BOOK REVIEW : I am Saravanan(Vidya)

BOOK REVIEW : I am Saravanan Vidya

Price: 100 INR

Author: Vidya (A transgender’s autobiography)

India is a strange country! In spite of (so called) globalization, many of our core societal issues still remain unsolved – transgender inclusion being one of them. Some time back I wrote a post about Hijras in India, highlighting the issue of them getting into prostitution by default due to lack of other options. Thankfully few Hijras has put up a fierce fight against the society and tried their level best to resume a mainstream life by creating an identity. Vidya, a transgender is one classic example who fought all the odds by making a career with NGO and writing. The book ‘I am Saravanan Vidya’ is the autobiography of Vidya, where she details the struggle gone thro for transforming herself from a male (Saravanan) to female (Vidya). Filled with real life experiences, challenges, frustrations this book has brought in dark pages of transgender life into public, thereby asking few critical questions to each one of us.

Born in a struggling lower middle class family, Saravanan’s parents had lot of expectations from (also because of him being the only son) him with dreams of eventually seeing him as the District Collector by clearing the prestigious IAS examinations. Being the only son, everybody in the family pampers him with all that they could afford, thereby ensuring necessary support for his studies. Expectations were so high that he just cannot afford to think about anything other than first rank in the class. Saravanan recalls the tension and fear ran thru him when he got second rank for the first time in his 6th standard. His father was extremely strict with studies, couldn’t take the fact of him getting second rank and beaten up Saravanan for the same.

This typical Indian lower middle class story takes an unexpected turn when Saravanan starts getting his early inclination towards being a female. Early experiments come in the form of wearing his sister’s dresses (half-saree) and dancing his heart out by listening to radio songs after latching the door. This interest intensifies gradually when he starts liking indoor games played by girls (ex: pallanguzhi), and starts spending more time with girls of his age then boys. After moving into high-school, his feeling becomes uncontrollable, wanting him to be more of a female than a male. He also goes thru initial insults from his class mates by calling ‘Ali’ and making fund of his ‘female-type’ behavior. Somehow he completes computer science bachelor degree, with declining academic records. From a 90%+ scorer (and the first ranker), he slowly drops into 60%s, somehow ensuring first class.  By this time, his father had lost all the hopes on him for making him as the District Collector without having any clue about what his teenage boy was going thru. There are multiple questions running in Saravanan’s mind now – Whom should he approach to seek solution for his problem? How can he live a life being physically male but feeling as a female? What answers he can give to his parents, who sacrificed everything for him with lots of dreams?

In search of finding a solution, Saravanan relocates to Chennai and lands up in a meager job with a drama troop. Thanks to some contacts in the drama community, he eventually moves to Pune for joining the Hijra community.  Life becomes all the more difficult for him to make a living (by begging) and getting used to the Hijra community by following their rituals. The very fact that the Hijra community is the only option, who will help him to convert his gender, keeps him going against all the odds. In subsequent chapters, Saravanan clearly explains the issues faced in the gender conversion which I explained in my previous article.

First an individual should consult a psychiatrist who can either help them to come out of the ‘feeling’ of becoming a female or mentally prepare them for a gender conversion operation. Followed by this they go thru a complex operation which will physically remove all male genitals. After the operation they need to go thru some more psychological counseling, thereby ensuring that they get used to the new gender. The third and most important aspect is to have a well defined legal system for converting their gender, after which they will be treated as a female in the society. They are legally entitled to apply for jobs (as females), get married (leaving the fact that they cannot reproduce) and enjoy all the societal benefits. In India, none of the above mentioned process/system exists.

After going thru the painful process of removing male genitals (by a self appointed doctor in Andhra Pradesh), Saravanan finally gets rid of his male identity and changing name as Vidya. After becoming Vidya, life becomes miserable. Even after somehow escaping from the Hijra community, getting a job or getting basic documents (like passport/driving license/ration card) or find a decent accommodation becomes almost impossible task. Thanks to his drama troop friends Chennai she lands up in a job with an NGO in Chennai and keeping her writing passion alive by starting a blog. Eventually she ends up writing this book by explaining the darker sides of being a Hijra.

