Thursday, November 03, 2005

Third gendered

Noorie opened the door and let us in. Her make-up was a bit heavy, but it accentuated her sharp features. Glass bangles tinkled, covering almost her entire arm. The room was full and we squeezed shyly into a single seat nearest the door. After about five minutes any initial apprehension was lost. The gathering looked like a household of women cutting up vegetables for the afternoon meal. Laughing loudly, telling stories, and debating who would be the one to go to town for spices and rice. They took up almost the entire space in the cramped two-room residence. The walls were peeling paint and there was an odd calendar tacked here and there. Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganesha looked down from their Fevicoled places.

Once we made ourselves as comfortable as we could get, we considered our hosts for the afternoon more carefully. They all belonged to the transgendered community. Eunuchs, as they are more commonly referred to. However, the word "eunuch" does not describe them satisfactorily. Eunuch, literally means, ‘castrated man.’ This definition would be inaccurate, given the complexity and socio-psychological parameters of this community. In Tamil Nadu, they prefer to be called aravanis. (From the character Aravan in the Mahabharatha, believed to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna.)
Forced to live in their secretive community, making a living as commercial sex workers, these members of the third gender live in the periphery of Indian society. Say the word aravani and the images that come to mind are brusque, loud, uncouth she-men that exhibit their ambiguous sexuality while extorting money from social gatherings, singing songs with lewd innuendo.

Whatever their image in the public sphere may be, they are sensitive and soft-spoken when encountered in close quarters. There is an overwhelming sense of community sentiment among the members of the alternative sex. A large extended family that welcomes those who come out of the closet. Their demeanour was calm and when we gingerly put forward questions, they did not hesitate to respond. They almost revel in their sexuality and that was what came across as most striking in the time spent there. Considering that sex work is their main source of income and is also the source of the HIV virus that claims many aravani lives, the topic of prostitution was a sensitive one. But the aravanis in Choolaimedu spoke openly about this aspect of their lives which is usually brushed under the carpet.

Sridevi was the first to tell us about her foray into sex work. She was born in Chennai with the name Shankar, the third son of her parents. She had one younger sister. Their father was a Central government employee, and their mother a housewife. Sridevi recalls being drawn to effeminate games and makeup from a very young age. Shankar was often teased about carrying copper vessels on his hips and playing with his sister all the time. His brothers were rough and macho, and when they fought him, he would only scratch with his nails, like a girl. He was constantly compared to them and his inferiority complex was manifest in almost every other area of his adolescent life.
"I was the butt of many jokes," she explained, "My brothers and classmates would pick fights with me only to make me cry. I was very unhappy and knew that I wasn’t like the other boys, but I couldn’t understand."
Ultimately, she befriended the eunuchs who lived near her house and started her life as a commercial sex worker. Now she displays her diamond-stud nose ring proudly- a gift from her pathi, her ‘husband,’ or rather- her regular client, who supports her financially.

Like Sridevi, Vanitha also struggled with her sexuality. Vanitha was the younger of two brothers. Ever since her childhood, she was drawn towards anything feminine. Vanitha was sent to a mechanic shop along with her brother but she refused to handle the spare parts and shied away from menial work. Over time, the men who worked in the neighbouring shops became increasingly conscious of the young boy’s alternate sexuality. He was approached by a number of people, and over time he learnt that men have sex with men. The money was good and he left home before his parents could marry him off and entered the secretive aravani community. After a couple of years of life as a sex worker, Vanitha earned enough money to undergo cosmetic surgery which completed the initiation process into the aravaani society. She plans on entering the beauty pageant scheduled in Villupuram, at the annual festival exclusively for the aravanis.

It might be the hypocrisy that exists within Indian society which perpetuates the belief that sex work is the only means by which aravanis can earn a living. The only jobs that have been offered to them so far have been those of stenographers and typists. Time consuming jobs that offer little monetary compensation. "We can make more money in one night than the government training cells are offering us for one whole month," said Sheela, "I can earn upto one thousand in a single day."

But what about HIV? Don’t they know how fatal the virus can be? What about the condom distribution campaigns that are rumoured to be doing their rounds in the eunuch ghettos outside the city limits?
"We know that unprotected sex is unsafe. But what do you say if a man offers you Rs. 500 more for sex without a condom? What if I don’t have any clients the next day? I would be a fool to refuse."
A classic case of the means justifying the ends? In a society with plural identities, there are certain threads, like poverty, that weave even the marginalised into the mainstream. Another aravani, Malati, told us of the split within the community itself. Not all eunuchs are castrated, she explained. Some, called dangas, exhibit male physicality but display traits of the feminine gender. They typically lead a double life. During the day, they behave like men, wear lungis and shirts and are employed in regular offices as men. However, at night, they dress as women and indulge in sex with other men. They are often married with children, lead heterosexual lives. Any similarity to transsexuals is only to attract members of the aravani community.

Dangas are more commonly bracketed in the MSM category- men who have sex with men. The duplicity of their gender identities and their sexual behaviour put them more at risk than aravanis because their partners include their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and other aravanis. The dangas are viewed as distinct from transsexuals because, though they may be transvestites, they have not taken the decision to irrevocably change their physicality.

For the aravanis, the decision to undergo the surgery changes their lives completely. It is symbolic of embracing a third gender status while discarding norms and conventions that they had earlier been brought up with. The procedure is perhaps the most secretive topic amongst the community. Quacks or an ‘adopted mother’ usually conduct the surgery, often without aneasthetisation. A regular sex-change operation is often unaffordable for the aravanis belonging to the lower socio-economic strata of society. There were no details volunteered, and when the subject was broached, perhaps once too often, they refused to speak about it altogether.

Though the aravani community is open about their third gender status in private, their image as brash extortionists denies them any semblance of respect in the public sphere. One afternoon with these honest, uninhibited ‘women’ was enough to change our entire perspective about textbook issues like gender, poverty and marginality. Perhaps their outward aggression is a self-defense mechanism.

It is their only guard against the shame that society has thrust upon them. Until the High Court of Chennai recognises their third gender status - and the struggle continues even at this moment - the aravanis of Choolaimedu will have to seek comfort in the small pleasures life has to offer.
Glass bangles and shared meals, as transient as they may be.