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Third Sex, First Voice

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How Laxminarayan Tripathi, born as a man in a high-caste Brahmin household, became Laxmi, India’s most vocal and celebrated hijra
Me Hijra, Me Laxmi | Laxminarayan Tripathi | Oxford University Press | Pages 260 | translated from the Marathi original by R Raj Rao and PG Joshi
The eldest son of an orthodox household in Thane, Laxminarayan Tripathi knew he was different early on. How would he find his true skin, battling abuse and emotional turmoil? Soon enough, he was Laxmi, going from a life dancing in Mumbai’s bars to becoming the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at a United Nations conference. Laxmi embraced activism fulltime, as president of the NGO DAI Welfare Society, the first organization for eunuchs in South Asia and founder of Astitva, which works for the welfare of sexual minorities, representing Indian hijras for the first time at the World AIDS Conference in Toronto. Laxmi has been profiled by Salman Rushdie and appeared on several TV shows, including Big Boss with Amitabh Bachchan and 10 Ka Dum with Salman Khan. She starred in the award-winning Between the Lines: India's Third Gender and Queens! Destiny of Dance and brought the issue of the transgender into the home, when she appeared on television with her parents. Here at last is her extraordinary story, in her own words.

Many great people have written great things about their childhood. There are so many moving poems about childhood. The sweet memories of childhood enrapture everyone. But not me. I’m different because I did not have a happy childhood. Parents love children and give them what they want. I, too, was given everything by my parents, and to this day there is nothing that I lack. But what I’ve never had is the innocence that makes a child what it is. I don’t know what innocence is. If I tax my memory and try to remember the things of the past, all I can think of is illness, and … But, oh yes, I have some interesting memories of childhood too. We lived in a shanty on the banks of the Siddheshwar Lake in Thane, Mumbai—mother, father, my older sister Mintu (her real name is Rukmini), and myself. The house was tiny, and so was I. My name was Laxminarayan, and I also had an alias, Raju. As the only son of my parents (at that point), I was their favourite. I slept in my mother’s arms. In time, my younger brother Shashinarayan was born. Now, Shashi slept in mother’s arms, while I slept in Papa’s. I hated this. I fretted and fumed. Finally, one night when I could take it no longer, I wriggled free from Papa’s arms and went to mother’s bed. But the bed didn’t have enough room for me—I fell off it in the middle of the night. Just below the bed was an aluminium bucket filled with water. The sharp edges of its mouth cut my leg. Despite the pain, I loved the way the accident made everyone fuss around me. I still have the bruise caused by the bucket on my skin, though it now lies concealed beneath a tattoo. I recall an incident that happened in school. I was in kindergarten then. For the annual social gathering of the school, we had to enact the play The Cap Seller and the Monkeys on stage. I was the cap seller. Midway through the performance, my lungi came off—these days they call it wardrobe malfunction. The audience began to giggle with laughter. I was flabbergasted. I did not know what to do. I picked up my lungi and ran backstage. Except for a couple of such hilarious episodes, my childhood was mostly fraught with illness. I had asthma from early on, and still suffer from it. Because I was sickly, I was well looked after in childhood. During periods of temporary recovery, I was subject to a host of restrictions— don’t play here, don’t go there, don’t eat this, don’t drink that. I was bored stiff. By the time I was seven, I had them all—typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, sometimes at one and the same time. Doctors, hospitals, medicines, injections, saline—these were my companions. There came a stage when the doctors gave up on me, believing my condition to be incurable. But it was the love of my parents that brought me back to life. Though my mother gave birth to seven children, only three of us survived, and she loved us more than she loved life. Every time I recovered from illness, I was weaker than before. The restrictions imposed on me became even more rigid. My sister constantly kept a watchful eye on me. Was I playing in the dust? Was I eating trash? Was I taking the rest needed to recuperate? And so on. I did not play with the boys of my age. Unlike them, I did not roam the mean streets or loll around in the mud. Although there was no dearth of friends around me, I started to live an internal life, the life of a loner.

