As the sun goes down on the horizon and dusk sets in, Soumya tries to find her way to the temple premises along a dusty road. There is a big crowd around her and Soumya, draped in a red sari and wearing a sleeveless blouse, artificial gold bangles, and a glittering necklace, is unable to find her friends. She gasps as she makes her way through the crowd.
Uncomfortable as sweat rolls down her brow ruining her heavy make-up, Soumya pushes back at the surging crowd and shouts at those who are deliberately trying to jostle her. “Come and take off my sari and take me right here, you scoundrels. Have you not seen a beautiful woman? Don’t you have a mother and sister at home?’ she screams in Tamil at a middle-aged man. He grins at her with lustful eyes before disappearing into the crowd.
Soumya continues to rage at him. By the time she reaches the temple premises, many men have been at the receiving end of her fury. She finally finds her friends waiting for her near the temple and sits down by a tree near a flower stall, exhausted from the ordeal. She leans against the tree and drinks some water as her friends rally around her.
Soumya and her friends along with hundreds of others will get married in a short while in a mass ceremony on this full moon day. There is a huge crowd around the temple. There are dozens of small sacred fires burning within the temple premises. A little later, Soumya and her friends are married, and proudly wear mangalsutras, the marker of a married woman, around their necks. The ceremony is completed in just a few minutes. They have all married the same groom, Aravan, who is not with them but inside the temple.
Soumya and the others start dancing and clapping their hands after the marriage ceremony. They hug each other in congratulations. ‘Now, my friends will have their honeymoon,’ Soumya declares. ‘Hope you don’t want to join the honeymoon. If not, let’s talk. I am free now to answer all your questions, Mr Reporter,’ she says with a disarming smile.
Her friends, meanwhile, are talking to men keen to have sex without protection. There is some bargaining for a few minutes and then they depart with their partners for the nearby fields. Soumya cuts a path through the crowd and moves towards a small tin-shed shop a good distance away from the temple.
‘Oh! I forgot to introduce you to my husband. Have you seen him? He looks gorgeous with his huge moustache. You can see him tomorrow. He will come out of the temple,’ Soumya says excitedly. As we walk among the crowd, it is late night, and the entire area has turned into an open ground for sex.
Welcome to Koovagam, a dusty village in Kallakurichi district, Tamil Nadu, about 200 kms south of Chennai, the State’s capital. The village comes alive every year in the month of Chitirai (April/May) with thousands of transgender community members arriving there to marry Lord Aravan (Koothandavar).
The festival is significant for transgenders or Aravanis (as they are known in Tamil Nadu), for various religious, cultural, and social reasons. This is the day transgenders identify themselves with the reincarnation of Lord Krishna. Legend has it that in the Mahabharata, a young warrior called Aravan, Arjuna’s son, was to be sacrificed at the altar of war so that the Pandavas could defeat the Kauravas. A day before he was to be sacrificed, Aravan expressed a desire to marry, but no girl was willing to become a widow a day after marriage. It was then that Lord Krishna took the form of Mohini and married Aravan.
And so, the transgender community in Tamil Nadu and in many parts of India identify themselves with the Mohini avatar of Krishna. They marry Aravan on a full-moon day and become widows the next day, as Aravan dies.
‘This is the day we experience a sense of dignity as we feel like we are a reincarnation of the God,’ says Soumya.
She gasps as she enters the rear of the paan and flower shop. The shopkeeper knows her. ‘Come, you people can sit here and talk. I shall send you a cup of tea,’ he offers, leading the way to a room inside. ‘Please sit at a distance,’ she requests. ‘Otherwise, you will print a story that Soumya, a transgender, infected a reporter with HIV and TB. And that, too, without having sex. Anyway, you people are more interested in preaching to us about HIV and TB than understanding the reality of our lives,’ she laughs.
‘Do you have HIV and TB?’ I ask.
‘Ha! Ha! I have everything in my life. It’s a perfect movie with all the masala, emotions, and fights. But who is interested in my life? I must thank you for showing interest in speaking to me. Otherwise, I am a sex doll and especially today, nobody is interested in talking. Everybody just wants to have sex. We are sex-hungry people,’ she says, speaking without pausing to catch her breath.
Soumya shies away from sharing details about her family and her background but reveals that she realised she was ‘different’ while in school. Soumya found she had ‘girlish feelings’. In the eighth standard, she told her mother that she wanted to wear a girl’s dress, prompting her mother to beat her.
She was taken to a spiritual guru, who told her parents that their boy had been cursed by God and some rituals had to be performed to appease Him. But nothing changed after the rituals. One day, she ran away from home to become Soumya. She became a beggar, living on the streets of Chennai. A group of transgenders spotted Soumya on the streets and introduced her to a new world.
‘It was the beginning of a new life. It has been over fifteen years now and I am living my own life,’ she declares. Commercial sex work has been her main occupation over the years. ‘I wanted to find a job. But nobody gave me one. I was ready to work as a domestic help or a sweeper. Anything...But people ridiculed me. Nobody gives jobs to transgenders. How should we survive?’ She is visibly disturbed. ‘Transgenders have a soul, a heart, and emotions, and are not just a body that can be used whenever people want to satisfy their lust,’ Soumya says in a voice choked with emotion. She has fought hard with her family, society, and her own self to counter prejudices and establish her identity as a woman.
‘You have come to study HIV because the government and NGOs are focusing on it. But HIV and TB are not new to us. They have become part of our lives. We have accepted it and have to live with it,’ she says.
The incidence of TB in transgender persons is not known and needs to be measured. The Revised National TB Control Programme (RNTCP) records the gender of service seekers under three categories: women, men, and transgenders. In 2018, a total of 1,676 transgender persons were diagnosed with TB and this was notified in the RNTCP.
A few years ago, Soumya was detected with HIV. She says that she did not receive proper treatment, and after developing a persistent cough and fever, was diagnosed with pulmonary TB. ‘I am finding it difficult to survive. No prostitution for me now because of these ailments. I have saved some money but I don’t want to spend all of it on my treatment. The government says there is free treatment, but it is all bakwaas (nonsense). We don’t get timely treatment and medicines,’ she complains.
Soumya says that god – her husband Aravan – gave her HIV. It is not surprising that Soumya contracted TB immediately after contracting HIV. ‘A doctor told me that if you have HIV, you will get TB. HIV and TB are like siblings. They can’t live without each other,’ she says.
Overcome with emotion, she suddenly bursts into tears. ‘Don’t know why, but today I am remembering my sister and my parents. I have no idea how they are...’ Unable to speak, she pauses for a few moments. ‘...But I feel that I have every right to live my own life,’ she resumes. ‘I felt like a girl’s soul was trapped in a boy’s body and my parents and society were not ready to accept me in this form. I feel one should not allow anyone, not even parents, to control one’s life. And that’s why I left my home. Freedom comes at a price and I have paid a heavy price.’ Soumya says that she can sense death approaching and that TB has accelerated her journey towards the end.
Excerpted with permission from Lives on The Edge : Tuberculosis in Marginalised Populations, Radheshyam Jadhav, Speaking Tiger Books.