Madurai

Yearning for a sense of belonging

 Priya Babu

Priya Babu

When she was a youth, transgender author Priya Babu found solace and direction in books. Having born in a family with love for literature, she is glad the book bug bit her early in life. “I studied only till Plus Two but had opportunities to interact with many authors. These interactions moulded me,” she says.

Ms. Babu particularly recounts one book - Vaadamalli by Su Samuthiram. “The overpowering influence of this book still stays with me. Vaadamalli is revolutionary as it was the first of a few contemporary books written about transgenders. The character, Suyambu is very vocal about her rights. I was very inspired. I was confident that literacy could bring about a change in the life of transgenders,” she says.

This led her to starting Transgender Resource Center, a first of its kind in the country, in a portion of her apartment in Madurai. The one-year-old centre has a collection of books in English and Tamil, newspaper clippings relevant to transgender rights and 50 films and documentaries. The collection is growing. She says it aided 18 undergraduate and seven postgraduate students with their research.

“I was working on a couple of books between 2007 and 2014 and found that there was inadequate data on transgenders in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Our customs and culture have hardly been recorded. When I began working on a documentary as part of a six-month fellowship, I had access to the National Folklore Support Centre Library in Chennai and it was very useful. That is when I hit upon the idea of setting up the TRC,” says Ms. Babu.

The TRC hosts seminars, training sessions and field visits for students and academicians who wish to produce research work on transgenders. Access for academicians is free. “We only hope that they share their research with us so that we can use it for documentation,” she says.

Wrong portrayal

S. Shalini, Manager of the TRC, says it is perturbing to know that a large number of students are completely unaware of the life of transgenders. “Most of them have probably seen and interacted with them once or twice. They are wrongly portrayed in movies. Students have no idea of slurs and tend to use them in conversation,” she says.

When students come in batches, Ms. Shalini says the trainers first conduct 10 sessions to sensitise them, providing theoretical knowledge and making them watch educational videos. Only after this they are taken to the field.

Ms. Shalini says her first exercise is to explain who a transgender is. She traces the typical journey, starting from adolescence. She speaks about the intense stress and mental health issues faced by them during the phase of finding themselves and biological changes and the surgeries they undergo. She also sheds light on the ‘Jamath system’ in the community in Tamil Nadu. “The idea is to change the perception,” she says.

The centre elucidates the economic empowerment of transgenders, their representation and goals to students. They, in turn, create awareness among their peers.

The secretary of the TRC, Maha Raghavan, the first beneficiary of the organisation, says, “I was unaware of transgenders and their way of life. I was guided by Priya ma through and through. I was guided on which books to read, what to view and how to talk. As a student of literature, I began exploring the themes of transgender literature. With Priya ma’s help and the books at the TRC, I began research in this field while also creating awareness among peers and teachers,” she says.

Transgender physiotherapist Solu says she had to undergo many hardships to get a job as a therapist for special children in Madurai. “I had exceptional records and was eligible for the position but my recruitment was put on hold because of corrupt officers in Education department. Without the help of the TRC, I would not be as successful as I am today,” she says.

Many other students, who gather for weekly sessions, say the TRC has been an eye-opener. “It is open from 10 a.m. till evening every day for anyone who seeks to know about this marginalised community. “Come here, sit with us, join us for tea and read a book. I am sure it will be an enriching experience,” Ms. Babu says.


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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 5:29:51 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Madurai/yearning-for-a-sense-of-belonging/article24671816.ece