“They came for men and women but not us,” lamented Devi Singh, 30, from the Mangalwara gharana [family] of Bhopal’s transgender community. Sitting at a haveli in the old city, she pines to return to work soon — collecting donations door-to-door — but for the lockdown as no relief has reached them so far.
Vehicular traffic, marriages, religious festivals and birthdays — social gatherings now restricted in view of COVID-19, brought the only income for Ms. Singh, head of a household nurturing 17 transgender persons dependent on collections from the once-bustling New Market. “The crowd is our earning but the pandemic has stolen that away,”said Ms. Singh, biding time singing bhajans at the haveli.
No formal employment
Around 500 members of the Mangalwara and Budhwara gharanas here, with no formal employment and already battling discrimination and stigma, are awaiting the easing of movement restrictions and businesses to get back on track for donors to be charitable.
“The economy is floundering under the lockdown, so how can people think of giving to us?” asked Ms. Singh. “But even if gurus have to stay hungry, chelon ko bhookha nahi rehne denge. [We may starve but we will not let our disciples go hungry].” The meals, now chapatis with chutney, are two-time instead of three a day earlier. Initially, the gharans distributed food items in slums, not knowing the lockdown would persist this long, draining their savings.
Each transgender household among the gharanas, with areas divided for collection, earlier made ₹20-50,000 a month. But marriages are small scale now, birthdays a closed affair. “Our yearly peak collection time during the monsoon is going by,” said Tamanna Jaan, 41, head of a 15-member household dependent on the Khajuri area.
Even the yearly procession called ‘Bhujariya’, which invites more than 1,500 transgender persons from across the country days after rakshabandhan, will be smaller this year. “It’s a yearly ritual to invite rain that began centuries ago on the insistence of local rulers. To keep the tradition alive, we will organise it this year too but with precautions,” said Shilpa Tiwari Nair, 50, head of a 35-member household under whom BHEL and Ashoka Garden areas fall.
Those belonging to the Mangalwara gharana claim their tradition to dancers in royal courts while the Budhwara gharana derives its heritage from medieval court harems. Bhopal, in its uniqueness, is the only city to be a home to both, claim the members. “Though homosexuality was decriminalised two years ago, the ghosts of the archaic law, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, still haunt us,” said Ms. Singh.
Stigma and harassment
When a 21-year-old member of Ms. Nair’s household, who requested anonymity, sought work at a private firm during the lockdown, she was asked for sexual favours first. “The pandemic surely is a threat. But we don’t fear it. The stigma attached to our identity and harassment which denies us opportunities is more grave,” said Ms. Nair, who added despite the lockdown they still found infants abandoned at their doorsteps as often, who they initiated into households.
Abdul Majid of Anmol Samaj Sevi Sansthan,which works for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, said the lockdown had rendered tens of the 1,500 members registered with them here jobless and students stranded without food. “The community’s interests must be factored in while devising COVID-19 strategy and giving relief,” he said.