Thursday, January 19, 2012

FIrst Person True: A Hijra Life Story

Revathi herself

Estimated at between 5-8 million (and possibly much higher since this figure is mostly transfeminine people and not transmasculine), the transgender community of India constitutes what is certainly by far the largest visible trans population of any country. While there have been numerous books and documentaries about, for want of a better term, Hijra (which is the most common name for them but not without its own controversy), it's worth mentioning that none of these were actually written by someone who is Hijra or has any direct connection to the community. What we've had instead are scholarly texts like Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India or With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India (Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture) both by cisgender academics.

The community has been much referenced by social anthropologists and queer/gender theorists as a crucial example of third gender in non-western cultures much like the Waria of Indonesia, the Zapotec Muxes (pronounced 'mooshes') of Mexico, the Fa'afafine of Samoa, the travestis of Brazil and the Kathoey of Thailand, which also occupy historic 'non-binary' places within those societies and have been by written about by gender theorists often to provide a worldwide context for queer identities. In so many of these works, the words of the community members are heavily filtered and interpreted by academics who are pretty much using them to make their own points about gender and society, not really as a method of discovery for how community members view and experience themselves.

But in 2010, that all changed when, for the first time, someone who was actually a part of those communities published her own autobiography which has since been translated from its native Tamil into numerous languages including English and become something of a worldwide hit."The Truth About Me" by A. Revathi is a revolutionary book in trans literature, written from the inside of one of these 'third-world' communities, not by a well-intentioned westerner or an ally from their own country. This is not to denigrate those other contributions, but they can't match the detail, depth and intensity of this autobiography much less its familiarity with a trans identity. And what comes out of this unique work is, for all its complex terminology involving clans and communal groupings of Hijra and their place in Hinduism* is how much they greatly resemble western trans people in terms of varied identities and what they often face in life. Despite the differences in social structure between traditional Indian culture and, say, the United States, is how much trans people in both countries actually have in common.

Revathi was born in a modest but not poor Tamil family which owned their own trucking business. The Tamil part of the equation is important since this is one of the most challenged minorities in India, of a perceived slightly lower class, has long had its own separatist movement and is often distinct from the more privileged English-speaking Indians which also make an appearance in this book. From an early age, Revathi is feminine, somewhat androgynous, highly female identified, and marginalized from her bullying brothers. She instead connects with Hijras when she sees them performing in a neighboring town and starts to hang out with them. The Hijras are impressed with her looks when she grows her hair longer and Revathi makes tentative steps toward joining their subculture. When her family finds out, her hair is cut, she is brutally beaten (again, by her brothers... one of whom was later HIV positive and his children were supported by their trans aunt) and pretty much banished from her family at an early age.

She becomes a chela (like an apprentice) with her first guru (literally, the head of trans family, a mistress) and eventually moves to Dehli, Mumbai and later Bangalore. She has her nirvaanam (basically her SRS, which consists of an orchiectomy and penectomy but not a vaginoplasty) paid for by her first guru and performed at a nearby medical clinic. Along the way, she also takes estrogen, although is somewhat sketchy on the details. Without giving away too much of the endless sweep and movement of her life, Revathi eventually becomes very involved in sex work which is pretty much done to financially support the guru and her gurubais (followers). She is greatly valued by them as a commodity because of her looks. She encounters intense police brutality and corruption, nasty Johns, attacks by her brothers and civic intolerance. As she moves from one trans communal household to another, she reveals much about the structure, work and financial underpinnings of Hijra groupings (eg. if she moves between gurus and their households, she can't have any outstanding debts to the prior household or there will be big trouble). While some critics have complained the book seems to go from one hardscrabble event after another, Revathi has said she wanted to make the public aware of what a large part of the Hijra community is exposed to,  since most of the community is still rather tight-lipped about talking to outsiders. As she describes the first 30+ years of her life, it's amazing she was able to survive much less dispassionately tell her story.

Hijra sex workers

Further on in her transition she reconnects with her parents (largely because she monetarily supports them through her sex work) and sisters (she financially supports one of her nephews), gets some level of acceptance from her hometown and, in an interesting part of the book, deals with how she is seen in terms of legal inheritance rights especially when compared to her brothers. It's a fascinating glimpse into her culture's monetary valuation of gender for women, men and Hijras.

One way in which this book greatly differs from prior Hijra studies is that Revathi very much contrasts her view of herself as a woman with society's view of her as 'other' or third gender. In many western-written books I've seen about Kathoeys or Hijra, there is a strong emphasis on them as third gender and not specifying whether that's their own view of themselves or larger society's box in which they've been placed. Revathi makes this very clear (purely from her own standpoint), but also suggests (as with the 'transgender umbrella') that different Hijra might experience themselves differently. In western terms, Revathi might be compared to the cliche of a 'young, passable transsexual.' Of the several titles on Hijra I've read, this is the only one where one has a real sense of connection between the varied identities encountered among western 'transgender communities' and the variety of people who might be labeled Hijra. All the more interesting because Revathi (who doesn't speak English and, in her own admission, isn't a big reader of foreign books) has no stated intention of doing so in her own work.

At a rally of Hijra who have recently
become highly politicized

In the last section of the autobiography, she becomes involved with a seminal organization for the rights of sexual minorities called Sangama. Though this is low-paid NGO work, she extricates herself from sex work (with brief forays back into it when needed), and becomes one of the best known advocates for trans people in India. In a heart-wrenching ending, she marries (spiritually, not legally) a bisexual man who is high up in the organization and experiences both the loving highs and crashing lows of her first real love.

Is The Truth About Me a great literary autobiography... hard to tell but perhaps not. Revathi originally wrote the book in Tamil and I suspect some of the spicy flavor (and wit) might have been drained in the English translation. But it does have a picaresque breeziness in much of it (yes, interspersed with violence and oppression), with vivid descriptions of Indian train travel, Hindu festivals and dances, Hijra money-making schemes, depictions of traditional and western fashion and the various sex houses she worked in. It's very nearly as enjoyable as travel writing as it is a trans autobiography. She has a workable yet simple writing style but isn't great on explanation or transitions. As a western reader, I really wished the Penguin edition included a thorough glossary since she throws around a dizzying number of Tamil and Hindu terms which can be difficult to keep straight. Also useful would be an annotated component to the book to help explain some of the deities, festivals and culinary dishes which are so flavorfully described. For readers with a broad knowledge of Indian culture, Hindu religion and social practice, the book should prove an easier read.

A recent photo of Revathi
No matter what your prior connection with Hijra or the Indian subcontinent is, whether you're just interested in Indian culture and society or are more drawn by the trans/queer/sex work subject matter, The Truth About Me is a mesmerizing read which doesn't claim to represent all of Indian transgender society, but which finally presents one transgender woman's life direct from her heart and not as part of a gender study or anthro doctoral dissertation. In other words, its power is in its flesh and blood, laughter, tears, taste, feeling and smells... not theories.

*And among Muslims as well... since the word 'Hijra' is actually of Urdu origin (the traditional Muslim language of South Asia).

1 comment:

  1. It is very good people are not aware of the feeling of heejras the feeling of their chilfren if parents under stands the feeling snd the society also snd if they are acvepted in their homes and socirty you will not find them on the roads and they will not be volgure which most of the people consider them


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