opportunity to train as beauticians, they were itching for an escape from their routines. Ganga aspired to be a professional make-up artiste with a flourishing practice. Soumya had similar dreams, but on a smaller scale. “I want a real job,” she says. “Never go back to trains.”
A PAMPER-SESSION with the students is enough to sense that their skills are on a par with the best in the business. But although qualified in their vocation, it remains uncertain how well they will be welcomed in the mainstream. Dinesh Bhodse, the state- head of Pratham, tells me they are looking to set up a special beauty clinic for the students. If successful, it would be one of the few in the country to be completely managed and staffed only by transgenders.
On returning from Dhamtari, I call up Vidya Rajput, a transgender activist who had lobbied for this initiative with the government. In spite of all their advocacy, prejudices drawn from the superficial stay in place, says Rajput. Then she quotes a poignant sequence from Aligarh, a true-life story based on a professor persecuted for being a homosexual in a conservative milieu:
“A journalist asks the accused professor if he is gay. The professor replies, ‘How can you break me down to only three letters?’”