This book was a real eye opener for me as it helped me to understand the darker side of Indian society. As Vidya had a formal education, she is at least able to make a basic living. What about millions of Hijras in the country who don’t even have basic education? Why there is no legal or social system for accepting them as a part of mainstream society? How can we boast ourselves of being ‘global citizens’ when educated elite don’t even acknowledge such issues?

Third sex, Third class, Third world

Let us talk about ‘Hijras’, known as ‘chakka’, ‘ali’, ‘napunsak’ depending on the state/language you belong to.

Hijra
Hijra

There is very little understanding among educated, elite Indians about life of Hijra. We normally see them begging in trains by showing strange gestures, which is often not accepted according to our societal norms. Our media (be it print, broadcast or movies) project them as strange characters, mainly associated with unusual sexual activities. In northern part of India I understand they are called during marriages for giving dance performance. One of my school friends, a qualified physician was the first one to provide some insights into Hijras, thanks to his education and experience in working with a bunch of NGOs. Upon our further discussion, we felt how non-inclusive our society is. We may boast ourselves having a rich culture and heritage (popularly known as bharathiya sanskruti), but have a long way to go!

Hijras are born male, who converted themselves into female by getting rid of male genitals. While my doctor friend says the root cause is not to clear (one of the reason being their hormonal imbalance by birth), which eventually gives them a ‘feel’ that they are not male. In such cases, according to medical science, a three step gender conversion is a solution. First he should consult a psychiatrist who can either help him to come out of the ‘feeling’ of becoming a female or mentally prepare them for a gender conversion operation. If the gender conversion becomes inevitable, he need go through a complex operation which will physically remove male genitals followed by some more psychological counseling, thereby ensuring that he get used to the new gender. The third and most important aspect is to have a well defined legal system, which can help the converted individual to be treated as a female in the society. She (erstwhile he) is legally entitled to apply for jobs (as females), get married (leaving the fact that she cannot reproduce) and enjoy all the societal benefits.

In India,  none of the above mentioned process/system exist. When an individual get a ‘feeling’ of becoming a female there is absolutely nobody to provide any sort of support. Over a period of time, these folks starts hating their male physique. With obvious lack of support from family (Imagine what would happen to an individual when he goes to his parents and says ‘I don’t feel like a boy; I want to become a girl’) and society they are forced to desert their families and join Hijra community. Upon joining, they are assigned a mentor (known as ‘didi’) who will provide some initial orientation. In order to go thro’ emasculation process (known as ‘nirvana’) the newly joined Hijra has to accumulate necessary money, which they can only do by begging. Even if the Hijra is educated, he is forced into begging because nobody is ready to offer any sort of employment.

After accumulating necessary money (and with the help of didi), the new joined Hijra meets a ‘self appointed’ doctor who will do the emasculation. This process is legally not allowed in India, hence performed behind the doors without proper precaution. Such a risky process can even result in the Hijra’s death. After going thro’ the unbearable pain for months together, finally the Hijra gets rid of his male identity. Now they are formally inducted as a Hijra with few ceremonies done as a part of their community. While the Hijra can take a small sigh of relief for attaining ‘nirvana’, life becomes exceptionally difficult from here on.

Hijras are not accepted in our country as human beings; Nobody is ready to rent house or allow them to eat in  restaurant even if they are ready to pay; Nobody is ready to offer any sort of employment; No hospital will treat them for their illness; No official documents (like passport, drivers license, ration card etc..) will be provided to them; They are not entitled to vote; There is no legal system in place by which they can officially declare themselves as female; In summary Hijras are not given a ‘human being’ status. Thanks to the support from Hijra community, they somehow manage to get a place to live. However they have only two choices when it comes to profession – Begging or prostitution. That’s the very reason why we see them begging in trains.

The very fact that there is no system exists for Hijras shows the maturity of our society. We are absolutely fine to listen about Hijras in Mahabharatha (when Arjun takes the role of Hijra, during their exile period) or worship our lord in form of ‘Ardhanarishwar’ (where lord shiva takes 50% male and female form) and claim it is something superior. But in reality, the situation is pole apart where Hijras are given third class treatment. There are few positive changes (one of the Hijras contested and won election in UP, TN government has offered ration cards for Hijras etc..) but that is way too slow considering there are about one million Hijras in India. There might be small pockets of development happened in the country, thanks to globalization, but we are far from creating an inclusive society.

No wonder we are still called as ‘Third world’ country!