Call me Laxmi," she says, sensing my confusion over how to address her. Laxmi looks gorgeous, dressed in a green-gold saree, with perfect makeup and manicured nails. Her full name is Laxminarayan Tripathi. But the young man, born in a Brahmin household in Thane, chose to assert his true sexuality, and became Laxmi, a hijra.
Today, 36-year-old Laxmi is a celebrity. She’s a well-known dancer with her own dance school, she’s been on TV shows like Sach Ka Saamna and Bigg Boss, and she was the first transgender person to represent Asia-Pacific at the United Nations in 2008. Her autobiography, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi (I Am Hijra, I Am Laxmi) was released at the just concluded World Book Fair in Delhi.
Published originally in Marathi in 2012, the book has now been translated into English by Oxford University Press. It tells Laxmi’s poignant story of taunts, sexual abuse and emotional turmoil while growing up, to the point where she is now: a champion of the transgender cause.
Talk about it
“The original book in Marathi was written by journalist Vaishali Rode who worked with Mahanagar, a Mumbai newspaper,” says Laxmi. “Her husband, Pramod, worked with the Mumbai Districts Aids Control Society and had been of great help to me. So when Vaishali initially requested me for an interview for their Diwali issue, I couldn’t say no. She was an extremely sweet person, quiet and shy. Then one day she said she wanted to write my biography.”
Just about 30 years old at the time, Laxmi initially refused, but was persuaded to agree when Rode explained how the book could change perspectives on transgenders. “Everybody sees this beautifully decked-up Laxmi, without realising that I had to struggle for it.” After the book was published, the Maharashtra government added a chapter on transgenders to the state welfare policy.
Dance of life
Laxmi, the eldest son of the family, was a frail, asthmatic child. He was one of only three of his seven siblings to survive. Because he was so delicate, he couldn’t play with the other boys, so he began to turn inward. But he was not shy: whenever his school organised a function, Laxmi danced. “The stage had a hypnotic effect on me and I would dance myself to a frenzy,” she says. “The stage was like an oasis in the desert of ill health.”
But Laxmi’s flamboyance on stage made some people very uncomfortable. “In patriarchal, misogynistic cultures such as ours, dancing is seen as a womanly pursuit,” explains Laxmi in the book. “So I was teased and called a homo and a chakka.” The boy’s mannerisms were feminine, and this marked him out for sexual assault at the age of seven. His abusers were all known to him. They were his relatives and their friends.
“Many things in our society are fake,” says Laxmi. “Men have the liberty to do anything. I believe that it’s femininity that is abused, whether you are a woman or not.”
Physically and emotionally traumatised by the time he was in class 4, Laxmi turned to gay activist Ashok Row Kavi for advice, and was consoled when the older man explained that it wasn’t that Laxmi was abnormal. The world around him was abnormal. But it also helped that not everyone Laxmi came across was nasty. Many people were understanding.
Women: Find yourselves
By the time Laxmi joined Mithibai College, he had an established dance school. And it was through dressing up for performances, that Laxmi truly understood his gender identity. “I really enjoyed dressing like a woman,” she says.
“I never thought I would do makeup, but, now makeup is Laxmi. Every morning when I get up, the first thing I do is my makeup and even my chelas make fun of me.” She wants to write a book about the men in her life both in English and Marathi. “In English I want to call it either The Red Lipstick (her favourite lip colour) or The Chastity Belt: Men In My Life,” reveals Laxmi with a laugh.
At home, Laxmi behaved like the dutiful eldest son. This didn’t stop neighbours from gossiping, but Laxmi’s late father once told a journalist: “No parent has to bother about what their child is doing in the bedroom. My child is just a normal child. For me, Laxminarayan Tripathi will always be my son.”
But cross-dressing wasn’t enough. Inside, Laxmi had always felt like a woman, though he didn’t understand why. And then one day, he met the brother of a friend who was a hijra. “I realised that I yearned to be like that,” says Laxmi. “And once I decided, it seemed like a big burden was taken off my back.”
The decision had its repercussions, but Laxmi’s family stood by her. In her personal life, Laxmi is in a relationship with a man and the mother of two adopted boys.
“I tell every woman, love yourself so much, it should be like an unconditional love,” says Laxmi. “Even though I’m in a relationship, I still love myself more.”
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From HT Brunch, March 1
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