You know it. You just know it. When your soul is trapped in the wrong body, you figure it out just as you get to know when you are endowed with a congruence of sex and gender.
Often by immersing ourselves in what we love, we tend to find ourselves. Most transgenders figure out their sexual and gender identities in ways that challenge gender socialisation theorists, who fail to explain why gender roles taught to transgenders are not retained in an individual’s behavioural patterns during the course of their lives.
The story of Vidya inadvertently challenges this gender socialisation theory as the narrator describes the journey from becoming ‘his to her’, or more simply put, the journey of discovering Vidya in Saravanan’s body. The story also delineates the painful process of breaking the confines of identity markers imposed by society and the liberating experience of releasing a consciousness.
Saravanan was born to a middle class and highly patriarchal family at Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. He was the only son of the family that had two daughters ever ready to follow his bidding. Saravanan’s father Ramaswami’s happiness knew no bounds on his son’s birth, especially because it came after the daughters’. All his hopes and dreams were attached to Saravanan’s future. His only aim was to ensure the highest and the best education for his son, something that still comes to Saravanan’s rescue in times of despair.
Even as the young boy tries to keep up with his father’s expectations, he is encountered with yearnings and desires to dress like his sisters and mother. He dreams of becoming an actress. He is oblivious to the gender role assigned to him. At a time when he still could not understand the uniqueness of his being, Vidya describes how Saravanan would indulge himself: ‘As thrilling as dancing was pirouetting at a rapid pace and sitting down with force so that the long skirt spread out like a lotus, on which I then seemed to be seated.’
But as the child grows up and is made to feel ‘weird’ by the society, Saravanan’s world is both shattered and shaken. People, who till some time back had been ignoring the boy’s effeminate manners, slowly begin terming it madness. And the boy, too, begins to realise his discomfort with his own body.
Ashamed to begin with, Saravanan is soon gripped with a desire to become a tirunangai (a tansgender who has undergone sex change operation). Once, he manages to overcome his identity crisis, Saravanan moves from shying away from it to asserting it in his movements and clothes. Determined never to get into sex trade, he takes to begging despite being highly qualified. He saves enough to undergo a sex change operation and takes the life of Vidya after nirvana.
Nobody ever told Vidya that she was a woman incarcerated in a man’s body. She was brought up as all boys are and yet she grew up to be someone else, defying the notion that gender exists in binaries and is acquired through a process of socialisation.
The Vidyas of our world have broadly two choices to make ends meet – either beg or enter sex trade. The Vidya we meet in this book was lucky to not enter the flesh trade. A similar autobiography written by a transgender named A Revathi – The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story describes in detail the trials and tribulations of a transgender in sex trade. Though, both Vidya and Revathi had to flee their homes, Vidya chooses to beg and Revathi enters the shady circuits of selling bodies.
Tired of the daily humiliation faced while living as a beggar, Vidya turns to her friends and acquaintances to find her a job. By the virtue of being well educated, she manages to find a job along with social acceptance from her immediate circle.
The autobiography is Vidya’s attempt to raise the issue of social security for transgenders. She asks several questions over the work being done by non-governmental organisations for the community: ‘I am unhappy with the way most of these bodies (NGOs) functioned. My objection to their work was directed at their excessive focus on HIV/AIDS awareness, while their main objective should be the general welfare of transgenders, the redressal of their grievances, providing them job opportunities and economic freedom overall. No Indian NGO had fought to liberate tirunangais from begging and sex work. What kind of rehabilitation was it to tell them, “Go on being sex workers, but do it safely?”’
Some books are read only for the stories that they intend to tell and not so much for the literary quality. I am Vidya – A Trangender’s Journey is one such book. It introduces other women caught in Vidya’s dilemma but only goes on to mention their names and physical appearances. It doesn’t talk about their stories and the repeated accounts of their names and looks can get a bit heavy on a reader. But as already mentioned, I am Vidya… should be read to know what Vidya/Saravanan feels/felt and what it means to feel like the Vidyas of the world.