Is one festival enough consolation for years of abuse the third gender has dealt with?
I was barely 8; we were taking the train to Delhi. We couldn’t afford AC tickets those many years ago and we were a family of five. My father had planned a grand summer vacation and it was the first of its kind for us. The air inside was heavy as we crossed the barren lands of the north, balmy loos blew in through the open grilled windows, my mother wet a towel using cold water we had bought from a station platform and wiped my body with it compulsively trying to avert a possible heat stroke as my brothers lay on the top berths shirtless, sharing the earphones of their Walkman.
A burly woman approached us as she clapped her hands fervently, speaking in a nasal tone, folded bank notes between her fingers; her nails were painted red. She was so different from my mother or my aunts; I found her behavior amusing and broke into a giggle. My mother smacked me on the head and said, “Don’t do that, if they see you laughing they will be mean to you!”
The woman came closer and placed her manly palms on my head blessing me and then pulled my cheeks lightly and called me beautiful. She saw me laughing but, she wasn’t mean to me. My father gave her a ten rupee note and she was gone. That was the first time I came across the word ‘Hijra’. My mother said they are women who were men in their past lives. Growing up, later, I heard people use the word to ridicule each other.
Bound by womanhood, broken by patriarchy
It was years later sometime in middle school that I understood who these women really were, and only much later than that, that I understood the tragedy of their lives- when ‘Hijra’ started meaning much more than a term people hurled at men to emasculate them.
The irony of their social status is numbing to the conscience. They were, once, the people we invited to our weddings to procure blessings and fend off bad luck and also people we rolled up our car windows hastily for, looking away, when we saw them approaching at a traffic signal. In a world that seems to be coming undone every passing day, the transgender society in India has been discriminated against and ostracized for decades.
Koovagam is their respite.
Ms. Koovagam - a fleeting victory
A festival with a paradox that pays homage to an unusual tale. But this is India, the land of the absurd, the epicenter of unique stories and a country that has something for everyone even if it isn’t a country for everyone. Sixteen days of celebration with multiple contests, ceremonies and a beauty pageant that is often referred to as their own Miss Universe, Koovagam allows them the happiness of marriage for one day and is taken away just as brutally the next morning; and is yet the one thing that thousands of Transgenders across the country - and even abroad - look forward to; for even if it’s a fleeting one, it’s their moment.
Borrowed happiness, limited acceptance
Trapped in a community that only recently recognized them as the “third gender” but, which still guarantees them no social, political, economic, and educational or suffrage rights, most Transgenders in the country resort to sex work, begging or both. Ours is a low trust community and in such an environment the plight of a marginalized sect is doubly implicit. While on one hand, the festival – which is organized by the Villupuram District Transgenders (Women) Welfare Association, seeks to create awareness about HIV and the need for protected sex and quizzes participants of the pageant on their knowledge about the same, as a necessary requirement for winning. On the other hand, it’s an opportune moment to score more customers, evident from the multitude of used condoms that littered the guest house room and toilets. These are the two sides of this festival - one that crowned a winner and appreciated their unconventional beauty and talent within the precincts of the pageant hall and the other wherein cops beat up, jailed, or extorted the same women outside on the roads.
21st century Mohini
Mythically, the tradition of the festival draws reference from the epic Mahabharata. As the story of the tussle for power between the Pandavas and Kauravas boils down to the epic battle in Kurukshetra, in the penultimate moment before the actual war, legend holds that the Pandavas were required to sacrifice a perfect male for Goddess Kali. It was herein that Aravan - the epic hero Arjun’s illegitimate son- came forth to offer himself with the precondition of a last wish- the wish to be married. With no suitor willing to be widowed within 24 hours, Lord Krishna took the form of Mohini to fulfill Aravan’s last wish and married him with as much sincerity as she bemoaned his beheading the next day. The gender reversal and coexistence in Mohini found resonance with the Transgender community. They have worshipped Aravan for decades, as the perfect suitor for such humans, who aren’t clearly defined by the standing notions of gender. In this short love story, the Hijras of India found a semblance of their own tragedies. To commemorate this, thousands of Transgenders each year, visit Koovagam in Tamil Nadu to be married to Lord Aravan for a day and then observe widowhood the very next day, in a ritual that perfectly represents their pain.
A staged end, heartfelt sorrow
And this pain you see, even during the celebrations. In the spit-stained walls of the only guest house that welcomed outstation Transgenders, or the tears that women shed as their bangles were shattered, or the restlessness in their eyes begging for another moment before their thalis (Mangalsutras) were torn off of their necks, or the way the beat their chests in melancholic resignation. In this orchestrated mourning, lay the subtext of a larger loss. The loss of the one day that elevated them to normalcy, the loss of the feeling of being special, the loss of merriment, the loss of the public sanction that they are granted only once a year- and when we looked deeper, beyond what the rolling cameras captured, you see them mourning the loss of much more than a fictional temporary husband.
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By Suman Quazi