The autobiography of a transgender
Living Smile Vidya
Translated by V Ramnarayan
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When I was born the first time, my parents named me Saravanan. I was their sixth child, born after years of prayers for a boy child. In fact, their first had been a boy, unfortunately still born. Four girls followed, two of them succumbing to unknown diseases. In the circumstances, I realised pretty early in life what joy my arrival must have brought my parents.
My family wasn’t exactly well off. My father Ramaswami was known as Nattamai or chieftain in Puttur, next to Tiruchi. The title must have been somebody’s idea of a joke, for my father was hardly any kind of chief, certainly not the kind immortalised by Tamil cinema. He was a municipal worker of the lowest rung, a sweeper. He married my mother Veeramma in 1973. They started life together in a small hut they built on an unoccupied piece of land on Attumanthai (flock of sheep) Street.
My mother was someone special. Her name meant a brave woman, and she was every bit that. Brave and hard working, sweet tempered. She was also a typical Indian wife, who submitted to her husband’s tyrannical ways. She died in an accident when I was eleven.
The pain and awareness of their oppression on the basis of their caste haunted my parents all their lives. Their intense yearning for a son must have sprung from their desperate hope that he would change the course of their abject lives.
Appa, my father, was at first in the business of milk supply. I remember that he had job opportunities in the police and Southern Railway. He was not too keen on such careers; he perhaps believed he must do his own business, however small. Making both ends was never easy. His relatives were determined he must find employment. They repeatedly counselled him, persuading him to join the Tiruchi Refugee Camp as a sweeper.
My father’s life was one of frustration. Frustration that his lack of formal education beyond Class 8 had landed him in a lowly sweeper’s job, for all that it was a government job. He constantly dreamt of his son growing up to be a district collector, surely the top job in India! His dreams, desires, ambitions all centred on his son of the future.
When these dreams were shattered, and his first child to survive turned out to be a daughter, Appa accepted her cheerfully.
Appa adored MG Ramachandran, the famous film star popularly known as MGR. Who wasn’t an MGR fan those days? Appa named his first daughter Radha after the leading lady in an MGR movie. Manju, his second daughter too, was named after a co-star of MGR.
My father was hoping the next baby would be a boy to make up for the loss of his first born and the next two being girls, but that was not to be. The next two were girls, Vembu and Vellachi, and both succumbed to mystery ailments. This was a turning point in Appa’s life which had plumbed the depths of despair.
For long years he had practised his own vague brand of atheism, but now he made an about turn and visited temple after temple. Landing finally at the Vayalur Murugan temple in Tiruchi, he vowed to name his next child after Murugan, the presiding deity there, if he was a boy. He would also shave his head in pious offering of his locks to the lord.
I was born on 25 March 1982. My parents named me Saravanan in fulfilment of my father’s contract with Murugan. Saravanan is one of Murugan’s many names.
My parents had been married in 1973 and I was born nearly ten years later. What challenges they encountered during the period! Their surroundings had undergone considerable change. Vacant land belonging to the government is known as poramboke land. Squatters often occupy such land and eventually occupy it permanently. The poramboke land on Attumanthai Street, where Appa and others had built their huts was now a full-fledged neighbourhood, Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, in memory of a revolutionary of that name. My father, the nattamai, was responsible for the name change.
The street had grown. So had our town. The whole city had been transformed in that decade. Only we were poor as ever. My father continued to be a municipal conservation worker, a sweeper. He was eternally running from pillar post to apply for an electricity connection for our street. At home, my mother and my sisters took care of me, spoiled me. By the time I was ready to go to school, my father had made preparations on a war footing.
I was a privileged member of the household. Of the three children, I was the one person who didn’t have to do any work at home. That was the unwritten law. I enjoyed every kind of concession.
“The only work we want you to do is study,” Appa said. “Remember, it’s your job to study.” He was quite the dictator when it came to my education, allowing no discussion.
“If any of you dares to give him work that interferes with his studies, I’ll kill you,” he warned us.
My two sisters, ten-year-old Radha and six-year-old Manju were so terrified of Appa’s threat that they never let me do any household work. I was the male heir of the family and that was reason enough to exempt me from work of any kind! My doting mother carried me around until I was five years old. When he came back from work in the evening, Appa usually brought us sweets and snacks, and you could bet he slipped in something extra for me every time.
I don’t remember my sisters ever being jealous of me. They showered me with love. From the time she was born, Radha had grown up amidst my parents’ constant prayers for a male child. From a tender age, I remember her as a second mother to me. When Amma died, Radha took over altogether as my mother.
Radha was a goddess to all of us. She took charge of the house as soon as my parents went to work everyday. She could cook when she was barely ten. Sweeping and swabbing the house, washing the dishes and our clothes, storing water—she took care of it all. We should in all fairness have treasured her, treated her like royalty. We did not. I became the sole beneficiary of all the love and affection at home by virtue of my being a boy.
Amazingly, not once did I hear my sisters criticise this overt partiality. Neither Radha nor Manju did that. I think they came to believe in time that looking after me was the very purpose of their existence.