My fragile health, however, did not prove a damper to my love for dance. I love dancing. In childhood, Bollywood songs invariably set my feet dancing to their tune. As a result, in school I was always selected by my teachers to perform on stage. The stage had a hypnotic effect on me. Once on it, I would forget who I was and danced to a frenzy. Nothing, not even my chronic breathlessness and cough, acted as a deterrent. I thus came to regard the stage as an oasis in the desert of ill health. But my flamboyance on stage made some people uncomfortable. In patriarchal, misogynistic cultures such as ours, dancing is seen as a womanly pursuit. So I was teased. People began to call me a homo and a chakka. They couldn’t see the cathartic and therapeutic effect that my art had on me. All they could see was that though I was a man, my body language was that of a woman. Yes, it is true that I was like a woman. My mannerisms, my walking and talking style were all feminine. But why was it so? I did not know. I wasn’t of the age to answer this question. Loner that I already was, I drifted even further into my cocoon. Occasionally, I peeped out of my shell and opened up to a few trusted friends. These were my classmates—both girls and boys who were with me at school. Then there was my cousin Vijaypratap, whom we affectionately called Dadibhaiya because he kept a beard. He lived with us and was much older than us. But he loved us dearly and we thought of him as our eldest brother. At times he escorted us to school and brought our tiffi n boxes to us at lunchtime. He also helped mother with the household chores. In my sickbed, I chattered with him non-stop. His job was to give me my medicines at the right time, skipping not a dose. When Dadibhaiya got married, his wife Chaya also came to live with us. Soon, they had a daughter, Sonu. She was such a bubbly and healthy child, a veritable toy to us. We teased and pampered her. My brother Shashi, an ace prankster, would throw her up in the air and let her gently tumble to the ground, sending us in splits as that roly-poly of a baby landed on the floor. Then tragedy struck. Dadibhaiya contracted jaundice and died of the disease. How I cried when he died. Dadibhaiya was so compassionate. No one understood me as well as he did. To me, personally, the loss was irreparable.

I was first sexually exploited when I was seven. I had just recovered from yet another bout of illness and gone to my hometown for my cousin’s wedding. I carried all my medicines with me. My family was around, and so were other relatives, for Indian weddings, as we know, are gala affairs accompanied by much hubbub and fanfare. The house was overcrowded. The adults went about their business, attending to this and that, while we children romped around. As we played, an older boy, a sort of distant cousin, lured me into a dark room and … I was too young to understand that he was molesting me. Besides, my illness and the medicines I took made me feel weak and drowsy. Thus, I did not resist. But when the guy penetrated me, the pain was so excruciating I almost passed out. I have a hazy memory of all this. I remember that when I finally managed to rise, the fellow warned me not to report what had happened. Sickly as I was, I had learnt to endure. I did not tell anyone about the ugly incident. Perhaps the guy’s threats scared me. But a few days later, he molested me again, and then again. He was accompanied by his friends and all of them took turns to violate me. The physical and mental torture I went through is indescribable. But I didn’t say a word to anyone, either then or later. I kept my feelings bottled.

After the wedding, we returned to Thane. But my sexual exploitation did not end. During family functions, when the whole clan got together, I was routinely molested by older cousins and their accomplices. It was as if my body did not belong to me but to them. They obviously derived a sadistic thrill from my suffering. But who would believe me if I complained? These sexual assaults transformed me. I became secretive and incommunicative, hiding my feelings from my family and friends. Suddenly, it felt as if my childhood was over and I had grown up before my time. Shashi, my brother, was also growing up. But he was my exact opposite. He was garrulous and mischievous, playing with all the older boys. Shashi was everyone’s darling. Everyone pampered him. But his lifestyle terrified me. What if he took to bad company and went astray? I started keeping a watchful eye on him. After all, he was my kid brother. I started to follow him and take note of who he hung out with. Somehow, I came to the strange conclusion that the only way to prevent Shashi from going astray, was to let his friends have sex with me. And, the torture of anal sex notwithstanding, sometimes it was I who took the initiative to lure them into bed. But for how long could I go on like that? I was doing things against my will. I was confused. There was agony in what we did, but there was also ecstasy. Today, in retrospect, I can understand my feelings a little better, but not at that time when I was a mere child. In time, I got fed up with the life I lived. I began to have my own opinions. I avoided sex. If someone tried to seduce me, I resisted it, first mildly, but then firmly. The first time I refused to have sex with Shashi’s friends, they were upset and angry. They cajoled me into acquiescing, and when that did not work, they blackmailed me. The blackmail scared me and I surrendered. The next time I got a little bolder and did not kowtow to their threats. They then got together and raped me. Enraged, I decided to speak to them in their own language. I decided to be as rowdy and aggressive as they were. I dared them to touch me. It worked. The boys put their tails between their legs, so to speak, and slipped away. I discovered that passivity did not pay. It might endear me to society, but it came with a price. I decided at that moment to raise my voice against the things I did not like. Henceforth, I would not do anything against my will.

(Excerpted from Me Hijra, Me Laxmi by Laxminarayan Tripathi, Oxford University Press, 260 pages, translated from the Marathi original by R Raj Rao and PG Joshi, forthcoming this week)

(Laxminarayan Tripathi is a transgender rights activist, Hindi film actor, and Bharatanatyam dancer. She is the Founder of the NGO Astitva, which works towards the support and development of sexual minorities. R Raj Rao is a writer and queer theorist and teaches at the Department of English, University of Pune, Maharashtra. PG Joshi has taught English language and literature at K.J. Somaiya College, Kopargaon, Maharashtra.)

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