The saga of self

Transgender Pastor Bharathi during an interview at Tondiarpet in Chennai. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam   | Photo Credit: B_JOTHI RAMALINGAM


“This man is killing me,” cries Abdul’s wife, dabbing her tears with her pallu. Abdul is unwell; scrawny and irritable, he snaps at his wife to get a nurse. In the crowded general ward of the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, where emotion and tension run amuck, Abdul glowers at his wife.

“Now what’s all this?” asks physiotherapist Selvi, halting by the bed during her morning rounds. She gauges the situation when the lady breaks down, “I’ve been by his side since 3 a.m., without catching a wink of sleep.”

In the next 20 minutes, the atmosphere changes drastically. In between exercising Adbul’s feet and asking him to take deep breaths, Selvi talks to the couple about love and life; sacrifice and caring. When she leaves their side, Abdul’s wife smiles, her eyes dry. This is Selvi. As a physiotherapist, she knows she is expected to stick to the job description; but Selvi never does.

She likes talking to people and believes that most illnesses can be cured not just by medicine, but, by being there for the person. She walks with a spring in her step in her white doctor’s coat; nodding at a nurse here and greeting a doctor there. She is in her element when at the hospital. After all, this is her dream.

Selvi arrived in Chennai as a timid, unsure, teenage boy and grew to serve as the physiotherapist and fitness trainer for several State and national sport teams. It has been almost a year since she joined work at the GH. She’s unabashedly proud when she talks about herself. “Everyone likes me,” she says, her chin up.

She secured her current job after numerous battles and knocking on countless doors. She even manages her own clinic, in which she offers free consultation. Selvi left her home in a village near Tirunelveli all by herself to study physiotherapy; made friends; fell in love; got betrayed; got a job; attempted suicide; lived in oven-like one-roomed homes… in short, Selvi’s life has all the makings of a K. Balachander movie.


There’s something about Olga that commands respect. She’s convent-educated; well-travelled; met all kinds of people; performed jobs ranging from front-office assistant to counsellor for pregnant women… Raised by a single-mom, Olga talks of bringing about policy changes and framing guidelines so that transgenders are supported at a young age.

Olga was a “protected” child right from her hostel days in Idukki. She vividly recalls an incident during her early teens that made her rethink her sexuality. “During swimming classes, boys were expected to come to the pool in their trunks. But I insisted that I would come out only with a t-shirt on,” she says. She knew “she was not like other boys” and took refuge in books.

Olga was sure that she “wanted to be a girl” and set upon the task without her mother’s knowledge. She approached a psychiatrist, got checked by an endocrinologist and consulted a plastic-surgeon… In the end, she underwent a sex-change operation, with her mother’s consent. “She told me, ‘You are my child and I will accept you as you are’,” smiles Olga.

With 87 per cent in her higher secondary in the 90s, Olga knew a medical college seat would be handed to her on a platter. But college admissions proved to be a nightmare. With her mother in tow, she walked from one college to another in Chennai and realised that no one would take her in. Finally, she ended up doing her post graduation and Masters in English Literature through distance education.

Today, as a consultant for UN Women, she sits with the judiciary and policy makers to address the issue of patriarchy, which she feels is the root of all problems faced by transwomen. “If a boy is feminine, he is shunned; whereas if a girl acts like a boy, her parents take pride in her. The problem starts there,” she feels. Olga’s ultimate aim, apart from changing the child policy, is to bring about an ‘Anti-discriminatory and Protection Act’ for transgenders.

Esther Bharathi

Esther Bharathi carries her most precious possession in a plastic cover. It crackles as she extracts from it, a white cassock. When she puts it on, buttons it down, and looks up, Bharathi almost looks taller. She definitely feels that way. An independent pastor, Bharathi sounds slightly embarrassed when she welcomes us into her well-kept, one-roomed home in a tsunami settlement in North Chennai.

“It’s not much,” she pauses and runs to get us water to drink. Bharathi can very well afford a spacious home, but the prejudices of society against transwomen prevent her from occupying a decent house for rent in the city. Neatly draped in a sari, accessorised with long golden earrings, and her hair in a tight bun, Bharathi walks briskly, checking her watch now and then. She is travelling to Bangalore for a meeting and is already running late. Bharathi created history when she was appointed the pastor for a church affiliated to the Evangelical Church of India in a village near Chengalpet in 2011. She has travelled across the country and abroad as part of her job — she not only preaches, but creates awareness on transgenders along the way.

“When I was the village pastor, people would greet me when they walked past. If I brought transgender friends along, they got the same treatment,” she recalls. Bharathi chose to take refuge in the religion that accepted her. The journey was not easy; it still is not, but she is sure this is the direction in which she wants to travel. “The best thing about transgenders is that, if they like a certain field and are given the right opportunities, they will work day and night to excel in it,” she observes.

Bharathi will never forget her graduation day in 2011. “I was on stage in front of some 7,000 people. Despite it all, I felt completely alone. I was not able to bask in the happiness. All I could think was, ‘What next? Will they accept me as one of them?’” The proudest moment in her life unfolded in the presence of her three-year-old niece. “She called me aunty,” she smiles. “While my father kept insisting that she call me uncle.”

Priya Babu

Priya is among the best known literary figures in the transgender community. A writer with several titles themed on transgender-based issues to her credit, her book Moondram paalin mugam (The Face of the Third Gender) is part of the curriculum is arts colleges in Chennai, Madurai, and Coimbatore.

Born in Sri Lanka, Priya came to India in 1974. The story of her childhood is typical to any transgender — unable to put up with the ridicule of her family, she came to Chennai in search of a better life. It was the 90s and most transwomen she knew were engaged in sex work and beggary. Helpless as she was, Priya took refuge in the written word. Su. Samuthiram’s novel Vadamalli changed her life. “I would imagine myself as the Suyambu, the transgender protagonist who comes up in life against odds,” she recalls.

Much like Suyambu, Priya learned to take on life all alone. She went to Mumbai, got her first job as a social worker, fell in love with a welder called Babu and married him. Her work took her to Tamil Nadu and Priya travelled widely. In 2004, she, along with Madurai-based advocate Rajini, filed a writ petition in the Chennai High Court seeking the right for transgenders to vote.

The arts have always drawn Priya. She’s made several documentaries based on her community and is currently working on a docu-drama that curates historical evidences of transgenders from books, songs, and stone inscriptions. Tired of forever hunting for a comfortable home in Chennai, Priya left for Madurai a year ago. “Babu and I broke up mutually six years after our marriage,” says Priya. “His family wanted a child. As a transgender, I cannot beget one, they said.”

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 4:33:52 AM |

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