On my part, I studied well, to Appa’s great joy. My academic excellence in contrast with my sisters’ unschooled ways gave him immense pride. I was ranked first in my class in the first grade. When Appa came home and heard the news, he carried me on his shoulders and went round and round Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, broadcasting the news to the world. “My son got the first rank,” he announced again and again.
I remember the day so clearly. Appa loved me but he had never carried me or fondled me before. His public demonstration of his love for me that day was the best reward I could have asked for. My stock in the neighbourhood shot up. I was the boy who was ranked first in his class.
My academic feats complicated life for my sisters. When Amma left for work at five o’clock in the morning, it was Radha’s duty to wake me up to make me study. She had no escape from that responsibility. If I did not study, Radha or Manju would be spanked even more than I.
Up at that early hour, I studied for an hour. Manju went out at six o c’lock to buy tea and porai biscuits. Radha swept the house and started cooking by then, while Manju cleaned the vessels. I had to continue studying until 7.30, when Appa woke up. The girls then had to ensure I bathed, ate my breakfast, got ready and dashed off to school.
Appa gave Radha our daily allowance of one rupee every morning. My share was 40 paise while my sisters each got 30. They could not go to their classrooms without depositing me at mine. As soon as I came home, I had to do my homework. After that started Appa’s lessons for me.
Appa made me do third grade exercises when I was still in the first grade. He made me do the multiplication tables—from one to 20—ten times everyday. “Do you know Abraham Lincoln studied under the street light and became president of America?” he repeated constantly. He made me believe that studying hard in the light of a hurricane lamp would one day make me the district collector.
I had a natural aptitude for studies, and I was an eager student. I was doing quite well at school, but as time progressed, I began to resent Appa’s constant harassment, both mental and physical. I knew he was only doing what was good for me, but my loss of the simple joys and freedom other children of my age enjoyed was an irritant. Was a childhood without games worth living? Home was a virtual prison. Even the love of my mother and sisters could not make up for that.
My father never allowed me to play with boys and girls. I could not understand this blanket ban. I didn’t know if it was because the kids in our neighbourhood were poor students. Our neighbours did not give education a great deal of importance. My father was very different in this aspect from all of them.
It was my sisters’ responsibility to prevent me from giving Appa the slip and going out to play. Radha and Manju kept a constant vigil over my movements, fearful of what Appa might do if I did get away. Sometimes they scolded me and even slapped me playfully if I tried to step out of line. They were so fond of me that they never let me down by carrying tales to Appa, though.
When I came home form a school exam, Appa conducted the same test at home all over again. I was not allowed to go out to play even during vacations. Preparations for the next examination started right then and there.
This was all on top of the demands of my school teachers who made me answer all the question papers at home without omitting a single question even in multiple choice papers. I had to do five question papers in a single day. Invariably, just when I breathed a sigh of relief at completing them, Appa’s home lessons started. If I slowed down my home work to avoid Appa’s exercises, he thrashed me. My body would be bruised black and blue with belt marks all over. If Amma or my sisters tried to stop him, they got belted too. “Weren’t you expected to ensure he did his home work?’ he
screamed at them. I regularly wetted my shorts in fear and shock.
It was around this time that my mother died in a road accident. I was eleven. My grief was immeasurable, indescribable. I had been my mother’s little boy, always at home, always protected by her. It was hard to come to terms with her absence all of a sudden.
Appa made matters worse by remarrying. Lata aka Thangammal, who was younger than Radha, was our new stepmother.
I was too young then to know if what Appa had done was right or wrong. Luckily, Chithi was a good person. She treated me with love. And my sisters were a great consolation, too. The wounds of losing Amma slowly healed. Gradually things changed for the better. Except for Appa’s watching over me. As his dreams for me grew, his oppressive ways too kept increasing in intensity, even though I continued to do well at school. God knows what fears and anxieties troubled him, but he never allowed me a normal childhood.
I remember this incident. I came second in my class in the sixth grade exams. I was scared beyond description that evening. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, afraid of the consequences of showing my report card to my father next morning. When I finally drifted into sleep, I dreamt of Appa belting me. I wetted my bed that night.
As the day dawned, I had no choice but to show Appa my report card, trembling with fear. I received the cruellest punishment of my life that morning.
Remember how Appa carried me around Bhupesh Gupta Nagar the day I was ranked first the first time? Today, unable to bear what he saw as the first crumbling of his dreams, he lifted me much the same way again. Only, this time he dropped me forcefully from a height. He then kicked me in my stomach. I was terror stricken.
He picked me up and thrashed me wildly. My chithi and sisters who tried to protect me got thrashed too. Our pain and tears and screams made no impression on him.
Second rank! Something he had never imagined I would get. It made no sense to me. How could I explain to my father that not much divided the first and second ranks?
He would never understand. He did not. He smashed me around until he got his fury out of his system.
I was a complete mess, beaten black and blue. With no strength left in me, I sought refuge in my sister’s lap. Why didn’t I have a loving father like other children? The question comes back to haunt me even today, every time I see loving men.