Place: A small town in Northern Karnataka, India
Right in the midst of a bustling marketplace in a small town in Northern Karnataka, above a rice shop, is a one-room dwelling. Uneven steps, set in a narrow, dark stairway lead up to it. The door is open and the sound of happy chatter is audible even at the street level downstairs.
Going into the apartment is to enter a world of colour and femininity – bangles, vermilion, sarees, trinkets, make-up and handbags are scattered all over and yet, there are no women in there. I see a man who walked in a little while before me fondly caressing a pair of anklets, already all dressed up as a woman, a colourful saree draped over his trousers, and lipstick slathered over his lips. There is a look of happy contentment on his face. He looks coyly at his friends, all of who are similarly transforming themselves. They giggle back at him and all is well with everybody except me!
I’m kind of overwhelmed at what’s happening around me. Till I’m told that the place we have come into is called a drop-in-centre. It’s a non-threatening space where people, in this instance, sexual minorities, i.e. gays, transgender people, men who have sex with men (MSM), bi-sexuals and lesbians can come and spend time without pretending to be what they are not, where they can give expression to their inner desires .
Within four safe walls.
Over the next week or so, where I spend entire days with them, I make several friends. There’s the man who wants to be a woman but is married to a woman and has two children. He confesses to having to watch titillating films before he can cohabit with his wife. He shares how difficult it is to stay married to a woman when he actually wants a male partner. He also feels sorry that his wife, a good woman, has to put up with a husband who doesn’t want her. Then he gives me his photograph and asks me to find him a mate who looks like a famous Kannada matinee idol he adores!
There’s the young boy of 20-years or so who has four female siblings and whose mother offered intense prayer for a son. He confesses that he often locks himself into his room and wears clothes and make-up that belong to his sisters. “I was found out one day and thrashed,” he says. He can’t wait for the day to get over so he can come to the drop-in-centre and do what his heart says is right for him – become a woman!
I wonder what I would have done, were I in a similar situation. How would I have felt being a man in a woman’s body? Forced to wear women’s attire, act like a woman, be bound by having to be a woman when I actually wanted to walk with a swagger, walk into a men’s pub for a drink or just sit on a bench and indulge in back-slapping chit-chat with my male buddies? Would I feel caged? Of course I would.
How would I feel if I was targeted for becoming what my heart told me to? If I was hounded and tortured? Simply because I was different?
Pic: Bharathi Ghanashyam. Taken with permission on a platform in Vienna Rail Station